Alma Mahler, Muse to Genius: From Fin-de-sièle Vienna to Hollywood's Heyday, by Karen Monson

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alma mahlerAlma Mahler, Muse to Genius: From Fin-de-sièle Vienna to Hollywood's Heyday, by Karen Monson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. ISBN: 978-0395322130

Alma Mahler-Werfel (1879-1964) was a beautiful, intelligent woman. She became successively the wife of three important men—Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, and Franz Werfel. To many other men, including Arnold Schönberg, Oskar Kokoschka, Bruno Walter, Alexander von Zemlinsky, and Alban Berg, she was an intellectual companion and occasionally a lover. She observed and recorded cultural and political history during a long period embracing two world wars and an intellectual flowering unlike anything happening today.

In Alma Mahler, Muse to Genius, Karen Monson attempts to chronicle the life of this remarkable woman with a perspective not afforded by the two books Mrs. Werfel herself wrote.1 Undeniably Monson, having obtained access to Mrs. Werfel's unpublished diary and many of her letters (plus other letters addressed to her by her famous contemporaries), had ample opportunity to make this book definitive. But in many respects Monson has not lived up to the challenge posed by the task; instead of filling many of the gaps Mrs. Werfel herself chose to leave, she has made so many serious errors that this book is even less useful than Mrs. Werfel's own books.

Monson's work merits censure on several counts. First: she introduces subjects that are probably new to the general reader without proper contextual documentation, leaving the reader unenlightened about her sources of information (whether those sources might be one or the other of Mrs. Werfel's books, her unpublished diary, her correspondence, or personal interviews with members of her family and friends). Neither does Monson offer adequate background on many individuals; names are cited without explanation concerning the status of the persons in the life of Mrs. Werfel. For example, Monson writes about the situation during the engagement:

Gustav himself had to wonder what he was getting into by marrying Alma, what kind of life he might be able to provide for this young woman. To make things worse, Anna von Mildenburg went around claiming to anyone who would listen that she had been led to believe in Hamburg that Gustav would marry her [p. 50].

The name of Anna von Mildenburg, an important dramatic soprano of her day, is introduced in this passage for the first time without any background concerning Mahler's influence, which played a major role in her early career. Also, there is no information about the affair between Mildenburg and Mahler, which led Milden to "believe in Hamburg that Gustav would marry her."2

In certain cases Mrs. Werfel herself chose to withhold the names of individuals, raising curiosity in her readers that Monson might have alleviated. For instance, Mrs. Werfel mentions a young musician who had been in love with her and had threatened to commit suicide if she rejected him. Considering her long history of relationships with important men, the identification of this unknown lover might well have been of interest to the musical specialist and the general reader; but Monson leaves him anonymous also.

Where Monson does cite proper names, she compounds her problems with errors. An unusually embarrassing mistake is found in a passage covering the birth of Anna Justina, the Mahlers' second daughter, on 15 June 1904; her name is given as Anna Maria (Maria Anna was actually the name of the Mahlers' elder daughter). This particular error could easily have been avoided by consultation with Anna Mahler, who was named by Monson as a major source of information for the book. Another such error is found in the discussion of Mahler's contract with the Metropolitan Opera, which was negotiated by its manager Heinrich Conried; his name is given as Hans Conried. (The actor Hans Conried was actually the son of Heinrich Conried, but in 1907 he was too young to have carried off the negotiations with Mahler!)

Second: The select bibliography at the end of the book shows a curious mixture of sources. While it includes resources of considerable value (for instance, Janik and Toulmin's Wittgenstein's Vienna,3 Fry's Surrender on Demand,4 and Schorske's Fin-de-siècle Vienna,5 all of which are important discussions of cultural and political history in Mrs. Werfel's lifetime), these books appear side by side with such items as Gartenberg's Mahler: The Man and his Music,6 known for the frequent errors that Monson has now picked up and perpetuated here. It is also worth noting that Monson resorted to the use of English translations of books originally published in German, including Mrs. Werfel's own biography of Mahler and her edition of Mahler's letters7 as well as novels of Franz Werfel (who routinely published his works in German and left the work of translation to others). The only citation covering the German version as well as the English version of any work is that of Mrs. Werfel's autobiography.8 Another slightly different but equally unfortunate example is that of La Grange's Mahler, which is cited in its first edition of 1973;9 there is no evidence that Monson was aware of either the revised and corrected version published in England in 197410 or the yet more revised and corrected French version.11 I must therefore question Monson's capacity to deal with references outside the English language; although she claims to have made many of her own translations for quotations in this book, she has evidently missed many foreign-language sources either deliberately or through ignorance. The use of Mrs. Werfel's diary and the unpublished letters notwithstanding, a major corpus of literature on Mrs. Werfel and her husbands and colleagues is lacking; and this is a serious problem since she and her husbands and many of her colleagues wrote in German and a sizeable proportion of the literature on all of them is in German, also.

