Tuesday, 6 November 2018


A rose by any other name: Alma Maria
Mahler Gropius Werfel (née Schindler). The
former composer would engage in numerous
extramarital affairs - Alma's relationship with
the writer Franz Werfel would overlap her
marriage to Walter Gropius, who himself
engaged in an affair with the wedded Mrs.
Mahler during her marriage with Gustav.
Alma would wed for the final time - to Werfel
in 1929, adopting his surname in the process.
News of an upcoming biopic on 20th century composer Alma Mahler - the wife of Gustav who would famously give up her career as a successful musician to placate her more famous husband's possessive demands - has recently been announced.

The forthcoming feature, Alma and Oskar, will not focus on the female composer's relationship with her one-time spouse, but will instead shine a spotlight on the femme fatale's bizarre and tumultuous relationship with the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka, of whom Alma first made acquaintance just one month shy of the one year anniversary of her late husband, Gustav Mahler's death.

As readers of Unraveling Musical Myths may already be aware, Mrs. Mahler (née Schindler) was considered a great beauty of her time. She would join the ranks of other so-called historical 'man eaters' of the likes of Irish dancer Lola Montez and the French singer  Emma Bardac, whose personal charm and stunning exteriors famously seduced men of both power and influence.

When Alma was Alma Schindler (up until the turn of the 20th century), she evolved from the composition pupil of the composer Alexander Zemlimsky to his spiritually emasculating lover (Alma was repulsed by her teacher's outward appearance, describing him, among many other cruel pejoratives as a "chinless, toothless, unwashed gnome"), breaking off the affair before its full consummation by wedding Gustav in 1902. Alma would not remain faithful to Gustav, either -  she would stray outside of her marriage with the German Architect Walter Gropius who she met whilst taking a mental health retreat at a spa shortly after the death of the Mahler couple's young daughter, Maria Anna, of scarlet fever and diphtheria in 1907.

The discovery of Alma's secret affair with Gropius would hit Gustav especially hard. Already stricken with the recent diagnosis of a congenital heart defect, the composer, laden with sorrow, would travel to Leiden in 1910 to meet with psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.  The meeting could not have come soon enough for poor Gustav, who was presently shouldering a fair amount of guilt over halting his wife's creative ability (not to mention Alma's chastising of her husband for daring to test providence by composing his 1904 song cycle on the death of children, Kindertotenlieder, which she held responsible for Maria Anna's death.)

The less than epiphanous sessions with the good doctor (which were uncharacteristically held al fresco) did little in the way of mending Gustav's (literally) broken heart.

Mahler would return to his wife, olive branch extended. Curtailing back his own reservations over residing harmoniously within a dual-composer household, Gustav sat to edit and re-orchestrate Alma's lieder. Five of his wife's songs would be published via Mahler's own publisher in 1910, yet even this was not enough to save his already failed marriage to the stunning beauty. Mahler would perish just one year later - leaving the couple's issues unresolved - from an infection related to his heart defect. His passing left Alma, whose relationship with Gropius had begun a brief sabbatical (although the pair would later wed in 1915, bearing children from the union) free to explore her options.

It was during this brief romantic reprieve that Alma first laid eyes on Oskar Kokoschka. The pair would be introduced to one another over dinner, at the home of Alma's stepfather, the prominent art nouveau painter Carl Moll in April 1912.

Alma as 'La Gioconda," or The Mona
Lisa. Oskar Kokoschka, 1912
"Portrait of Alma Mahler,"
Over the course of three years, history would both repeat itself (Alma was less than enthused with her new lover) as well as take a bizarre turn - Kokoschka's adoration for his inamorata delved deep into the obsessive court. He would create some 450 artworks of the former composer, including one in which Alma evoked the spirit of the Mona Lisa

The most peculiar, however, of Kokoschka's artistic tributes to his ladylove lay in a life-sized, quasi sex-doll fashioned in the likeness of Alma, which the enamored painter commissioned in 1918 from the doll maker Hermine Moos, some three years after Alma jilted the devastated artist to wed Gropius whilst the former was off in combat, serving in the Austro-Hungarian Army during WWI.

Kokoschka, thrice inflicted - having been injured by bayonet in battle and declared by a military physician as "mentally unstable," did not take the news of the affair lightly when it first came to his attention following his return from the frontline. The manic painter would yield to the outstretched arms of full-throttled obsession, taking to his studio to design the perfect replacement for his forlorn Juliet - a sexed-up mannequin, with sinews and contours painstakingly measured to mimic the silhouette of the woman who existed now only as a mere shadow in the compulsive mind of a madman.

