Alma Rose: Vienna to Auschwitzby Richard Newman, Karen Kirtley
Alma Ross's story first came to public attention through the intriguing 1980 film Playing for Time. The true story of this heroic woman is now told for the first time. Rose was born to musical royalty in Vienna when the imperial city was the center of the musical world. Her father was violinist and concertmaster Arnold Rose; her uncle was Gustav Mahler. In the 1930s she founded and led a brilliant womens touring orchestra. Like many other Viennese Jews, the Rose family was caught off guard by the rise of Nazism. Alma assisted her family to flee but was herself caught and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There, Alma again formed and led a women's orchestra---the only women's musical ensemble in the Nazi camps---thereby saving the lives of some four dozen women. In telling Alma's full story, the authors honor her and the valiant prisoner-musicians for whom music meant life.
Read an Excerpt
Musical Royalty: The Background
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We never felt any different from anyone else.
Alfred Rosé on childhood in Vienna
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Alma Rosé was born in Vienna, the bustling capital of the thousand-year-old Habsburg empire. She arrived on Saturday, 3 November 1906, a cloudy day in the imperial city. Her parents, Arnold and Justine Rosé, celebrated with music.
Justine's pregnancy had been troubled. She was often sick and exhausted by the demands of running the commodious household and looking after rambunctious "Alfi," the Rosés' precocious, almost-four-year-old son Alfred. With her usual sense of decorum, Justine carried on with a curtailed social schedule. In 1906, invitations to her musical teas and Sunday dinners were rare and highly prized.
From concern for his wife, Arnold spent the year close to home, canceling an appearance with the Philharmonic in Salzburg as principal soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D. When Justine delivered a healthy baby girl, he immediately sent word to the Vienna Opera.
Justine's brother, Gustav Mahler, was at the opera the night the baby was born, conducting a new production of Hermann Götz's Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung (The Taming of the Shrew). He and his wife Alma Mahler were the devoted parents of two little daughters. Maria Anna, their dear "Putzi," was four years old to the day when little Alma arrivedthe cousins wouldshare their November birthday. Anna Justine, named for her maternal grandmother and her Aunt Justine but called "Gucki" for her blue eyes, was a year old. In honor of Gustav's beautiful young wife, the Rosés named their baby Alma Maria.
Bruno Walter was also at the opera when Arnold's happy announcement arrived. Like the Mahlers, he and his wife Elsa, the Rosés' closest musical friends, had two young daughters. They made haste to visit the proud parents and saw Alma the day she first surveyed the world. Years later, they remembered the joy and promise of her birth.
The new arrival was heralded far beyond the family circle, for the Rosés lived in the public eye. Justine bore two of the most illustrious names in Austrian music: her brother Gustav was the brilliant director of the Vienna Opera and a composer of growing renown, and her husband was Arnold Rosé, the venerated orchestra leader. Six months earlier, Arnold had celebrated his twenty-fifth year as first violinist of the Vienna Philharmonic and Opera Orchestras; for twenty-three years, he had led the Rosé Quartet, among Europe's most distinguished chamber music groups.
In the cosmopolitan city that was home to Beethoven and Brahms as well as Schubert and the famous Strausses, the Mahler-Rosé family were musical royals. The Viennese adored the celebrities from what they called "our Burgtheater" and "our opera." Some said that only the Habsburg emperor Franz Josef and Vienna's mayor Karl Lueger were more revered by the public than the city's reigning artists, who were everywhere recognized and deferred to.
The Viennese zest for life and passion for art were legendary. As Stefan Zweig wrote of the city in the first years of the century, "It was sweet to live here." The autumn of Alma's birth, chestnuts roasted as always in the street-vendors' carts, filling the air with enticement. Fiacre drivers whistled tunes from Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow), the operetta by Franz Lehár that had opened the previous December in the Theater an der Wien. Lehár's "Velia" echoed from the carriages along with the traditional songs of Gemütlichkeit, the easy-going manner of the streets.
