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Alma Schindler Mahler, Pianist, Composer and Socialite

Austrian National Library

Alma Schindler Mahler was born in Vienna in 1879, daughter of landscape painter Emil Jakob Schindler and Hamburg singer Anna Sofie Bergen. She played the piano from childhood and began composing when she was just eleven.

At age 20 she began a romance with her composition teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky. But her family and friends found the relationship with the Jewish Zemlinsky unacceptable, and in 1902 she left him for Gustav Mahler, the director of the Vienna Court Opera. They married the following year. Gustav insisted she stop composing and become a full time wife and mother. Their eldest daughter, Maria died of diphtheria at age five.

After Gustav’s death four years later, Alma returned to her musical pursuits and remarried twice. In 1940 Alma and her third husband, Franz Werfel left Austria to escape persecution from the Nazi regime. They eventually settled in Los Angeles, where her salon became part of the artistic scene and she was considered a cultural icon.

After Franz’s death, Alma moved to New York where she worked with ghost writer Paul Frischauer on her autobiography. The book was very poorly received due to its racist political views and anti-semitic language, and she was abandoned by many friends.

Although she composed nearly fifty songs for voice and piano, around 20 piano pieces and a small number of chamber music works, only of her 17 songs survive. Fourteen were published during her lifetime, and three additional songs were discovered posthumously.