Gustav Mahler’s Love Letters to His Wife
By Maria Popova
“Music,” Oliver Sacks wrote, “can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.” A great love letter, itself a high feat of composition, accomplishes the same — a parallel that might explain why great composers are also great writers of love letters, as evidenced by Mozart’s magnificent missive to his wife and Beethoven’s epistle to his “immortal beloved.”
In November of 1901, the great Austrian late-Romantic composer Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860–May 18, 1911), then director of the Vienna Court Opera, met Alma Schindler, a gifted aspiring composer herself. Nineteen years his junior and wary of his reputation as a serial romancer of young opera singers, Alma was at first reluctant to engage with him in any way. But Mahler fell madly in love with her and pursued her single-mindedly until she fell for him too. Their fervent courtship and subsequent marriage were by intensely beautiful love letters, second only to Vladimir Nabokov’s letters to Véra, eventually published in Gustav Mahler: Letters To His Wife (public library) alongside excerpts from Alma’s diaries that offer additional insight into the complexity of their romance, as any romance.
About a month after they met, Mahler found himself so lovestruck that he couldn’t envision his life without Alma. Desperate for a commitment, he sent her an extraordinarily candid letter that seemed, on the surface, like an ultimatum — he beseeched her to abandon her musical studies and give herself over to him wholly. But unlike Tchaikovsky’s concerns about having a wife more successful than him, beneath Mahler’s seeming ultimatum was simply a misguided attempt to counter the great vulnerability of love — in the face of our all-consuming longing for permanence and completeness, it offers no guarantees at all.
Almschi, I beg you, read this letter carefully. Our relationship must not degenerate into a mere flirt. Before we speak again, we must have clarified everything, you must know what I demand and expect of you, and what I can give in return — what you must be for me. You must “renounce” (your word) everything superficial and conventional, all vanity and outward show (concerning your individuality and your work) — you must surrender yourself to me unconditionally… in return you must wish for nothing except my love! And what that is,Alma, I cannot tell you — I have already spoken too much about it. But let me tell you just this: for someone I love the way I would love you if you were to become my wife, I can forfeit all my life and all my happiness.
Today I have to express myself without measure or restraint (to you this letter must appear immodest). And Alma, before I arrive on Saturday I must have your reply… Almschi, my beloved, be strict with yourself, regard me not as the object of your love (though that is what I otherwise particularly delight in), but imagine you are writing to a stranger who will then send me his report. Write with utter candor, tell me all you have to say and all you know. Rather than living in self-deception, I would prefer for us to part at once. — Otherwise, being the way I am, I know it would end in a catastrophe for both of us.
This letter will come as a dreadful shock to you — I know it, Alma, and even if this is only cold comfort, you can well imagine that I am suffering just as much. I call to God, though aware that you have not yet made His acquaintance, to guide your hand, my love, in writing the truth and not letting yourself be led astray by ostentation. — For this is a moment of great importance, these are decisions that will weld two people together for eternity. I bless you, my dearest, my love, no matter how you react…
Many tender kisses, my Alma. And I beg you: be truthful!
As Mahler anticipated, the letter caused Alma great disquiet, for she recognized that it was indeed “a moment of great importance” in which she was called on to be indecision’s executioner. The following day, she wrote in her diary:
A.M. at home — this letter. My heart missed a beat … give up my music — abandon what until now has been my life. My first reaction was — to pass him up. I had to weep — for then I realized that I loved him. Half-crazed with grief, I got into my finery and drove to “Siegfried” — in tears… I feel as if a cold hand has torn the heart from my breast.
Mama & I talked it over late at night… I was dumbfounded. I find his behavior so ill-considered, so inept. It might have come all of its own… quite gently… But like this it will leave an indelible scar…
But by the following evening, her diary reflects a radical change of heart as she chooses love over work. A century before Anne-Marie Slaughter’s courageous case for considering conceptions of happiness other than professional success, Alma writes:
I forced myself to sleep the night through. This morning I read his letter again — and suddenly I felt such warmth. What if I were to renounce “my music” out of love for him? … And now I have a strange feeling that my love for him is deep & genuine… I long for him boundlessly.
Before lunch I went shopping in Döbling — just to get out of the house. My heart trembled in anticipation. On the way I met his servant. I read his letter on the street. How right he is about everything.
I love him!
The letter she read in the street was this:
My beloved Alma,
Here in my home town, where we can breathe the same air, I greet you from the heart! I had scarcely entered my room (how nice that you have already seen it!), when I espied that sweet, familiar handwriting, and I was not unmoved to read your dear words, which must have been written before you received my last letter — During the past two days, the thought of the initial impression it must have made on you has been dampening my spirits. My wish for both of us is that my letter will communicate nothing but my love and fidelity, and that you come to see how strong and deep they are.
You do realize, don’t you, how hard and uncompromisingly truthful I can be when I love someone? before I take you in my arms, we must be clear about everything — for this afternoon I would no longer possess the necessary strength and self-control to speak about the many things that have to be discussed. Never have I so desired or feared a latter from you as the one that my servant is now on his way to collect. What will you tell me?
But don’t get me wrong. It’s not what you say that will be decisive, but what you are. At this moment we have to disregard the passion that currently holds sway over us (which is only possible when we are not together — and that explains why I have communicated with you as long as possible in writing). Only then will we have found the inner calm and loving certainty to forge that bond which will bind us indissolubly, to our last breath.
That night, Alma writes in her diary:
He arrived — as kind and loving as ever. Our kisses were hot. I am wax in his hands… I want to give him everything. My soul is his. If only everything were clear!
With time as the great, perhaps the only, clarifying force, the two were married in a private ceremony seven weeks later. They remained together until the composer’s death in 1911 and continued writing each other beautiful love letters until the very end. In one, penned a few months before his death, Mahler writes to Alma:
Your latest letter was so sweet. For the first time in eight weeks — actually for the first time in my life — I could sense the bliss that springs from love when one loves with total conviction and knows one’s love to be reciprocated… But Almschi, you must keep repeating this to me, for I know that by tomorrow I shall no longer believe it! For this is “bliss without repose.” And now good night, my fairest, my sweetest one…
My beloved, your Gustav
Gustav Mahler: Letters To His Wife is a beautiful read in its totality, alive with an intense tenderness we rarely see committed to words, much less conveyed via our contemporary media of correspondence. Complement it with the love letters of Frida Kahlo, Allen Ginsberg, Margaret Mead, Violet Trefusis, Paul Cézanne, and Franz Kafka
Published November 17, 2015