The drivers lectured passengers as they toured the Ringstrasse, Vienna's grand six-mile-long boulevard, pointing to musicians, singers, dancers, painters, poets, professors, and distinguished doctors and surgeons as national treasures. Pedestrians sometimes stopped to applaud their favorites. Regulars of the Ringstrasse boasted they could set their clocks by the punctilious "Der Mahler" as he emerged from the opera at noon to walk briskly home for lunch. Max Graf, the Viennese music historian, remembered his daily glimpses of the "Opera Director of the Emperor":
This man always carried his soft hat in his hand, and walked with a strange, stamping gait, limping with his right leg from time to time. His dark face, framed by long hair, had a sharp profile and eyes which shot out dark looks through his glasses. It was the ascetic face of a medieval monk. In this man the nerves pulled tensely and from him a spiritual strength streamed forth. It could be either a good or bad spirit flashing from the high forehead and the eyes.
With disdain for appearances, Gustav Mahler made it a point to wear shabby hats and coats with torn linings. Arnold, in contrast, dressed with panache. Among Alma's earliest memories was her handsome father in his flowing opera cape, mounting a court carriage with royal crests and liveried attendants, on his way to perform at the opera or at Vienna's majestic Hofburg, the imperial palace of the Habsburgs.
Alma's forebears on both sides were Jewish. Her mother's father, Bernhard Mahler, was a businessman who began his career as a village peddler and rose to own a small distillery in Kalischt (Kalite) in Bohemia and finally an inn in Iglau (Jihlava) in Moravia, in what later became Czechoslovakia. He and his wife, the former Marie Hermann, had fourteen children, seven of whom died in infancy and one, Ernst, at the age of thirteen. When both parents as well as the eldest sister, Leopoldine, died in 1889, five of the Mahler children were still living: Gustav, born in 1860; his younger brothers Alois and Otto; and two younger sisters, Justine, born in 1868, and Emma, seven years younger. Gustav became the Mahler patriarch and undertook the maintenance of the family. From that time until their marriages, Gustav and his two sisters lived and traveled together. Justine dedicated herself to giving her brother the support he needed: she ran his household, corresponded on his behalf, copied reviews and programs, attended important rehearsals, planned vacations at Easter, Christmas, and summer break, and did her best to surround him with quiet when he composed.
Alma's father was born Arnold Josef Rosenblum on 24 October 1863. He was one of four sons in a family that came from Jassy, in what is now Romania. The musical potential of the two younger sonsEduard, born in 1859, and Arnold, four years his juniorinspired the family's move to Vienna. Taking advantage of a new freedom of movement granted Jews in the Austro-Hungarian empire after 1867, when a new constitution lifted anti-Semitic restrictions, they left Romania for Vienna when Arnold was four years old.
In Vienna Arnold's father, Hermann, was a prosperous carriage builder. French tutors taught the children, and they were educated in literature and the arts as well as history and the sciences. Arnold's mother, Marie, was intent on fostering her sons' talents and found the best musical contacts for them, not hesitating to write to such an eminence as Ferruccio Busoni to inquire about a concert at which Arnold was to play. Eduard was a fine developing cellist, and Arnold an extraordinarily perceptive violinist. Karl Heissler, at the Vienna Conservatory, was among Arnold's teachers.
In 1879, when Arnold was sixteen, he made his professional debut as Arnold Rosenblum in the Leipzig Gewandhaus. On 10 April 1881, still as Arnold Rosenblum, he gave the first Viennese performance of Karl Goldmark's Violin Concerto, opus 28, under conductor Hans Richter. Wilhelm Jahn, newly appointed director of the Vienna Court Opera or Hofoper (later the State Opera or Staatsoper), immediately appointed him first concertmaster of the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra. The Vienna Opera Orchestra, traditionally the parent of the Vienna Philharmonic, doubles in the pit of the opera house and on the concert stage in an arrangement unique to Vienna. Thus from the tender age of seventeen, Arnold led two venerable orchestras from the first chair, later to become the first playing member of the orchestra to receive honorary membership in the Philharmonic. After 1893, he also taught at the Vienna Conservatory, where he remained more than three decades.
