You must understand that I could not bear the sight of an untidy woman with messy hair and neglected appearance." Thus did Gustav Mahler tell Alma Schindler what he expected from a wife. He also added that he would require her to agree to their living apart when he so desired, to have separate entrances to their home and agree in advance when they would spend time together. Of course she would be expected to be beautifully dressed and well-groomed at all times.
Alma had lived a very exciting life up to the time she met Mahler. A student of composition with Alexander von Zemlinsky (1872-1942), she also became his mistress. Other affairs with Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), an Austrian Symbolist painter and Oskar Kokoschka, an Austrian Expressionist painter, showed her preference for men of accomplishment in the arts. After Mahler she would marry the German architect and founder of Bauhaus Walter Gropius and finally Franz Werfel, Austrian-Bohemian poet, playwright and novelist, whose "Song of Bernadette" became famous as a book and later a movie.
Alma and Gustav were married on March 9, 1902. Alma was already with child. After a honeymoon spent in Russia, where Mahler conducted 3 concerts in St. Petersburg, they returned to their home and real life began. "Work, exaltation, self-denial and the never-ending quest were his whole life...he noticed nothing of all it cost me. He was utterly self-centered by nature, and yet he never thought of himself. His work was all in all." Alma's words echoed those of conductor Bruno Walter, a champion of Mahler's music who said, "Mahler loved humanity but often forgot about men."
Alma and Gustav had 2 daughters, Maria, "Putzi," (1902-1907) and Anna, "Guckerl ," who was born in 1904 and became a sculptor. She died in 1988. The marriage had several rocky times and during one of them ( in 1911) Alma had an affair with Walter Gropius, causing untold misery to Gustav. However, one might understand her frustration at being the wife of a controlling man...even if he was one of the world's greatest composers. Her mission was to serve him and cater to all his needs, sublimating her own in the process.
The Mahlers went to New York City in 1907 to fulfill a contract with the Metropolitan Opera Company. Mahler conducted Tristan and Isolde, Don Giovanni, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Fidelio successfully. However, the heart condition that had been diagnosed shortly after the death of Putzi, was becoming worse, and Mahler was truly unwell most of the time. He returned to New York in 1909 to conduct rwo operas and then was asked by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to take over the directorship. He accepted and almost immediately was taken to task by the critics.
Henry Krehbiel of the New York Tribune complained about the conductor's habit of making minor changes to Beethoven's works and the ugliness of Mahler's own compositions. The last straw came in February of 1911, when the ladies of the Philharmonic committee, who had critisized him on many occasions, met with him and the result was a severe lessening of his powers.
The end was not far away, and the Mahlers returned to Europe, with Alma nearing a nervous breakdown. She entered a sanatorium at Tobeldad and there met the young Walter Gropius with whem she started an affair. Mahler found out and summoned Gropius to his home where he told Alma to choose between them. Of course she could not imagine life without Gustav.
Soon after this confrontation Mahler 's health declined rapidly and he entered the Low Sanatorium in Vienna. "There he lay, tortured victim of an insidious illness, his very soul affected by the struggle of his body, his mood gloomy and forbidding," said Bruno Walter. As he lay dying he kept repeating "My Almschi." He passed away on May 18, 1911 during a thunderstorm. He was fifty-one years old.
Alma married Gropius and later married Franz Werfel. She lived in New York City in her later years and died there in 1964.