Alma Mahler: Memories of Gustav Mahler in the preamble of World War II

With the publication of Briefwechsel Alma Mahler – Allert de Lange Verlag (Correspondence Alma Mahler – Allert de Lange Publishers) the Gustav Mahler Foundation shows true spunk. The full correspondence concerning the process of writing a book does not bring the average reader on the edge of their seat.

In German at that! A bold endeavour in the Netherlands, for hardly anyone still speaks or reads the language of our eastern neighbours. Young people generally only master English, but many older people are uneasy with German as well, as evidenced by the abundant errors against the declinations in quotations. Speaking German may have been common practice once, but today it is simply no longer cool.

This at once touches upon the book the correspondence is about: Gustav Mahler: Erinnerungen und Briefe (Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters). This was written by Alma Mahler and published in March 1940 by the Amsterdam publishing house Allert de Lange. ‘Times are unfavourable for this publication’, sighs Walter Landauer, head of the German department, in one of his letters to Alma Mahler. The increasingly open anti-Semitism of the Nazis and the resultant flood of immigrants is causing anti-German sentiment.

It is a small miracle that the book could appear at all in 1940 – and even receive jubilant reviews. Also in newspaper De Telegraaf, that soon befriended the Nazis after Hitler invaded our country on 10 May. The extensive  correspondence between Alma Mahler and Walter Landauer begins in December 1938 and ends on 3 May 1940, one week before the invasion.

In between the lines we get a glimpse of the ominous times. The postal delivery is becoming more and more difficult; books get stuck at French customs; editor-in-chief Ernst Polak begs for extra assignments from exile in London because he cannot access his bank account in Vienna; Alma expresses her concern about the future and scoffs at conductor Willem Mengelberg for having the ‘Aryan habit’ never to answer letters. 

Together with her then husband Franz Werfel Alma has sought refuge in Sanary-sur-mer, a place on the Côte d’Azur where a community of artists in exile has arisen. Yet the fashionable Alma is bored to death there, as she complains in her letters to Landauer. Apart from the beautiful weather the town has little to offer, and she yearns for their sparse trips to Paris.

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Alma is grateful to Landauer for enabling the publication of her book, but is also business-like and resolute. In early 1939, she unequivocally voices her displeasure with his proposed title. It is only after endless discussion that they finally settle on Gustav Mahler: Erinnerungen und Briefe, with ‘Alma Mahler’ as the author’s name. This obviously was against Werfel’s grain, for Alma remarks she had to work on her husband quite a bit in order to pull this through.

Mahler’s widow proves to have quite some commercial instinct and a flair for pr. ‘The cover must be attractive’, she advises Landauer, and she constantly stresses the importance of translations into French and English. Along the way she provides tips as to which people to approach for promotion. At the last instant she includes conductor Otto Klemperer in her preface, ‘so that in America we may have a great friend, or else a dangerous enemy’.

At other times she displays an endearing modesty: when Mahler describes her as ‘an apparition of light’ in one of his letters, she – unsuccessfully – asks Landauer to scrap this eulogy; neither has she ever bothered to have her portrait taken.

Unfortunately her business-like instinct is not matched by her understanding of logistics. Even after the final proofs have been meticulously corrected by Ernst Polak from London, she still asks for adjustments – even though the faulty postal service has already caused several instances of confusion.

What’s more, Alma involves Werfel and others in the editing process without consulting Landauer or Polak, which causes even more misunderstandings. One can’t help feeling for Landauer, whose patience seems to know no bounds; after her umpteenth demand for adjustments, one would like to personally shake Alma vicariously. Indeed, towards the end of the correspondence even the ever accommodating Landauer can’t hide a slight trace of despair.

In their drudgery and perseverance, the authors Matthijs Boumans and Eveline Nikkels compare to Landauer. With the patience of saints they have arranged and annotated all 134 letters and provided them with additional comments. Unfortunately these lack Landauer’s accuracy, while their German is not flawless. The book would have benefited from stricter editing.

It is cleverly designed, however: through the use of different colours it is immediately clear who is writing. At the back of the book there are handy descriptions of all the people that are mentioned in the correspondence.

Briefwechsel Alma Mahler – Allert de Lange Verlag is a must-have for every Mahler fan. The wait is now for an English translation…

Boumans, Matthijs and Eveline Nikkels (2020)
Briefwechsel Alma Mahler – Allert de Lange Verlag
Edition Gustav Mahler Foundation Netherlands
Paperback, 208 pages
ISBN 9789081858830
Price: € 25

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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3 Responses to Alma Mahler: Memories of Gustav Mahler in the preamble of World War II

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