Arnold's musicianship and talent for leadership were well recognized. At the opera, patrons would peer into the orchestra pit before the opening curtain, seeking out the young concertmaster whose presence ensured the finest performances. Stars of the opera were reassured when they learned that Arnold Rosé would occupy the first chair at a performance in which they would appear. Young conductors making their first appearances in Vienna felt honored if Arnold were their concertmaster, while more established conductors expected no less. Looking back, the esteemed English conductor Sir Adrian Boult proclaimed Rosé Europe's most famous orchestra leader of his time.
In 1882, eighteen months after his debut, Arnold adopted the stage name Arnold Rosé and founded the Rosé Quartet with his brother Eduard (who also took the name Rosé) as cellist and Julius Egghard and Anton Loh as second violinist and violist. For more than fifty-five years, with various other members, the Vienna-based ensemble maintained a reputation for excellence.
In 1897 the Rosé Quartet gave its hundredth Viennese performance, at which the eminent Dutch pianist Julius Röntgenfriend to Johannes Brahms and Edvard Griegwas special guest. The great Brahms himself turned to the Rosé Quartet to premiere some of his late chamber works, including the revised String Quintet in G major, opus 111. With Brahms at the piano, between 1890 and 1895 the ensemble performed from manuscript the premieres of four compositions: the revised 1854 Piano Trio in B major, opus 8; the Clarinet Quintet in B minor, opus 115, with Franz Steiner, clarinetist; and the Piano and Clarinet Sonatas in F minor and E-flat major, opus 120, nos. 1 and 2, with Richard Mühlfeld as clarinetist. So enduring was Brahms' spirit in the Rosé household that young Alma referred to him as "Uncle Brahms" although he had died almost a decade before she was born.
Eduard Rosé played with the quartet for only a season. In 1898 Eduard married Emma, the youngest Mahler sister. (Thus two Rosé brothers married two Mahler sisters, causing untold confusion for future biographers.) The couple emigrated to the United States, where Eduard joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra and their first son, Ernst (later Ernest), was born. Because Emma sorely missed her sister and brothers, the family returned to Europe after only two years. Eduard continued his career at Weimar, where he was first cellist at the Weimar Theater and taught at the Conservatory. Wolfgang, a second son, was born in Europe in 1907 and was the Rosé cousin closest in age to Alma.
Arnold's two older brothers also carved out niches in the arts. Alexander was a Viennese impresario, bookseller, and stationer. Berthold, an actor who had been a favorite of German Kaiser Wilhelm II at the Royal Theater in Wiesbaden, became almost a court jester for the king. His nephew Ernest described him as completely different from his brothersa fresser whose huge appetites led to an early death in his mid-fifties.
In 1889, Arnold appeared as concertmaster of the Vienna Opera Orchestra at the Bayreuth Festival; Mahler was in the audience attending Die Walküre. During the performance, the orchestra had difficulty. Arnold stood up and with strong, emphatic registration on his violin, set the orchestra back on track in both pitch and tempo. Mahler, who admired the bold gesture, is said to have exclaimed, "Now, there is a concertmaster!" The admirable Rosé would become a trusted friend and colleague as well as Mahler's brother-in-law.
In 1890, Arnold was honored by Ludwig II of Bavaria with the presentation of the Grosse Goldene Verdienstkreuz. This was the first of more than thirty-five awards he received from the Habsburg, Spanish, and Italian courts, the republic of Austria, and the city of Vienna. As a member of the royal musical establishment with the rank of k. u. k. Hofmusiker (Royal and Imperial Court Musician), he enjoyed the privilege of a court carriage to carry him in state to the opera. A carriage of his own, with a fine livery, took him to concert appearances in other venues.
Joseph Joachim, the revered leader of the Joachim Quartet, was in his seventies at the turn of the century and noticeably losing his power. At the 1899 Beethovenhaus celebrations in Bonn, Joachim was the chief musical attraction. Arnold, his heir apparent, received second billing.
Like Joachim, Arnold was known as the exponent of a tradition that went back to Beethoven; he was considered conservative and above all, correct. Yet he embraced contemporary challenges, "breaking lances," as critic Paul Bechert wrote, on behalf of aspiring young musicians whose talents he quickly recognized. For his quartet's performances in the 588-seat Bösendorfer-Saal, Arnold charted an adventuresome course. Although he opened every season with the credo "I believe in Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven," he gave new and recent music a hearing and was sought out for the premieres of works by Erich Korngold, Hans Pfitzner, and Max Reger. Over the years, scores of young composers were accorded Rosé premieres. Arnold Schoenberg, in particular, benefitted from Arnold's unwavering support.
