When Alma Schindler (1879 – 1964) married Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911), he imposed a huge restriction on her: in their marriage would only be room for one composer. It went without saying that he was that one; Gustav did not even bother to consider her work. Elise Caluwaerts is the first singer to record all of Alma Mahler’s surviving songs on an album. We spoke to the Flemish soprano about her fascination with the woman who was not only muse to many artists, but who herself wrote surprisingly strong songs in which Wagner’s influence shines through. In Novalis’, Rilke’s  and Heine’s lyrics, the love of God and the love of life blend harmoniously.

Where does your interest in Alma Mahler come from?

‘In my teens, I coincidentally stumbled upon the diaries in which Alma authentically described her life. I could hardly believe that such a young girl had written these texts. She was mature, gifted and talented. A child of her time, she wondered whether it would be better to serve an artist or to become an artist herself. Years later in London, I met her granddaughter, Marina Mahler. She liked the fact that I was more interested in her grandmother than in her grandfather. Most people prefer to talk about Gustav. Marina was of the opinion that Alma Mahler’s music had not been done justice so far. Through her, I came across the original scores, including the song ‘Einsamer Gang’ rediscovered in the United States in 2018.

Album cover
Album cover

Did Gustav Mahler have no interest whatsoever in the music his wife had composed? 

‘Alma was very unhappy in her marriage and she started an affair with the young architect Walter Gropius. When Gustav Mahler discovered this, he was shocked and he made an appointment with the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. After a session of about three or four hours, Gustav finally asked his wife if he could see her music. After studying her scores, he is said to have wept with regret. He arranged for her music to be published after all. During her marital years with Gustav, however, she didn’t write new compositions.’

Alma Mahler
Alma Mahler

After Mahler’s death, Alma remarried twice and she emigrated to the United States. It’s therefore quite extraordinary that she was buried with her first husband in Vienna.

‘She kept the name Mahler even after she married Franz Werfel and Walter Gropius. I think her loves were mainly related to her fascination with the arts. She loved hanging out with leading artists of the time. With them, she experienced kindred spirits because they shared similar interests. During her lifetime, she was a muse to those men; for her own artistry it was simply too early.’

Do you find it important to study the composer’s life before performing a piece of music?

‘It’s not crucial, but such a context does give me more insight. I find it very interesting to know exactly where the music comes from.’

Elise Caluwaerts
Elise Caluwaerts (picture: Lalo Gonzalez)

Has the number of women composers increased recently?

There is definitely catching up for music composed by women. In fact, we are straightening out what has been neglected for years. Many female composers have been unjustly left out of the canon. With New Dutch Academy, I recently recorded music by Dutch composer Josina van Boetzelaer (1733 – 1797) who also made beautiful music.

Last summer, you performed with an orchestra at dance festival Tomorrowland. Was that an attempt to make classical music more accessible?

‘It was a nice thing to do, we played for thousands of people jumping up and down enthusiastically. I like to leave the beaten track now and then, but nothing compares to the classical framework in a beautiful concert hall. The value of such a unique experience with sincere attention to genuine wonder cannot be underestimated. Not everything in life is about profit. People crave for depth and connection. These can be found in the arts and therefore we should continue to nurture them.’

ALMA – Meine Seele, Complete Songs of Alma Mahler

Elise Caluwaerts & Marianna Shirinyan – Fuga Libera