The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

Why Have There Not Been Any Great Women Musicians: Alma Mahler’s “Garden of Geniuses”

In 1971, Linda Nochlin published one of the foundational essays of feminist art history, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” In short, Nochlin’s answer is that the concept of artistic genius is very much a male one. Genius is a gift, which, however, requires hard work, self-discipline, and ambition. In a male-dominated society, these are qualities expected of a man and seen as unseemly of a woman.

Alma Mahler, the most beautiful girl in Vienna.

While I was reading the memoirs of Alma Mahler (1879-1964), I was thinking of Nochlin’s argument in reference to another male-dominated art form, i.e., music. The memoirs are generally regarded as a valuable source of information about fin-de-siècle culture in Vienna. A host of great names appear. Alma Mahler, known as the most beautiful girl in Vienna, gives proof over and over again that she lived her self-confessed dream of gathering “a garden of geniuses” around her. After a brief flirtation, as a young girl, with Gustav Klimt, the most successful painter at the time, she got married to one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, Gustav Mahler.

Oskar Kokoschka, Portrait of Alma Mahler, 1912.

Her second husband, after the death of Mahler, was the architect and one of the founders of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, in his turn followed by Franz Werfel, the famous writer. Even her extramarital relationships were with exceptional men – as Oskar Kokoschka, one of the foremost avant-garde painters, who, Alma Mahler tells us, could “paint no one but herself” during their time together.

This collection of famous and talented people is impressive indeed and Alma Mahler, never one to suffer from false modesty, doesn’t let us forget that she was the kind of woman, who could attract this kind of men. Something else she likes emphasizing is her own talent for music. This was no empty boast either.  The few songs she composed are still performed and highly praised. Whether this talent could have developed into genius, we don’t know, as Alma would continuously put it aside for the sake of the work of the man she was with.

Gustav Mahler, the great composer and Director of the Vienna Opera.

When Gustav Mahler proposed to her, he insisted that she immediately give up her music for him. He sent Alma a letter explaining that her role was to be “that of a loving companion and understanding partner,” while “the role of the composer … falls to me.” One is reminded at this point of Nochlin’s observation that “unlike other oppressed groups, men demand of women not only submission but unqualified affection as well.” In any case, unbelievable though it may be, Mahler’s display of condescension and arrogance was meant as a love letter and a marriage proposal. Even more unbelievably, his proposal was accepted.

There is a sense in which Alma Mahler’s memoirs leave the slightly uncomfortable impression of being written from the position of someone who had been allowed a privileged access to a club, but was definitely not a member. Her garden of geniuses was, after all, exclusively male.

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