As a young man about town, Arnold was fond of modish clothing, gambling parties at the Hotel Sacher, and fashionable women, but he did not hide his serious side. He shared with Gustav Mahler the conviction that slavish adherence to traditional performance practices could result in Schlamperei (slovenliness) at the expense of deeper insight into a musical work and fidelity to the composer's intentions.
Rosé and Mahler had been musical acquaintances for several years before Gustav won the directorate of the Vienna Opera in 1897 and moved from Hamburg to Vienna. At first Gustav lived in furnished rooms, served only by his cook, as Justine and Emma remained in Hamburg to settle family affairs. In August 1898, he moved to an apartment on the Bartensteingasse, where his sisters joined him. The same month, Emma married Eduard. In the fall, Gustav and Justine moved to a large apartment at Auenbruggergasse 2, where Justine again assumed the role of household mistress.
In his new position Gustav was besieged with social demands. Justine soon put her foot down: never was he to bring home unannounced visitors from the theater. Shortly after this ultimatum, Gustav appeared for lunch with Arnold Rosé, the popular concertmaster. Arnold, a bachelor in his mid-thirties, was so witty and charming that Justine instantly forgave the trespass.
Arnold liked to boast that he saw Justine every day thereafter. This was gallant exaggeration, since his touring schedule took him away from Vienna many weeks each year. It is true that from that time forward, Arnold was virtually a member of the family, lunching with Gustav at noon at the opera, playing music with friends at the Mahler or Rosé home into the night, spending vacations at rented summer houses with Gustav and Justine and their friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner.
Although the attraction between Arnold and Justine was immediate, their courtship lasted nearly five years. At first they kept their romance a secret from the volatile Mahler, but Viennese gossip-mongers delighted in the fact that the opera's dashing concertmaster was courting the sister of the director. Justine was in love; but Gustav relied on her, and she would not desert him until he too found the person he wanted to marry.
For Gustav, love struck in November 1901. At the home of Berta Szeps Zuckerkandl, an art critic and well-known hostess who entertained intellectuals and artists in her salon every Sunday, Gustav met Alma Maria Schindler. The child of her mother's first marriage to landscape artist Emil Jakob Schindler, Alma Schindler was a society beauty and a budding pianist with ambitions of becoming a composer. Her beloved father died when she was thirteen. Her mother, Anna Schindler, then married Carl Moll, a well-known painter and member of the outspoken Secessionist group of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Alexander von Zemlinsky, a young composer who would gain considerable distinction, taught Alma composition and was himself deeply in love with his pupil.
Gustav was powerfully smitten, but he was forty-one years old, and Alma Schindler only twenty-two. She had grown up amidst extravagant luxury in the company of Vienna's most provocative visual artists, and she showed the marks: she was outspoken, capricious, vain, demanding, rebellious. She was also delightfully intelligent and original. Gustav's conservative colleagues and some of his closest friends were scandalized by his infatuation as well as by Alma's impudent behavior. (For instance, she did not hesitate to say about Gustav's music, "I know very little of it and the little I do know I don't like.") Bruno Walter was concerned for Mahler's sake. Alma Schindler was "the most beautiful girl in Vienna," he wrote, "accustomed to a glittering life in society, while [Gustav] is so unworldly and fond of solitude; and there are plenty of other problems one could mention."
Justine encouraged Gustav in the romance, assuring him that Alma would return his love. A month after they met, Alma and Gustav became secretly engaged; Gustav told Justine the next day. Two wedding dates were set. Justine would marry Arnold and leave the house on Auenbruggergasse for an apartment at Salesianergasse 8, a few blocks away, and Gustav's bride would move into the Mahler apartment.
The two couples were married in ceremonies one day apart, the Mahlers on 9 March 1902 in the sacristy of the Catholic Karlskirche, and the Rosés on 10 March at the Evangelical church on Dorotheergasse. They announced their weddings with simple ivory cards of matching design.
