Men behaving badly: Freud and Mahler. And Alma

*For an introduction to my whole series on Mahler, with links, click here!*


Mahler’s only meeting with Freud was their famous consultation in Leiden in 1910, when Mahler’s marriage and health were in crisis. [1] The day after Mahler’s funeral in May 1911, Freud sent the bill to his executor—“unabashedly” or “somewhat tactlessly”, I read online. “Somewhat”??

I hope Mahler’s widow Alma told Freud where he could stuff it.

* * *

There’s so much online about Alma studies and “the Alma problem” that I hesitate to enter the fray. Even Mahler’s notorious enjoinder to her, before their marriage, turns out to be controversial: [2]

[Alma writing:]
. . . we had our first major conflict. I once wrote more briefly than usual, explaining that I still had to work on a composition, and Mahler was outraged. Nothing in the world was to mean more to me than writing to him; he considered the marriage [on more or less equal terms] of Robert and Clara Schumann “ridiculous,” for instance. He sent me a long letter with the demand that I instantly give up my music and live for his alone . . . I cried all night . . . [but he then] moderated his demands.

Norman Lebrecht [3] attempts to mount a hopeless rearguard action for the defence, brushing aside feminist accusations. Citing Mahler:

In your letter you write of “your music” and “my” music. Forgive me but I cannot remain silent. On this point, my Alma, we must set things straight and I mean right now, before we meet again. Let me speak in general terms. A husband and wife who are both composers: how do you envisage that? Such a strange relationship between rivals: do you have any idea how ridiculous it would appear, can you imagine the loss of self-respect it would later cause us both? If, at a time when you should be attending your household duties or fetching me something I urgently needed, or if as you wrote you wish to relieve me of life’s trivia—if at such a moment you were befallen by “inspiration”—what then?
Don’t get me wrong! I don’t want you to believe that I take that philistine view of marital relationships which sees a woman as some sort of diversion, with additional duties as her husband’s housekeeper. Surely you wouldn’t expect me to feel or think that way? But one thing is certain: if we are to be happy together, you will have to be “as I need you”—not my colleague, but my wife!

Lebrecht comments, his adulation for Mahler (which I entirely share; I like his writings too, otherwise) rather complicating his vision:

He goes on to say such blustery things as “you have only one profession: to make me happy”, and “this makes me suffer just as much as you”, affording future feminists all the ammunition they need to depict Mahler as a brute and Alma as his victim. Starting with a tendentious biography by the French politician Françoise Giroud, Alma and her thwarted creativity will be cited as an admonitory case history in the future academic study of “feminist aesthetics” [SJ: fine use of scare-quotes!]. Mahler, however, is not asserting male dominance. He specifically denounces “Nietsche’s utterly false and brazenly arrogant theories of masculine supremacy”, assuring her that he is not seeking a submissive wife. On the contrary, he loves her combative nature. [SJ: “Don’t you just love a filly with a bit of spirit?” Pah] What he seeks to avoid is a professional rivalry that might offer his enemies a chink of vulnerability. There can only be one composer in this marriage. If there were two, his work might be vaunted at his expense and he might be attacked for promoting, or suppressing, it. If both composed, both would lose and the marriage would fail.
These are not unreasonable considerations, given the disparity of their achievements. Mahler is a famous composer. Alma has written ninety-five songs, piano pieces and sketches, none of them published or performed. She is not, by any reckoning, a professional composer, nor is she convinced that this is what she was born to do. He does not forbid her to compose. What he demands is that she should not compete.

Sure, we should interpret phenomena (like Daoist ritual!) within the social context of their time. But Mahler’s values can’t somehow be validated by belittling feminism.

Mahler’s aim is to negotiate a pre-nuptial accord with a young woman who is headstrong [SJ: another classic sexist term], desirable [sic], and by her own account, superficial [sic]. His final demand is that she
surrender yourself to me unconditionally, make every detail of your future life completely dependent on my needs, in return you must wish for nothing but my love. And what that is, Alma, I cannot tell you—I have already spoken too much about it. But let me tell you just this: for someone I love the way I would love you if you were to become my wife, I can forfeit all my life and all my happiness.
Taking Mahler at his word—in a letter that is not revealed until 1995, by which time feminist prejudices are set in stone—he offers to “forfeit all my life” for Alma.

Given the previous history, how does that letter challenge those “feminist prejudices”? How does his airy claim that he would “forfeit all my life” override his demand “Surrender yourself to me unconditionally“?

Some kind of defence may be worth presenting, but it surely deserves short shrift by now. Lebrecht seems to dig an even larger hole in which he can join Mahler—a concept that might interest Freud (as long as he got paid…).

All this may just have to remind us that great (male) artists don’t necessarily behave in an enlightened way. Don’t let it put you off Mahler’s amazing music…

And fortunately Alma’s songs are being performed too. For her daughter Anna, see here.

[1] Lebrecht, Why Mahler?, pp.207–13. For a rare and unilluminating interview with Alma in 1960, click here.
[2] Source not cited; not the same as Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler: memories and letters, p.22.
[3] Why Mahler?, pp.128–30.

5 thoughts on “Men behaving badly: Freud and Mahler. And Alma

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