Pupil, Muse and Lover

Zemlinsky and Alma Mahler-Werfel


"I want you - with every atom of my feeling"

Zemlinsky to Alma

At a soirée in February 1900 Zemlinsky made the acquaintance of Alma Schindler, the later wife of Gustav Mahler, Franz Werfel and Walter Gropius. Two weeks earlier Alma, aged 21, had seen Zemlinsky when he conducted the world premiere of his cantata Frühlingsbegräbnis in the Musikverein. An intensive relationship soon developed between the attractive and self-assured Alma and the withdrawn Zemlinsky. After Alma had shown him some of her songs, he regularly frequented the house of Alma's stepfather Carl Moll as her teacher of composition. However, from autumn 1900 it was more than teaching that took him there. Zemlinsky and Alma Schindler embarked on a turbulent and problematic love affair that lasted until the following autumn when Alma met Gustav Mahler and a short time later married him. Her diaries and Zemlinsky's letters document the passion of this relationship and also why the unequal couple could not come together. Alma admired Zemlinsky's music and intellect and fell for his great erotic charisma but could never come to terms with his appearance and his "lowly" background, especially not in public, which was so important for her and towards her parents who from the beginning did not accept Zemlinsky. For his part Zemlinsky adored Alma but felt nauseated by the vanity of the salon and "by the cliques of sclerotic souls" (Zemlinsky) of the people she associated with. He imagined "a small subdued room, very cosy", where he wanted "to be with Alma after work" — an image not at all appropriate for one of the most sought-after women of the time in Vienna. After Alma married Mahler, they lost touch for awhile but from 1903 they again met regularly and exchanged letters.

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Alma Mahler, photograph dating from around 1920. Even many years after their love affair, an encounter or communication with Alma Mahler could unleash special feelings in Zemlinsky. In 1917, when Alma made some negative remarks about Zemlinsky's opera Eine florentinische Tragödie, he reacted with one of his rhetorically most brilliant letters full of sharpness and emotion.
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Alexander Zemlinsky, page from the manuscript of the piano score to the cantata Frühlingsbegräbnis for soprano, baritone, choir and orchestra (text: Paul Heyse). Zemlinsky composed it in 1896 but did not complete the orchestration until after the death of Brahms in April 1897. The title page bears an inscription: "Devoted to the memory of Johannes Brahms." When Zemlinsky conducted the world premiere of the cantata, Alma Schindler saw him for the first time.