The year Arnold and Justine were married, the Rosé Quartet, augmented to a sextet and encouraged by Mahler, gave the first performance of Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). The Viennese audience hissed loudly, and fistfights erupted in the theater. A second performance scheduled for March 1904 was canceled by the authorities because of the riot generated by the premiere; yet Arnold had enough faith in Schoenberg's genius to perform the piece at a later concert. Heedless of catcalls from the audience, the ensemble played it through, rose and bowed, then repeated it from beginning to end as if it had won an ovation.
Alma was two months old in 1907 when the quartet performed Schoenberg's Quartet in D minor, opus 7music so complex it took forty rehearsals to master itagain from manuscript. In 1908 in Vienna, with Vienna Opera's great Carmen and later Salome, Marie Gutheil-Schoder, the quartet premiered Schoenberg's Second String Quartet in F-sharp minor with soprano voice from manuscript. This revolutionary work coincided with the sixtieth-anniversary jubilee marking Emperor Franz Josef's ascendancy in 1848 to the Habsburg throne.
As Schoenberg worked on the quartet, he and Rosé exchanged letters, the composer urging Arnold to persuade Gutheil-Schoder to sing the first performance. To his dying day, Arnold Rosé kept the more than thirty letters in Schoenberg's hand.
Arnold Rosé's discipline and charm were well known; so too were his bouts with despair. Justine, accustomed to her brother's mercurial moods, coped admirably, but Arnold's periods of melancholy weighed on the family and on his professional associates. Friedrich Buxbaum, principal cellist in the Vienna Philharmonic and a member of the Rosé Quartet for more than twenty years, was grateful for Justine's vigilance and tact. When Arnold was in one of his "deep brown" moods, his wife would greet the quartet before rehearsal with a word of warning. All knew that at such a time, a careless quip could turn a rehearsal into a disaster.
Alma's birth year, 1906, was the "Mozart Year," the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth, when Mahler conducted thirty-seven performances of new productions of Mozart's operas. In August, Salzburg celebrated the Mozart anniversary. During the festival, the two dominant personalities on the podium were Mahler and Felix Mottl, a former rival for the directorate of the Vienna Opera. Mahler conducted an historic Don Giovanni, and composer-pianist Camille Saint-Saëns was the festival's special guest.
The year 1906 was also distinguished by the Dresden premiere of Richard Strauss's opera Salome, based on Oscar Wilde's classic horror play and banned by the censor in Vienna. In Cologne, in a later production, the opera would receive fifty curtain calls.
Just two weeks before Alma's birth, Parisian friends of the familyall former champions of Alfred Dreyfusarrived in Vienna for what Mahler called a "secret festival" in their honor. In the group were Sophie Szeps Clemenceau (Berta Szeps Zuckerkandl's sister); her husband Paul (brother of Georges Clemenceau, the prime minister of France from 1906 to 1909 and again from 1917 to 1920); and Colonel Georges Picquart. Every day Mahler conducted and Arnold took his place in the first chairFigaro, Don Giovanni, Tristan, a week of opera that left mouths agape.
Closely allied to the Mahler-Rosé dynasty was Bruno WalterAlma's beloved "Uncle Bruno." As a young conductor in Hamburg, Berlin-born Bruno Walter Schlesinger became Mahler's protégé. In 1901 he joined Mahler at the Vienna Opera, where as Mahler's close associate and obvious favorite, he inherited the director's enemies among the singers and musicians. The press accused him of slavishly imitating Mahler's conducting technique and even his personal mannerisms. The anti-Semitic press was especially virulent, with its usual references to "Jewish rogues" and "Jewish filth" sullying the German or "Aryan" artistic tradition. As a beleaguered twenty-four-year-old, Walter found solace in the warmth of the Mahler-Rosé circle.
Walter performed with Arnold Rosé in what he called "sonata evenings" and made various appearances with members of the Rosé Quartet. When Alma was two months old, on 8 January 1907, Walter, Rosé, and Buxbaum performed Waiter's own Piano Trio in F major from manuscript in the Bösendorfer-Saal. Audiences greeted chamber-music recitals played with Arnold with such enthusiasm that Walter and Rosé made them an important sideline over fifteen years. Their duo performances became a much-loved Viennese musical tradition.