Third: A book on a woman who was a composer in her own right might be expected to give due attention to her compositions. In choosing to concentrate on Mrs. Werfel's life and only incidentally on her compositions, Monson has done a disservice to scholars who seek to obtain recognition for Alma Mahler-Werfel the composer, a recognition denied her during her lifetime.12 There is some discussion of Fünf Lieder (Vienna: Universal, 1910) and Vier Lieder (Vienna: Universal, 1915), but it is superficial and includes no musical examples and few individual titles. It is shocking that a third book of songs, Fünf Gesänge (Vienna: Weinberger, 1924) is not even mentioned; since Monson refers to nine songs in her brief discussion, it is obvious that she was not aware of this last group of songs, which includes some of the composer's finest.13

Fourth: Apart from small errors and omissions, the book bristles with half-truths and misrepresentations. In several cases, for instance, Monson quotes from other sources without mentioning that the selections are not single passages but hybrids patched together by herself. (For example, on page 116 there is a quotation from Mahler's letters that appears to be from a single source but is actually culled from two letters; there is a clear distinction between the two letters in the biography of Mahler.)14 In other cases, Monson makes statements that, although true enough in themselves, are taken out of context and make one wonder about the depth of her understanding of the milieu in which her subjects moved. An example is in the discussion of the publication of Fünf Lieder in 1910. The songs were published by Universal Edition, which published Mahler's Eighth Symphony almost simultaneously, and Monson notes that the title page of the book of songs is identical in design to that of the symphony. But that is hardly noteworthy in view of the fact that the same design was used on the title pages of other works as well, including not only Mahler's but those of Schönberg, Bruckner, and Zemlinsky, among others.

It is also clear that Monson did not explore the biographical significance of some works of Franz Werfel. The citation of his poem Der Erkennende on page 181 would have been a perfect opportunity to mention that his future wife had set the poem to music in 1915 (before she and Werfel had even met) and had it published in the third book of songs in 1924; but, as noted before, Monson seems unaware that that book of songs exists. A brief citation of Embezzled Heaven, a novel written by Werfel in 1938, might have benefited from the information that it was based on the real-life story of his wife's cook, Agnes Hwizd. But more serious still is the lack of reference to Manon, his wife's daughter by Walter Gropius, in connection with Embezzled Heaven and—more importantly—a little-known essay by Werfel.15 (Giving credit where it is due, however, Monson does justice to the special relationship of The Song of Bernadette to the horrors the Werfels experienced before emigrating to the United States in 1940.)

Fifth: The writing style of the book is less than felicitous. Since Monson jumps from one subject to another with little continuity, the result is a lopsided patchwork, showing little individuality from Monson herself. (On the rare occasions when she shows a personal point of view, as in the statement "Humor was not a major part of the lives of these four persons," on page 56, she cites no evidence to back such judgments.) There are also typographical errors that might be attributed to the publisher rather than the author, but only Monson can be responsible for the use of such nonexistent words as "inobtrusively." The style of expression is anything but literary, being decidedly informal and often even tacky. One manifestation of this trait is particularly irritating—the use of first names: "Gustav" for Mahler, "Alex" for Zemlinsky, "Oskar for Kokoschka, "Arnold" for Schönberg, etc., etc. In view of the fact that even Werfel chose to use the last names of such persons when writing about them, I see no justification for the use of first names by Monson, who never knew the persons herself. The use of the last names should be taken for granted as a measure of respect; the lack of such respect from Monson shows an offensive familiarity more characteristic of a groupie than an author.

Sixth: Finally, Monson has cited information that, while probably true, is useless, tasteless, and occasionally even cruel. For example, she refers several times to statements in which Mrs. Werfel declared that she did not wear briefs. This hardly seems necessary in view of the fact that she is already well known as a woman ahead of her time in terms of her sexual life. In another place, Monson refers to a relative who had an affair with a married man and had an illegitimate child. This particular point of information is especially unfortunate because the person involved is still alive and might well be hurt by the story, which should not even have been included without her permission.