Detailed instructions to Moos survive - they read both pitiable and deeply concerning:

"Yesterday I sent a life-size drawing of my beloved and I ask you to copy this most carefully and to transform it into reality. Pay special attention to the dimensions of the head and neck, to the ribcage, the rump and the limbs. And take to heart the contours of body, e.g., the line of the neck to the back, the curve of the belly. Please permit my sense of touch to take pleasure in those places where layers of fat or muscle suddenly give way to a sinewy covering of skin. For the first layer (inside) please use fine, curly horsehair; you must buy an old sofa or something similar; have the horsehair disinfected. Then, over that, a layer of pouches stuffed with down, cottonwool for the seat and breasts. The point of all this for me is an experience which I must be able to embrace! Can the mouth be opened? Are there teeth and a tongue inside? I hope so!

... On my drawing I have broadly indicated the flat areas, the incipient hollows and wrinkles that are important to me, will the skin—I am really extremely impatient to find out what that will be like and how its texture will vary according to the nature of the part of the body it belongs to—make the whole thing richer, tenderer, more human? ... If you are able to carry out this task as I would wish, to deceive me with such magic that when I see it and touch it imagine that I have the woman of my dreams in front of me, then dear Fräulein Moos, I will be eternally indebted..."

In the six months it would take to complete the Alma Mahler doll, Kokoschka - who had apparently assigned the soul of Alma into the mannequin - would begin to grow impatient, writing to Ms. Moos in frantic verse:

"I would die of jealousy if some man were allowed to touch the artificial woman in her nakedness with his hands or glimpse her with his eyes! When shall I be able to hold all this in my hands?" 

Even his new lover, a masochistic chambermaid known only as Hulda, could not temper her Romeo's frenzied and lustful anticipations. It's not as though she didn't try - playing sexual subservient to her master, the naughty maid is said to have carved into her breast her lover's initials, and referred to the object of her affection with the ranking of none other than "Captain."

The Alma Mahler Doll, affectionately named "The Silent Woman."

Upon delivery of the Alma Mahler doll, it was Hulda who would aid in her lover's feverish demand to spread salacious gossip about the artificial pair - likely to stir up any form of emotion in the real Mrs. Mahler - now Mrs. Alma Mahler Gropius. Rumors of man-on-mannequin sightings and of infiltrated public sexual liaisons with the doll abounded.

The Alma Mahler doll was the artist's manifest idyll - his Eurydice to her Orpheus, as he would reference the fateful "reunion" with the "effigy" of his former paramour.

Together, Hulda and Kokoschka would name the doll "The Silent Woman." She would "pose" in varied paintings and sketches - including one reclined nude with legs spread eagle, which also served as the artist's self portrait, with Kokoschka himself depicted crudely pointing to the doll's genitalia.

This artistic depiction of unbridled yearning for absolute possession, combined with a personal unhinged lack of sexual and emotional control would eventually take its toll even on Kokoschka. The crazed painter's delusional affair would meet it's violent end late one evening following an "introduction" to Kokoschka's confidantes at a party organized by Oskar and Hulda especially for the occasion. There, she was dressed, for the last time in "beautiful clothing" by Hulda, where the doll (Alma) could be admired for all of her intoxicating allure, before succumbing to Kokoschka's dagger and a riotous splashing of red wine.

Kokoschka's crude outward display of possession is on stark display as he
cradles the outstretched legs of the Alma Mahler doll in this 1921 self-portait,
"Self portrait with Doll."
The mad man, now believing himself quite cured, wrote to Moos about the 'couple's' parting, and of his final release:

" ...When dawn broke - I was quite drunk, as was everyone else - I beheaded it out in the garden and broke a bottle-of red wine over its head."

Alma and Oskar is currently in production with Luxembourgish actress Vicky Krieps portraying Alma (the role of Kokoschka has yet to be cast.) The film is to be co-produced by Novotny & Novotny Filmproduktion with Amour FOU Luxembourg and Wüste Film.

A estimated date of release has yet to be announced.

*UPDATE 07 DECEMBER 2018: An exhibition dubbed "Oskar Kokoschka. A Retrospective," which will features the artists' work, including his depictions of Alma Mahler, is slated to be held at Switzerland's Kunsthaus Zurich, running from 14 December through to 10 March, 2019, after which it will relocate to the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Learn more about the impending exhibit by visiting the Wall Street Journal website.

Before resigning herself to mere 'wifely duties,' Mrs. Mahler had already begun to make a name for herself in the woefully undersaturated market of female composers. Following the discovery by Gustav of his wife's amorous indiscretion with Walter Gropius in 1910, Gustav made the decision to yield to his own reservations regarding his wife's yearning to compose by editing, and re-orchestrating Alma's music. Alma's Fünf Lieder (5 Songs) would be published through Gustav's own publisher one year later. The songs included in this series are, in numerical order:  1. Die stille Stadt   2. In meines Vaters Garten   3. Laue Sommernacht   4. Bei dir ist es traut  and  5. Ich wandle unter Blumen.

Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager performs Fünf Lieder below:

External link:

Recommended reading:

- Rose.

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