The Mahlers and Rosés appeared to live charmed lives. But for Jews anywhere in Europe at the turn of the century, tensions could suddenly erupt. In Vienna, where Sigmund Freud, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Max Reinhardt, and many other eminent Jews made profound cultural contributions, anti-Semitism was a steady undercurrent.
In theory the rights of Jews in Austria-Hungary were protected by law, since the constitution had guaranteed "freedom of religion and conscience" since 1867, reflecting the tolerant attitude of Emperor Franz Josef. The emperor himself was disgusted by anti-Semitism: on one occasion, when a theater audience began chanting an anti-Jewish rhyme, he rose and scornfully left the hall. But Catholicism was the official religion of the empire, and a vocal anti-Semitic minority made its presence felt, anticipating Hitler's obsessive hatred of the Jews.
The popular mayor of Vienna since 1897, Karl Lueger, was an avowed anti-Semite and one of the founders of the Christian Socialist political party, a forerunner of Nazism. Anti-Semitic newspapers protested the appointment of Jews to high positions, especially in the arts, which they were accused of monopolizing. Theodor Herzl (born in Budapest the same year as Gustav Mahler), the prominent journalist who led the Zionist movement to create a Jewish state, attracted the support of fewer than half the Jews of Austria and perhaps no more than a quarter. Most Austrian Jews rejected Zionism and aimed instead at assimilation. Acceptance by the mainstream population was a widely shared ideal.
The Mahler-Rosé family made little of their Jewish ancestry. German was their language, and they had less in common with the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe than with their fellow Austrians and Germans, particularly the educated classes. Like many other European intellectuals of their time, they considered the notion of Judaism as a race ridiculous and found it impossible to believe that a brutish, close-minded few posed any real threat to society.
Shortly before Alma's birth, Anton (Toni) Schittenhelm, a tenor at the opera, expressed concern at Arnold's refusal to consider job offers from the United States. Vienna might not repay the loyalty he gave it, the singer cautioned. Arnold brushed off the warning. He was Viennese above all, a servant of the city's music.
A decade before, in the winter of 1896-97, Justine and Gustav Mahler had confronted the impact of their Jewish ancestry. Wilhelm Jahn, director of the Vienna Court Opera, was ailing and faced a cataract operation. Jahn's impending leave set off a behind-the-scenes search for a replacement. Mahler, after six years as first Kapellmeister at the Hamburg Opera, was ready to leave and eagerly sought the post.
Mahler was a superb candidate. His energy and high musical ideals were a matter of record, and he had shown a rare ability to achieve discipline in a milieu rife with artistic temperament. As a conductor he had won international recognition, although fame as a composer continued to elude him. (In despondent moods, he referred to his compositionsalmost four of his own symphonies and three cycles of art songsas mere additions to his library because they were performed so rarely.)
Despite his credentials, Mahler's Jewish heritage technically barred him from a Habsburg court appointment; the Spanish ceremonial, traditionally observed by the court, stipulated that only the baptized could hold major court positions. Enforcing strict protocol, Prince Alfred Montenuovo (the acting opera administrator) opposed a Jew for the post.
Cosima Wagner, widow of the composer, also opposed Mahler because of his ancestry. As high priestess of the Bayreuth shrine to Richard Wagner, Cosima let her opinion be known from Wahnfried, the Wagner home. Her lack of support was ironic, since Mahler had often proclaimed his ardent admiration of her husband. During earlier pilgrimages to Bayreuth, Mahler had manifested pride and gratitude at being accepted within the Wagner family circle. Justine, who had long distrusted Cosima, was not surprised by her opposition. The Wagners' sly malevolence toward Gustav had already led to bitter brother-sister debates. Each time, Gustav ended the discussion by declaring himself so devoted to the genius of Wagner that he would beat the kettledrum at Bayreuth if only he were asked.
Gustav enlisted influential supporters to press his case, but to no avail. Woefully he told his friend Dr. Arnold Berliner in January 1897, "Everywhere, things fall through at the last moment on account of my race.... Under the present circumstances, it is impossible to engage a Jew for Vienna."
