Friday 3 December 2010

The real problem with Alma Mahler

The real "Alma Problem" isn't Alma herself so much as the sentimentalized, indiscriminate way the myth distorts real understanding. It's fair enough that Sarah Connolly should be writing an article in the Guardian, since she's singing five of Alma's songs on Sunday. Publicity like that's OK. What's not so good is that taking the image at face value fuels the myth that Alma was somehow more than she was.  This impacts on music and art history, so before the myth snowballs even further it might be time to be objective and see past the glitz.

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.


Mouslets5 said...

"What's not so good is that taking the image at face value fuels the myth that Alma was somehow more than she was." I didn't imply she was more than she was. What on earth do you mean?
I didn't popularize the this myth in my article so what precisely are you saying besides appearing disparaging, angry and disdainful of me? There aren't many singers who would bother to discover in such depth the composer's music and I am not interested in cliché or gossip.

Women did not have the right to vote, or frequent most of the places men could on their own, or even with a chaperone. They were not proper members of society, so how on earth can you say female sexuality wasn't suppressed?!! It was. Fact.
How utterly preposterous and insulting to women is that comment. A soiree in a private salon is a very different event from a real 'say' in political and social matters, however well educated these women were.

Dehmel was not out of place, I didn't say that. His sexualizing of Mary Magdalene in Schoenberg's Schenk mir deinen Goldenen kamm was and is shocking. Yes Maeterlinck and others were thrilling but she didn't set their poetry.

I pointed out that Alma leaned into conversations because she was deaf in one ear. You can't even be bothered to read my article properly.
Alma DID have a glittering social life before she met Mahler; anyone who was involved with the Secession artists at such close quarters would have access to many parties, and she did attend them. Mahler refused to entertain, and if he did it was reluctantly. The Mahlers were almost recluses!

Nobody knows what Alma's songs might be without revisions. So many have tidied them up, it is a mystery.

What is a mystery to me is why you are attacking me and my article? Are you angry that I was asked? A mere singer, perhaps? Should you have been asked do you think?!
I am singing 7 not 5 songs.
Sarah Connolly

Doundou Tchil said...

I am certainly not being disparaging about Sarah Connolly. In fact I think she would be too sharp to react in this silly manner. I've said quite clearly that what she/you've done is reasonable in the circumstances. Few people are more sympathetic to singers than I am,so don't attack me personally.

If you did research as you say, you'll know how much ill informed rubbish there is out there. You didn't invent some of the dross that's around, so don't take things personally. You just don't have the experience to sort wheat from chaff, and no-one expects you to.

But the more disinformation that flows around, the more it gets accepted and snowballs into myth. That is why it's important to stand up for a bit of perspective and knowledge. The reality of Alma is infinitely more important and interesting.

As for me, I've been thinking about Alma seriously since around 1991, reading her letters, diaries, memoirs etc and trying to understand the period and context. And I still don't know it all. Alma for me is a person I care about and respect.

You're entitled to your opinion but so am I. The best way to learn things is to accept that knowledge isn't finite, but keep learning and listening, and respecting those who just might have something to offer. All Alma's life she playing with illusions. No wonder many were fooled. Including herself, I think. She's much more interesting than as a foil for men.

By respecting others you'll mature both as a singer and as a human being. It's also in your interests short term. You don't want to come over in a negative way, it will ruin your image as a profe3ssional. If you really are Sarah Connolly, and not someone trying to make her look bad, I wish you well.

Mouslets5 said...

You are simply the most patronizing person!!
It is too funny really!
You need to get a perspective. There is no 'dross' whatsoever in my article thank you. It has been approved by people who personally knew Anna Mahler extremely well and while each is entitled to their own opinion, you have no right to patronize my research as it is accurate, if massively curtailed.
I have sorted the wheat from the chaff in the small amount of space I was given. My actual article was 3 times the length but The Guardian only offered me a page, (which is a lot).
I appreciate that I have much to learn about Alma, and this article only an honest snapshot. That you disagree is your opinion but don't patronize me with silly remarks about maturing as a singer and a person!! Good grief you are too much.

Tom Maxwell said...

What an extraordinarily patronising response to LaMagnifica's posting. It strikes me that 'Doundou Tchil' (what is your real name, by the way?)is a frustrated critic - or performer - who couldn't make the grade.

For my part, having read both Sarah Connolly's clear and persuasive article and your rambling response, I think I would have more confidence in what Connolly has to say.

Doundou Tchil said...

This has convinced me there's something bogus about these comments. I have been writing about Alma long before Connolly's article. My recent post is mainly about Alma, not about Connolly's article. Less ego, more sense, please. The problem with Alma is that she';s an icon. The image attracts undue attention, which exceeds the merit of the songs.

Carlos said...

Doundou Tchil , It would appear "the Image" has attracted you for so long it prevents you from reading and understanding other peoples writing on the subject .
You criticise Connolly's piece by saying it is badly researched , and then simply repeat what she has written as your own indisputable facts .

And you have the front to talk about " less ego"

Doundou Tchil said...

I deliberately avoided commenting on her work. Indeed I did her a favour giving her a plug. What I then went on to write was about some of the stuff that's been written about Alma for 30 years. Why should she object to that if her work was original? Her refusal to allow anyone else an opinion indicates insecurity. Hence the strange self justifications. I don't care whether she knows what she's talking about, it's the wider issues that matter to me. She doesn't own the rights to everything. So under all the applause she might hear the still small voice of common sense. She's been badly advised. She needs real friends, not sycophants.

