The loveliest girl in Vienna

by Barbara Maria Rathbone


There is a well-known comedy song by Tom Lehrer that begins –

The loveliest girl in Vienna
Was Alma, the smartest as well.
Once you picked her up on your antenna,
You’d never be free of her spell.

Lehrer was inspired to write this song after happening upon an obituary in The New York Times, of one of the most famous women of early Twentieth century Vienna and the greatest muse of her age.  After some investigation he was fascinated by the woman who had love affairs with and married some of the greatest artistic minds of the Twentieth century, among them Alexander Zemlinsky the high Viennese romantic composer, with whom she studied, most famously Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, the architect of the Bauhaus and Franz Werfel, the poet and playwright.

Alma Schindler, born into the high artistic and cultural hub of her family circle, was raised to believe that a woman could live a fully rich artistic existence independent of the expectations of a society that too often found no place for them or pushed them into the shadows of their siblings or their husbands.  Unlike her musical predecessors Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann, though they had some success in their own ways, Alma had more opportunity than most to shine her own light rather than bearing the reflective glory of others around her.  Yet, Alma, prodigiously gifted as a musician as well as notoriously beautiful, was slayed by her first husband Gustav Mahler’s insistence that she lay down her gifts to serve his own.  With Mahler’s enforcement of a subservient role she was to define a new role for herself, and this is what makes Alma particularly fascinating.  Ultimately adaptable she evolved as the über muse to Mahler, who references her in several of his symphonies.

Many books have been written about her, along with a poorly constructed film in recent years, ‘The Bride of the Wind’, which washes her life in a froth of passion that could only barely give an impression of why Alma lived as Alma did. However, Alma’s own memoirs reveal a complex woman, liable to wrap a certain amount of hyperbole over her own story, so that inevitably myth might be born; but it was a myth she was happy to serve.  Musing is a serious business – recognising genius when others are oblivious, reflecting the fiery aura of passionate living and passionate art, requires a fully flexed creative mind even if it is indirectly stirred.

Late in Mahler’s life, contrite over his previous curtailing of her musical creativity, he had five of her songs published, and they are fine works indeed.  The nuance of all the influences around her as well as her very individual romanticism are certainly evident in them, but they form just part of her legacy.  The daughter she later had after she married Walter Gropius (who she notoriosly met whilst married to Mahler), a girl of gentle beauty, Manon, died from Polio aged eighteen and inspired Berg’s famous Violin concerto, given the epithet – ‘To the Memory of an Angel’.  Through Alma’s losses again, great music is raised.

Alma will remain an enigma in so many ways, because we have yet to fully substantiate the role of muse or see that she shares an equal measure of the creativity with her shadow.  So she remains simply a beautiful woman of great creative depth, a woman, who when all else fails will damn it, live as fully dug into the heart of artistic passion, at the arc of all creativity that changes and moves us and designs our destiny.  Das Ewig-Weibliche, the eternal feminine, Goethe’s Faustian hope (words from the last movement of Mahler’s 8th symphony), ring true for Alma.  Poor Tom Lehrer, little at the time he wrote his ditty, did he really understand!

And that is the story of Alma,
Who knew how to receive and to give.
The body that reached her embalma
Was one that had known how to live.

NB Alma Mahler is part of the inspiration behind my novel, ‘The Conductor’s Wife’.   She was after all just that, for some time.

A great link for all about Alma, and will provide a full biography which I can’t provide here!    almas_life.html

The haunting adagio of the Berg Violin Concerto in the hands of  Frank Peter Zimmerman  watch?v=rThdkUL9wkw

The famous Adagietto, from Mahler’s 5th Symphony written for Alma.  Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan. watch?v=HUatY-id-xQ