Siegfried Lipiner, a member of the Mahler-Rosé circle and a parliamentary librarian as well a classical scholar and poet, wrote to Gustav that despite his own considerable influence at the court, attempts to support Gustav's appointment were thus far in vain. Everything began to point in the direction of Christian baptism. It would be a crucial decision for all the family.
Late in 1896, Justine wrote from Hamburg to a friend in Vienna, Ernestine Löhr, describing what she considered a hateful and hypocritical process.
We all continue to take instruction, and the priest said yesterday we might not finish until February. Emma and I are really doing it only to make the whole thing easier for Gustav, as the position in Vienna at the opera (a secret) depends on it....
The first priest asked why we are doing it. I did not have the heart to pretend it is out of conviction, and he seemed to have little enthusiasm for it. Now I have gone to another priest, who by the way is Austrianvery liberal and such a fine fellow that we invited him to dinner next week. The whole affair is play-acting for me, since I don't believe a thing and could refute whatever he says. I memorize whole sections like poems in a foreign language.
In mid-February 1897, Justine wrote again to Ernestine:
Our baptism has still not taken place, should now be definitely on the twenty-eighth. I always postpone it. It is too loathsome and makes me quite melancholy.... I don't know what I would give if we did not have to do it.... We don't want to let Gustav jump into it alone. I have such an antipathy towards the priest that I can barely shake his hand. In Vienna, the story goes around that we are already baptized, so please keep this secret.
In conclusion, Justine wrote that she could do this for "only one person," her brother.
According to Henry-Louis de La Grange, Mahler said that he converted to Catholicism shortly after leaving Budapest. At any rate, De La Grange tells us, his baptism took place in Hamburg in the Kleine Michaeliskirche on 23 February 1897. It accomplished its purpose. In April of that year Mahler was named deputy director, under Jahn, of the Vienna Opera; in October 1897 Jahn was forced out, and Mahler became his successor.
Arnold Rosé, too, had chosen the route to acceptability taken by many Jewish members of the Vienna Philharmonic and Opera Orchestras. He had been baptized EvangelischProtestantat the Evangelical church on Dorotheergasse well before his marriage to Justine in the same sanctuary. For him, as for Justine, the conversion was merely expedient.
Thus, when Alma Rosé was born in 1906 and for almost a decade before, both her parents were formally Christian Austriansher mother Catholic like her Uncle Gustav, her father Protestant. Both Alma and her brother Alfred were baptized Protestant Christians as infants. Emma and Eduard Rosé became Alfred's godparents. Alma Maria Schindler Mahler stood for her namesake, Alma Maria Rosé.
Little Alma entered a world of social and political unease. The poor of Vienna were oppressed and restless, and stirrings of Balkan nationalism strained the claims of the House of Habsburg. In response to a Russian popular uprising of 1905 and against the advice of his noble advisers, on 1 January 1907 Emperor Franz Josef signed a universal male suffrage bill, giving virtually all Austrian males, four and a half million voters, a say in the choice of deputies for the 516 seats in parliament. The vote reflected the diversity of the multinational empire: 233 seats went to Germans, 107 to Czechs, 82 to Poles, 33 to Ruthenians, 24 to Slovenes, 19 to Italians, 13 to Serbo-Croats, and 5 to Romanians. For the time being, the results stalled the momentum of a growing pan-German movement for political union of all so-called German peoples. Nonetheless the election produced gains for the Christian Socialists led by the anti-Semitic Lueger and for the Social Democrats, champions of the laboring classes.
Trouble was also brewing at the opera. Jabbing his baton at wrongdoers, preaching, shouting, stamping his feet, Mahler worked furiously and ceaselessly and demanded the same striving from his colleagues. His certainty of his own genius and the rightness of his approach gave him an imperious manner that some considered inhumanly strict, even brutal. He was accused of ruining voices and putting his own fussy stamp on the works of the masters.