Mouslets5 said...

Badly advised?! Since when was an autobiographical diary, and a close family member sources for bad advice? You and your towering arrogance have been hitching a ride on Connolly's notoriety, such that it is, rather than the other way round!
Why havent you published your findings already under your true name? Surely the 20 years it's taken you is long enough to accumulate your theory that she was more than a consort/inspiration to celebrated men. I don't buy that she was abused, interesting proposition though. Her mother's philanderings and bastard daughter brought great embarrassment to Alma who like you, had an inflated sense of self-importance. Her father spoiled her rotten and the combination if the two could result in insecurity and an attraction to older men.
Next time you wish to take issue with someone, do them the courtesy of actually reading their work properly and refrain from knee jerk, jealous reactions.

Mark Berry said...

On the face of it, this seems to be a classic case of some of those commenting not having reading or at least having misunderstood what was originally said. Nowhere does the writer attack Sarah Connolly's article; it is simply said that it is fair enough that she should be writing an article in 'The Guardian'. The 'Alma Problem' is then discussed, but not as something present in the newspaper article; Sarah Connolly is not mentioned again. That is, unless I have misread or misunderstood...

Roger Thomas said...

i see LaMagnifica has joined the other obsessives exercised by who Doundou Tchil really is, as if the blogger was indulging in some sinister cover-up of a true identity -- and as if this in some way invalidated what is said. Using a nom de guerre is hardly a dishonourable tradition.

Regular readers of this blog with one or two brain cells will have long ago put two and two together and worked out who Doundou Tchil is. It's really not difficult, nor does it involve cryptographic skills.

By the way I don't think Mark Berry has "misread or misunderstood". It's the way I see it too.

Roger Thomas

Doundou Tchil said...

Whoever this La magnifica is, she cannot be doing SC's reputation any good. It is not whether SC knows or doesn't know about Alma. What she has done is attack me for having ideas of my own. The problem is that this person thinks that all work on Alma must circulate around SC article. Sorry, no, it isn't the centre of the universe. It is much too big a subject for it to revolve around her.

Pleasecread his oor her posts and look at the "justifications" which don't stand up to analysis. Even if I had criticized the article, why should that be a crime? She blames everyone else, like the Guardian. A sign of insecurity. The irony is that it doesn't matter what she knows or how. She cannot deal with anyone else having an opinion.

One reason I thin k he or she is bogus is the first post where he/she claims that singers don't usually do research. No worthwhile singer in my experience would dare perform without knowing their repertpoire. Maybe la M/SC does not usually read up, which might explain something. But how can he/she disparage other singers like that? Evidently he/she is not really a singer, or shouldn't pretend to be one.

If this really is SC it shows a shockingly bad side of her in both artistic and personal terms. No-one can destroy SC's reputation more than this person has done. No one is a greater danger to SC than la M. These carryings on are not for Alma, or for creative women in general. These are the real issues that matter to me, whether anyone cares or not.

There always is an audience for Alma's songs because of their extra musical cachet. Which is fair enough and in this year of Mahler commercialization there's no other way. If la M really is SC, I hope -for her sake- that beneath the applause something might prick in her conscience. Ultimately what matters in art is truth. Some ego is needed if anyone gets up and sings. Too much self centredness interferes with artistic integrity. If la M really is a singer, why isn't she/he concentrating on the music instead of taking things out on me?

Doundou Tchil said...

Another vrewason why la M cannot be a real singer or professional is the way she/he stoops to personal abuse. The reason I use a pseudonym is bexcause what's important to me is content not ego. La M cannot understand that it is ideas that count, not who has a right to own them.

As Elly Ameling said "Let us remember that we exist for the music and not the other way round" Ameling is a true artist. Whoever LaM is, she is most certainly not.

Carlos said...

Ok , but putting the criticism of 'taking the image at face value etc...' in your opening paragraph implies a direct connection to the Connolly article you are commenting on ?

You conclude your opening paragraph:-
", so before the myth snowballs even further it might be time to be objective and see past the glitz"
does this not imply that Connolly's article is not being objective , that it is 'fueling the myth' ?

Your opening paragraph by its construction implies a derogatory tone regarding the Connolly article .

Doundou Tchil said...

Whoever is behind these carryings on cannot get round the fact that the subject is much wider than one small article. If this is a publicity stunt it could backfire. Or is it a way of distracting from the article by blaming me a means of drawing sympathy? I have avoided saying anything bto save her face. In any case what's wrong with other informed opinion? La M has been on the net for years claiming to be a fan and writing in the third person. This "fan" is now generating the worst publicity SC has had in years. Leave me out of these silly games.

Katherine Christina said...

Is Alma worth this wrangling? She was/is quite a lady, who now is dead. She married three well known men, and managed to keep going with all of them. Alma is throughly admirable. She may have not been a great composer, but it's impossible to judge that because of her life.

Doundou Tchil said...

Alam was a fascinating person who deserves to be studied for who she was, flaws and all. This wrangling disgusts me. Anyone with basic human decency wants to understand Alma better and learn more about her. This wrangling disgusts me. Whoever this person is, he/she isn't interested in increasing knowledge but controlling it for selfish purposes. Alma deserves better.