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.
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”.
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.