Hugo Burghauser, a former president of the Philharmonic, recalled hearing how Mahler, when displeased during a rehearsal, would turn to Rosé in the first chair and ask in a loud whisper how soon the offending musician would qualify for pension. (A premature retirement of course resulted in a smaller pension.) Never guided by others' opinions of him, he paid scant heed to his colleagues' delicate feelings. Art, for him, was a realm apart, and perfection the only possible goal. The inevitable resentments multiplied, and individual artists and coalitions joined in intrigues to undermine their leader.
Gustav and Alma Mahler suffered a terrible blow in the summer of 1907, when their eldest daughter, Maria Anna, died of scarlet fever. Mahler was devastated; he had lost the one person whose visits he could tolerate while he was composing. Following the trauma of Putzi's death, his health began to fail. Doctors diagnosed a heart condition similar to the one that had killed his mother eighteen years earlier.
The Mahler decade at the Vienna Opera was coming to a close. In 1907, hoping to devote more time to composing, Mahler accepted an offer from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His resignation was accepted with extreme reluctance. Now Vienna's Neue Freie Presse, which had often lambasted Mahler and his works, lamented the city's failure to nurture its artistic giants.
Mahler left the Vienna Opera painfully divided over his legacy. His parting message to the "Honored Members of the Court Opera," a farewell posted at the opera house, was an emotional defense of his policies:
Instead of the whole, the consummated, of which I dreamed, I leave patchwork, the incomplete, as man is fated to do.... I meant well and aimed at high goals. Not always could my efforts be crowned with success.... But I have always given my all, have subordinated my person to the cause, my inclinations to my duty. I did not spare myself and was therefore justified in demanding that others, too, exert their strength to the utmost.
It is said that a day later, Mahler's letter was found crumpled and torn on the floor.
Debate has long raged over the anti-Semitic factor in pressures leading to Mahler's departure. In any case, a large and loyal Mahler following remained in Vienna after Gustav and Alma Mahler sailed for New York in December 1907, leaving their youngest daughter Gucki in Vienna with Frau Moll for the season.
Young Alma was a little over a year old when the Rosé family joined in a tearful farewell at Vienna s Westbahnhof. During the next three years Mahler found fertile ground for his work in New York City, where he made lasting contributions to the American symphonic tradition. Each summer he returned to Vienna to family and Austrian roots.
During the final year of Mahler's reign in Vienna, in Alma's birth year 1906, Vienna's splendid buildings and Mahler's artistry with the works of Richard Wagner captivated a sixteen-year-old visitor from Linz. He could frequently be seen in the standing-room section at the Court Opera, where tickets were a mere two crowns, his dark eyes blazing under the crop of black hair he combed to one side when he made the effort. This was Adolf Hitler, an aimless young man on his first two-month visit to Vienna, where he sought a place as an art student. He returned a year later to spend "five and a half years [until May 1913] loving and hating the glamorous capital of the Habsburgs," as he later wrote in "The School of My Life."
By the end of Hitler's Vienna years, the Academy of Fine Arts had rejected him twice. He had lived in cheap rented rooms and hostels, selling sketches and watercolors, making posters, and reading voraciously. Those who knew him in Vienna remembered his daring, his relentless tirades, his wild fantasies and sudden rages. At every opportunity he immersed himself in Wagner's music dramas at the opera. In those years, it is said, he never missed a performance of Tristan und Isolde, in which Arnold's third-act violin solo was unforgettably magical.
A non-smoker, non-drinker, and too shy to become involved with women, the young Austrian became passionately interested in the pan-German ideology at the heart of Austrian political unrest. Later he wrote in Mein Kampf(My Struggle) that he had found a prototype for his anti-Jewish program in the policies of Karl Lueger and the mayor's gift for propaganda.
At this distance, it is difficult to reconcile conflicting views of the Lueger years in Vienna. Stefan Zweig wrote that despite his anti-Semitic policies, Lueger was "just" and "helpful and friendly to his former Jewish friends." In contrast, pianist Artur Schnabel wrote that in Lueger's Vienna, as a Jewish youth of thirteen, he "learned the meaning of fear," although his childhood was otherwise very happy and he was molested only once. "Encouraged by Lueger," wrote Schnabel's biographer, "it was a favorite sport of patriotic male adolescents to bully and beat, with a jolly brutality, children whom they thought to be Jewish."
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