The Composer and his Muse: Gustav and Alma Mahler



Not just the inspiration behind several of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, Alma Mahler-Werfel (née Schindler) was the ultimate groupie of the twentieth century's European artistic elite, serving as muse to visionary men in many creative fields.  When Mahler first met her, she was already a renowned beauty in Viennese intellectual circles, with the painter Klimt wrapped around her little finger and an affair underway with her composition teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky.

During his second season in Vienna, Mahler acquired a spacious modern apartment on the Auenbruggerstrasse and built a summer villa on land he had acquired next to his new composing studio at Maiernigg. In November 1901, he met Alma Schindler, the stepdaughter of painter Carl Moll, at a social gathering that included the theatre director Max Burckhard. Alma was not initially keen to meet Mahler, on account of "the scandals about him and every young woman who aspired to sing in opera". The two engaged in a lively disagreement about a ballet by Alexander von Zemlinsky (Alma was one of Zemlinsky's pupils), but agreed to meet at the Hofoper the following day. This meeting led to a rapid courtship; Mahler and Alma were married at a private ceremony on 9 March 1902. Alma was by then pregnant with her first child, a daughter Maria Anna, who was born on 3 November 1902. A second daughter, Anna, was born in 1904.

Friends of the couple were surprised by the marriage and dubious of its wisdom. Mahler's family considered Alma to be flirtatious, unreliable, and too fond of seeing young men fall for her charms. Mahler was by nature moody and authoritarian—Natalie Bauer-Lechner, his earlier partner, said that living with him was "like being on a boat that is ceaselessly rocked to and fro by the waves". Alma soon became resentful that, on Mahler's insistence that there could only be one composer in the family, she had given up her music studies. She wrote in her diary: "How hard it is to be so mercilessly deprived of ... things closest to one's heart". Mahler's requirement that their married life be organised around his creative activities imposed strains, and precipitated rebellion on Alma's part; the marriage was nevertheless marked at times by expressions of considerable passion, particularly from Mahler.

The Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is dedicated to his young wife in what friends and contemporaries described as a “declaration of love”.



The Sixth may be subtitled Tragische but, ironically, his most pessimistic symphony was composed in 1903-4 during a period of relative domestic bliss and features a soaring melody widely known as the “Alma theme”.



He also dedicated the Eighth Symphony of a Thousand to his wife.



In 1910, Alma's affair with the architect Walter Gropius wrenched from Mahler some of his most anguished musical outpourings. The manuscript of his Tenth, unfinished, symphony is littered with annotations of broken-hearted utterances: “Why hast Thou forsaken me?”… “To live for you! To die for you!” He was so devastated that he booked a daylong session on Sigmund Freud's couch. The good doctor initially forgot to charge his fee and sent the bill the following year, somewhat tactlessly, to the widowed Alma a few weeks after her husband had died.



Musical Motifs in 'Tosca'


Front cover of the original 1899 libretto

Puccini's Tosca, one of the most popular operas in the repertoire ever since its January 14, 1900 premiere, is a violent drama based on Victorien Sardou's hit play La Tosca, which was written as a star vehicle for the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt. In the translation from play to opera, the action was tightened, the characters were "Italianized," and most of the political motivation was cut. The action of the play and the opera takes place in Rome between noon of June 17, 1800 and dawn the following day, during which time all of the major characters die violent deaths. 
Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Tosca in play by Victorian Sardou , in 1899 ,

Puccini saw Sardou's play when it was touring Italy in 1889 and, after some vacillation, obtained the rights to turn the work into an opera in 1895. The dramatic force of Tosca and its characters continues to fascinate both performers and audiences, and the work remains one of the most frequently performed operas.

Anthony Tommasini, classical music critic of The New York Times, demonstrates how Puccini's use of motifs with various characters and elements in "Tosca" enhance the emotional power of the work.


The wonderful and moving aria "Vissi d'arte"  is the aria from act 2. It is sung by Floria Tosca as she thinks of her fate, how the life of her beloved, Mario Cavaradossi, is at the mercy of Baron Scarpia and why God has seemingly abandoned her.



Albert Einstein: The Violinist




Einstein's mother, Pauline, was an accomplished pianist and wanted her son to love music too, so she started him on violin lessons when he was six years old. Unfortunately, at first, Einstein hated playing the violin. He would much rather build houses of cards, which he was really good at (he once built one 14 stories high!), or do just about anything else. When Einstein was 13-years old, he suddenly changed his mind about the violin when he heard the music of Mozart. With a new passion for playing, Einstein continued to play the violin until the last few years of his life. For nearly seven decades, Einstein would not only use the violin to relax when he became stuck in his thinking process, he would play socially at local recitals or join in impromptu groups such as Christmas carolers who stopped at his home.

Music for fun and physics

Einstein with Bronislaw Huberman
Music was not only a relaxation to Einstein, it also helped him in his work. His second wife, Elsa, gives a rare glimpse of their home life in Berlin. “As a little girl, I fell in love with Albert because he played Mozart so beautifully on the violin,” she once wrote. “He also plays the piano. Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories. He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.”

In later life, his fame as a physicist often led to invitations to perform at benefit concerts, which he generally accepted eagerly. At one such event, a critic – unaware of Einstein’s real claim to fame as a physicist – wrote, “Einstein plays excellently. However,his world-wide fame is undeserved. There are many violinists who are just as good”.

One wag, on leaving another concert in which Einstein had played, commented, “I suppose now [the Austrian violinist] Fritz Kreisler is going to start giving physics lectures”.

There are nevertheless conflicting accounts of his musical abilities. Probably the least generous come from great artists, of whom Einstein counted many as personal friends as well as chamber-music partners. These included the pianist Artur Rubinstein, the cellist Gregor Piatigorski, and Bronislaw Huberman, one of the most remarkable and idiosyncratic violin virtuosos of the 20th century.

In 1936 Huberman visited Einstein in Princeton to discuss his plans to found the orchestra that eventually became the Israel Philharmonic, of which Einstein was a prominent supporter. Probably the summary of Einstein the violinist that comes nearest to the mark comes from his friend Janos Plesch, who wrote, “There are many musicians with much better technique, but none, I believe, who ever played with more sincerity or deeper feeling”.