The final touch of absurdity is at the end of the book, where Monson reproduces the lyrics of the song "Alma" by Tom Lehrer. Monson justifies the inclusion of the lyric "in the belief that Alma would have been amused." Those who knew Mrs. Werfel personally may not be amused, although Lehrer's words are actually quite humorous (and more tasteful in many ways than anything Monson wrote in this entire book).

In short, Karen Monson has written a book unworthy of its subject, unlikely to be accessible to the general reader (for all its use of titillating scandal bits), unusable by scholars of musical or political history, inaccurate, badly written, and—saddest of all—unable to make profitable use of resources unavailable to most scholars. We must therefore await another writer who can accomplish the task Monson has fallen short of. I am sorry I cannot recommend this book as a decent representation of an important subject, especially in these days when female composers are receiving attention they have long been denied. Perhaps a proper study will be published in the future that will show the many dimensions of this woman who was, among other things, a good composer who happened to marry a better one and fell neglected because she was a woman.


Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

1The German versions of Mrs. Werfel's two books are Erinnerungen an Gustav Mahler, ed. Donald Mitchell (Frankfort: Ullstein, 1971) and Mein Leben (Frankfort: Fischer, 1960). The English versions are Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, 3rd ed., trans. Basil Creighton, enlarged by Knud Martner and Donald Mitchell (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975) and And the Bridge is Love, in collaboration with E.B. Ashton (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958). Earlier versions of the book on Mahler were published in 1940 (under the title Gustav Mahler: Erinnerungen und Briefe) and 1946.

2A reference to Anna Bahr-Mildenburg's Erinnerungen (Vienna: Wiener Literarische Anstalt, 1921) would have been helpful.

3Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein's Vienna (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973).

4Varian Fry, Surrender on Demand (New York: Random House, 1945).

5Carl Schorske, Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1979).

6Egon Gartenberg, Mahler: The Man and his Music (New York: Schirmer Books, 1978).

7The most recent edition of the letters is Gustav Mahler, Briefe, new ed., enlarged and rev. Herta Blaukopf (Vienna: Zsolnay, 1982).

8There is a considerable difference between the English version, And the Bridge is Love, and the later German version, Mein Leben, in both content and organization.

9Henry-Louis de La Grange, Mahler (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1973).

10London: Gollancz, 1974.

11Gustav Mahler: Chronique d’une vie, 3 vols. (Paris: Fayard, 1979-84).

12See for example Susan M. Filler, "A Composer's Wife as Composer: The Songs of Alma Mahler," Journal of Musicological Research 4 (1983):427-42, and Robert Schollum, "Die Lieder von Alma Maria Schindler-Mahler," Österreichische Musikzeitschrift 34 (1979):544-51.

13There are also two songs "Aus dem Cyclus 'Mütter' von Rainer Maria Rilke" that were never published. All fourteen published songs were issued in a photographic reprint by Universal Edition in 1984.

14Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, 337-38; Erinnerungen an Gustav Mahler, 374-76.

15Franz Werfel, "Manon," in his Erzählungen aus drei Welten, vol. 3 (Frankfort: Fischer, 1954), 392-99.

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Susan M. Filler graduated from the doctoral program in music history and literature at Northwestern University.  She is an independent musicologist based in Chicago.  Her research is primarily focused on the lives and work of Gustav and Alma Mahler, and the music of the Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe.  Her articles and reviews are published in such periodicals as Journal of Musicological Research, College Music Symposium, Pendragon Review, News About Mahler Research, Music and Letters, MLA Notes, Shofar, Transversal, Studia Musicologica and Magyar Zene.  She has contributed essays to collections from Indiana University Press, A-R Editions, Garland Publishing, Peter Lang, Creighton University Press, Northwestern University Press, Ashgate and Salem Press.  She is the author of Gustav and Alma Mahler: A Research and Information Guide (Garland Publishing, 1989, revised edition Routledge, 2008), and co-edited Essays in Honor of John F. Ohl: A Compendium of American Musicology (Northwestern University Press, 2001).  She has presented papers at meetings of the American Musicological Society, International Musicological Society, and Midwest Jewish Studies Association, at conferences in the United States, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Hungary, and was an invited lecturer at the Conservatories of Music in Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai, China.

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