A leading figure in Austrian artistic circles, being the wife of three major figures, the lover of others, and the centre of a network of many others. She was a composer herself, but her first husband Gustav Mahler thought it was ridiculous to have two composers in the one household, and she did not pursue it.

Tom Lehrer wrote a song about her, beginning:

The loveliest girl in Vienna
Was Alma, the smartest as well.
Once you picked her up on your antenna,
You'd never be free of her spell.

Her lovers were many and varied
From the day she began her - beguine.
There were three famous ones whom she married,
And God knows how many between.

She was born Alma Maria Schindler on 31st August 1879, daughter of the landscape painter Emil Schindler. From 1879 she took piano lessons with the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, and wrote a few works. She married the 41-year-old Mahler on 10th March 1902, and they had two daughters, Maria (b 1902), a sculptor, and Anna (b 1904, died young). He said "Die Rolle des Komponisten ... fällt mir zu, - Deine ist die der liebenden Gefährtin...!" ("The role of the composer falls to me... Yours is that of the loving companion!"), although apparently later he did become interested in promoting her music. But she did not take it up again. Mahler died in 1911. His Symphony No 8 was dedicated to her, and the death of their daughter influenced his Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children).

Then she had an intense affair with the painter Oskar Kokoschka: "Die drei Jahre mit ihm waren ein einziger heftiger Liebeskampf. Niemals zuvor habe ich soviel Krampf, soviel Hölle, soviel Paradies gekostet." ("The three years with him were a single violent love struggle. Never before had I tasted so much convulsion, so much hell, so much paradise.") Kokoschka painted her several times, as did Gustav Klimt.

She married the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius in 1915. They had a daughter Manon in 1916 and divorced several years later. Manon Gropius is immortalized because after her tragic death at the age of 18, Alban Berg dedicated his violin concerto "to the memory of an angel". Berg also dedicated his opera Wozzeck to Alma in 1921.

Close friends also with Arnold Schönberg and Enrico Caruso, in 1929 she married the Austrian Jewish writer Franz Werfel (1890-1945). In 1938 they fled Austria, making their way across Europe. At Lourdes Werfel made a vow if they were to reach safety. They arrived in California in 1940, and here he fulfilled his vow with his best-known work, his 1941 novel The Song of Bernadette, made into an Oscar-winning film with Jennifer Jones in 1943.

From 1952 she moved away from California, to New York and touring Europe again. She died on the 11th December 1964, and is buried in the Grinzinger Friedhof in Vienna. Her headstone calls her ALMA MAHLER WERFEL and adds only the dates 1879 1964.

This is how she summed up her life: Gott vergönnte mir, die genialen Werke unserer Zeit zu kennen, ehe sie die Hände ihrer Schöpfer verließen. Und wenn ich für eine Weile die Steigbügel dieser Ritter des Lichts halten durfte, so ist mein Dasein gerechtfertigt und gesegnet." ("God allowed me to know the works of genius of our time before they left the hands of their creators. And if I could hold the stirrups of these knights of the light, so my existence is justified and blessed.)

Now for that song in full:

The loveliest girl in Vienna
Was Alma, the smartest as well.
Once you picked her up on your antenna,
You'd never be free of her spell.

Her lovers were many and varied
From the day she began her - beguine.
There were three famous ones whom she married,
And God knows how many between.

Alma, tell us,
All modern women are jealous,
Which of your magical wands
Got you Gustav and Walter and Franz?

The first one she married was Mahler,
Whose buddies all knew him as Gustav,
And each time he saw her he'd holler,
"Ach, that is the Fräulein I must have!"

Their marriage, however, was murder.
He'd scream to the heavens above,
"I'm writing Das Lied von der Erde
And she only wants to make love!"

Alma, tell us,
All modern women are jealous.
You should have a statue in bronze
For bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz.

While married to Gus she met Gropius,
And soon she was swinging with Walter.
Gus died and her tear drops were copious,
She cried all the way to the altar.

But he would work late at the Bauhaus,
And only came home now and then.
She said, "What am I running, a chow house?
It's time to change partners again!"

Alma, tell us,
All modern women are jealous.
Though you didn't even use Ponds,
You got Gustav and Walter and Franz.

While married to Walt, she'd met Werfel,
And he, too, was caught in her net.
He married her but he was careful,
'Cause Alma was no Bernadette.

And that is the story of Alma,
Who knew how to receive and to give.
The body that reached her embalmer
Was one that had known how to live.

Alma, tell us,
How can they help being jealous?
Ducks always envy the swans
Who get Gustav and Walter,
You never did falter
With Gustav and Walter and Franz.

Lyrics © Tom Lehrer are held on E2 with his written permission.

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