Magazine article Musical Times

Snatches of Memory

Magazine article Musical Times

Snatches of Memory

Article excerpt

Alma Mahler-Werfel: diaries 1898-1902 Selected & translated by Antony Beaumont Faber Fr Faber (London, 1998); xix, 494pp; L25. ISBN 0 571 19340 4.

My life with Janacek: the memoirs of Zdenka Janackova Edited Sz translated by John Tyrrell Faber & Faber (London, 1998); xix, 278pp; L25. ISBN 0 571 175406.

These are the journals of two women totally different from each other in character and situation, who none the less have experiences in common. Both women were themselves musicians who married composers; both stories took place in what was then the vast Austro-- Hungarian empire in a Europe that would soon unpick its borders and rearrange itself in the light of a growing confidence amongst its many different ethnic groups; both accounts span the change of century. In each case, the unexpected arrival of a much younger sibling made it desirable for the older girl to find a suitable husband and leave the family home as soon as was convenient. Zdenka Janackovi's brother Leo was born when she was 14, and Alma Schindler's mother became pregnant by her second husband, the painter Carl Moll, when Alma was 19.

Zdenka Janickovi, born in 1865, began life as Zdenka Schulz, the child of a Czech father and a German mother. They lived in Brno in the province of Moravia, later to become Czechoslovakia. It was a quiet, German-speaking household with few distractions in the form either of visitors or outings, and Zdenka was educated at home. Janacek became her piano-teacher; he began visiting her home to give her lessons when she was 12, and they married when she was a few days short of her 16th birthday Alma Schindler, on the other hand, grew up in sophisticated, cosmopolitan Vienna, thriving in the heady company of leading artists and musicians, and at the time of the writing of her diaries shows herself already to be a highly cultured and self-assured young lady. Whereas Zdenka's is an account of a lifetime spent with Janacek, Alma's writings span just four years, stopping just before her marriage to Mahler. Zdenka tells us much about Janacek, whilst Alma not only tells us much about herself, but also sheds a brilliant light on the Vienna of 1900.

The Alma Mahler-Werfel diaries were discovered by Antony Beaumont in the University of Pennsylvania whilst he was researching a monograph on Alexander Zemlinsky. In some respects they read like the diaries of many an 18-year-old girl. The style is often breathless, fast, with a liberal sprinkling of exclamation marks, and much attention is given to her constantly changing emotional state. Yet at the same time, they present us with a clear portrait of a most remarkable personality. How many 18-year-olds of any epoch read Nietzsche and are able to discuss with confidence contemporary art, theology and literature with some of the most intellectual thinkers of the time? Indeed, how many are able and would choose to play - as Alma frequently does - complete acts of Wagner operas on the piano for recreation? Regular visitors to the Schindler-- Moll household included Klimt, Zemlinsky, the architect Joseph Olbrich, the painter Koloman Moser and Max Burckhard, the director of the Burgtheater and coeditor of the Secessionist journal Ver Sacrum. There were constant visits to the opera, theatre and, of course, the newly-- formed Vienna Secession. In fact, such is the volume and pace of social life in turn-- of-the-century Vienna described here, that one is left wondering how anyone, least of all a lively and sociable young woman, got anything done. Her composition teacher and mentor, the blind organist Josef Labor (who also briefly taught Schoenberg, among others), sums up Alma's situation succinctly in her entry for 3 October 1899:

Well, Fraulein [... you have a very fine talent. We might be able to make something of you. Watch out that it doesn't go sour on you. [...] your environment is detrimental to you. Your life of luxury. You should be poor, forced to earn a living. …

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