Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Alma Mahler songs - Ruth Ziesak

At the Wigmore Hall, Ruth Ziesak sang Alma Mahler. She gave an excellent performance of mediocre material. Alma's songs would probably be nowhere in the repertoire but for the fact that she married someone famous. This gives her work extra-musical cachet. sentimentalized out of all proportion because of the story behind the songs. She gets sympathy because Gustav told her that there could be only one composer in the house. True, that's sexist but given the values of the time and his infinitely greater gifts, it's no big deal in itself. In any case, truly creative women have overcome much greater obstacles. Later Gustav gets devastated by Alma's infidelity, and goes overboard praising her. Guilt trip and probably deserved, but it's not really an artistic judgement. And she may well have fooled around whether he liked her music or not. Nonetheless, it's generated a glowing myth of romance in her favour. "Poor Alma", as depicted in her self-serving memoirs.

Even Zemlinsky, Alma's main teacher, who was hopelessly infatuated with her, wasn't too keen. "Don't get me wrong", he wrote, "the songs contain such an incredible number of mistakes...impossible errors of vertical alignment and non-existent musical symbols that it made my head spin".  He made amendments. Later, piqued, he wrote "Your manner is...like your music....a warm, feminine sensitive opening but then of doodles, flourishes, unstylish passage work. Olbrich (a publisher) should have your songs performed by an artiste from the Barnum &Bailey (circus) company, wearing the customary black tails, and on his head, a dunce's cap".

Alma treated Zemlinsky badly but he adored her so much that her image runs through much of his work. No Alma, no Seejungfrau, no Traumgörge and much else. Indeed, I don't think anyone can approach Zemlinsky without understanding his screwed up feelings for her. Contrary to received opinion, Gustav Mahler was quite fond of Zemlinsky, and continued to pay for him to give Alma music lessons long into their marriage. He gave Zemlinsky commissions to transcribe Mahler's music (quite a lucrative thing in days before recordings)

Alma's relationship to Gustav runs on similar lines. She loves being a celebrity wife although she doesn't actually like his music. Probably she did love him, and preserved letters which show her in a good light. But even while he was deathly ill in New York, she's flirting with Walther Gropius, keeping him in reserve, while playing on his jealousy. Luckily GM didn't know that Alma's mother, whom he adored, connived in the deception (and became a Nazi). Devious and manipulative as Alma was, though, the main thing is that she was Mahler's muse. Alma's real creative gift was her ability to inspire art in others. It  doesn't make her music great in itself. Now that Mahler is being given a Romantic makeover, influenced more by Alma's memoirs than reality, we'll be hearing more of Alma's songs because they fit the revisionist image she created. Her music has curiosity value, but her art was in her life.  Unfortunately becxause she was such a "creative artist" when it came to her persona, her version of events is usually taken as gospel truth.  This year we have a whole new generation drawn to Mahler becauase of his anniversary, but how many will bother to look behind Alma's image ?  But until we do, we're back to the twisted, delimiting image Alma created. She didn't  like his music,  and was arranging trysts while he was on his deathbed. The money and the status, though, she loved.Is this a feminist icon ? Only if  you admire manipulative and destructive.  To me she is a fascinating person because of who she really might have been, warts and all.  But unless we get past the hype and self-promotion we'll never know. That is wehy "The Alam Problem" is a genuine issue and must be faced. there's a good article in google, don't know who wrote it, but it's only the tip of the iceberg.

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