Writings abound on Gustav and Alma Mahler

May 10, 1992|By Roger Dettmer

MAHLER: HIS LIFE, WORK AND WORLD.

Kurt and Herta Blaukopf.

Thames & Hudson.

256 pages. $40.

ALMA MAHLER: OR THE ART OF BEING LOVED.

Francoise Giroud.

Oxford University Press.

162 pages. $21.95. English-reading audiences have waited 10 years for Henry-Louis de la Grange (of mixed French-American parentage) translate the rest of his classic Gustav Mahler biography, dealing with the composer's last years (1902-'11). Since the first volume appeared here in 1973, several European authors have created a virtual industry of specialized texts on the Bohemian-born composer and conductor, who died at the age of 50.

Among the most industrious are Vienna-based Kurt and Herta Blaukopf, recycling specialists whose new collaboration is a "revised and expanded version . . . with many documents that were previously inaccessible" of husband Kurt's superbly illustrated "Documentary Study," published in 1976 for prominent display on large cocktail tables.

However, most of "His Life, Work and World" is dribs and drams of old wine rebottled as a chronological, but not comprehensive, diary. Sources include Mahler's and his friends' correspondence, reviews, news stories, works by contemporaries and early biographers, and the widow Alma's self-serving memorabilia.

While this is a handy reference for broadcast hosts and program annotators, it hardly satisfies the thirst for the complete de la Grange biography. Only 49 of the 362 illustrations in "A Documentary Study" have survived, although "Life, Work and World" is indexed, and adds a selective synopsis of Mahler's life (1860-1911) and career.

But the list price of $40 seems disproportionately high in light of what's come before, and especially so alongside Francoise Giroud's pithy biography of Alma Mahler from 1988, newly and finely translated by R. M. Stock.

This worldly wise distillation of scholarship from, amusingly, another French author spares us egregious displays of scholarly baggage. In the bargain, Ms. Giroud is as readable as any star writer in Vanity Fair today. Alma's only other biographer has been the late Karen Monson, whose 1983 "Muse to Genius" suffered from scattershot research, flat writing and altogether too much dependence on the widow's mendacious autobiographies (one in German, another collaboratively in English). But Ms. Giroud gets it right from her wryly interpretive subtitle to the very end.

Alma Schindler (1879-1964) was a fabled Aryan beauty of 22 when she wed Mahler. He was then 41, and left her a widow within a decade. Before him, she had a fling with her music teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky, and while still married began a tempestuous, long-term love affair with the Secessionist painter and playwright, Oskar Kokoschka. Walter Gropius, five years her junior, founded the original Bauhaus after serving a four-year term (1915-'19) as her second husband.

Franz Werfel, the poet-playwright-novelist who came next, was 15 years younger. Lovers off and on starting in 1917, they were married in 1929, two months before the bride's 50th birthday, and in 1940 fled from the Nazis to Hollywood, where he wrote "The Song of Bernadette." Following his death in 1945, Alma once more become the widow Mahler, moved to New York, consumed "a whole bottle of Benedictine every day," and held court for a parade of notables until her own death at the age of 85.

Ms. Giroud writes on the last page: "One evening, alone, [Alma] pondered on the little group of men she had had at her feet. And she reached this conclusion: 'I never really liked Mahler's music, I was never really interested in what Werfel wrote' (and never, she might have added, really understood what Cropius was doing), 'but Kokoschka, yes, Kokoschka always impressed me'. . . . But when the final trick had been played she was, and would forever remain, Alma Mahler."

Mr. Dettmer is a longtime classical music critic. He lives in Baltimore.

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