Alma Mahler is popular because she's a style icon. Secession Vienna has become so commercialized that it's instantly recognizable on tea towels, posters, etc. Yet the whole point of the Secession movement was to move away from the commercial establishment. Secession ideas started in Munich ten years before they reached Vienna. In Vienna they hybridized with local taste for rococo kitsch and Johann Strauss. Unfortunate the chocolate coating's now turned to cement. But it sells these days where style is more important than substance. Read Waldemar Januszczak who described Gustav Klimt as "a pygmy seen through a microscope".
Alma herself was acutely aware of creating an image. At an early age she learned to use her beauty as a weapon. She grew up in an atmosphere of iniquity, her father figure her mother's lover. Then she pushed herself towards Alexander Zemlinsky, the ugliest man she could find, dazzling him blind. All her life she set out for men she could enslave. She hated Jews yet married them - a power game? Fancying herself intellectual she picked on talented men, then belittled their work. She loved being Mahler's muse and the status it brought. While he lay dying, she carried on with Gropius. Sure, she told Gropius she would stand by Mahler, but he was sick and old. Her last marriage seemed to work, because Werfel knew his place. In her old age, Alma tried seducing young gay men. Warning lights!
Nowadays we know enough to spot the signs. Manipulative, narcissistic people don't value others because they don't value themselves. Alma used sex but she probably didn't really love. Even Anna, her daughter with Mahler, married young to get away. Growing up in a louche household, Alma was steered inappropriatelty towards roués like Klimt. Was she sexually abused?
All the warning signs are there, from early on. That would explain a lot. Alma always seems more interested in pursuit than in relationships, like an animal always springing free before she's caught. Maybe she couldn't really love without strings because she didn't love herself.
Look at the painting above, Oskar Kokoschka's Tempest, now known as The Bride of the Wind, subject of a shallow BBCTV documentary this week. Crazy swirls all round: The man is stressed, ugly, protecting the woman. But she couldn\t care less. She's blissfully wrapped up in her own dreams.
Then there's Alma's art. Everyone knows that Mahler told her before they married that he wanted a wife, not a competitor. After she was unfaithful, he went overboard to win her back, debasing himself, howling on the floor, in her account. Freud told Mahler that Alma had a father complex, which again gives credence to the sex abuse theory, her absent father and her faithlesss mother. No wonder Mahler compensates, publishing some songs, after revising them, or more likely Zemlinsky's earlier revisons. Fact is, Mahler didn't suppress Alma's art. She continued to take lessons (including with Zemlinsky), Altogether, fewer than 20 songs, some incomplete. Many women have overcome much greater obstacles. It's they who deserve attention.
Alma's songs have been extensively recorded because they're easy. Stick to good singers like Lili Paasikivi and Iris Vermillion, and Ruth Ziesak if you can find hers, and to orchestral versions (none of them by Alma herself). Connolly will be singing new orchestrations by the Matthews brothers. Don't mistake them for the original piano songs, whatever they might have been before Mahler and Zemlinsky tidied them up.
There are lots of misconceptions. Alma disarmed men by leaning close and looking into their eyes. but she did it because she was slightly deaf. The Schindlers didn't have a "glittering social life", though the Mahlers did, for example. Female sexuality wasn't really suppressed, and there were quite a few much more liberated women about. Dehmel wasn't at all out of place in a world where Maeterlinck, Baudelaire, Paul Heyse and Rilke were read. There were plenty of piano songs being written, and still are, that don't show much response to the 20th century. Maybe that in itself makes them popular but it doesn't follow that they're very good. Read HERE what Zemlinsky said - not complimentary.
There have been lots of books about Alma over the years. Her memoirs, letter and diaries provide material for glamour. There are movies and even a soft porn Austrian musical. Would-be feminists in particular should approach with caution because Alma's not an edifying role model, however much some female writers might want to sentimentalize her. One day perhaps a proper biography will be possible, written with genuine background knowledge placing her in true context. Then maybe we'll discover the real Alma, a wounding but wounded soul (what her name means in Latin). Perhaps we'll appreciate her for herself, rather than what others projected onto her. She deserves that respect, which she didn't ever really get. Even when she was famous, she basked in reflected glory. I don't think it's right that a woman should be remembered just for the effect she had on men, however famous they might be. Just don't get fooled by the hype around the songs! Plese see my other posts on Alma, including THIS. We're never going to understand Mahler, or Alma for that matter, if don't keep trying to learn more.