"If I were to begin life again, I would devote it to music. It is the only
cheap and unpunished rapture upon earth."
Sidney Smith 1844
July 27-28, 1918 Breitenstein on Semmering, Austria
"Breathtaking! I find the view from Haus Mahler truly breathtaking. Probably the most beautiful place in all of Austria."
"Yes, Frau Redlich...breathtaking," Alma sighed as she leaned against the wooden railing and gazed dreamily towards the distant mountain landscape. "When the fog rolls in it's almost as if I could walk over the clouds and touch the peaks. The mountains seem very small from here."
She smiled politely at the rigid, Viennese society woman lounging decorously in a rattan chair in the middle of the terrace. Perched next to her was Emmy Redlich's gawky 18 year old daughter, her flaccid fish eyes glued on Alma's every gesture. Alma smugly perceived the girl's admiration to be a mix of jealousy and awe. She ran her hand over her smooth cheeks and tossed her head back proudly before setting her steel blue eyes on the young woman's girlish grin.
"Herr Mahler must have loved it here," Frau Redlich interjected just as the timid girl seemed about to speak.
"Unfortunately, he never saw this house," Alma replied.
"Never? I thought the property belonged to Maestro Mahler?"
"We bought the it through an agent while we were living in New York; but Gustav died before we could build our dream house." She hugged one of the tall pillars holding up the verandah's roof and took one more deep breath before swinging around to face her guests.
"Tragic!" Frau Redlich sighed.
"Gustav spent many happy hours hiking in those hills," Alma smiled. "That was before the doctors diagnosed his heart ailment and forbid it."
"Such a virile man! Anyone who's heard his music would sense that."
"Oh, yes...." Alma agreed. She gathered the folds of her billowy maternity dress in her small nimble fingers and slid past them. Slowly and deliberately she lowered herself on to the edge of an empty deck chair, stretching all of her small five foot two frame into its most regal posture.
Without warning, Frau Redlich's head shot up off the back of her chair as if she'd been struck by a lightning bolt. Her round eyes rolled back in their deeply sculpted sockets, glazed and lifeless. Her eyelids fluttered with the delicacy of a hummingbird's wings. She stretched her long shriveled fingers over the coffee table and ceremoniously began tracing imaginary circles in the air. "I feel his presence here," she whispered ominously. "I hear the melodies of his symphonies in the wind."
A quick breeze whistled across the stone terrace and blew wisps of gray hair from her wrinkled forehead. Alma felt goose bumps rise on her forearms.
"The remnants you keep on the desk; Mahler's death mask and the manuscript of his last symphony, in there...." intoned in a voice that seemed to come from the spirits. She pointed towards the house and the music room where Alma had created a mini shrine in her dead husband's memory. "There are very strong vibrations emanating from that room, very strong."
She closed her eyes with reverence. Her unsteady hands crawled over the chair arms and held on tight until the knuckles turned white as though she expected some supernatural force to send her flying. "Yes! I hear his music. His heart still beats to the rhythm of the countryside."
She paused. Alma too heard faint fragments of Gustav's melancholy melodies drifting in the wind. Her eyes darted nervously from the plunging green fields below the verandah to the majestic mountain peaks and back to the dense stand of pine trees in between. In the distance, a lark's song echoed like a violin solo mysteriously rising from the mist, and a wave of sad memories washed over her.
Frau Redlich's intuitive eyes popped open. She gazed upwards towards the sky for a moment before pulling her head slowly to an upright position, and staring into Alma's startled eyes she whispered, "Mahler watches over this place. And he watches over you my dear."
Just then, the cook appeared at the doorway. "When would you like me to serve lunch, Madame?"
Alma jumped at the sound of her voice. She turned quickly to answer. "We'll wait for Herr Werfel."
"Yes Madame. The caretaker's just gone to fetch him from the train station. Which room do we put him in?"
"The one next to mine will do," Alma replied without thinking. Then, worrying about what conclusions might be drawn, she quickly added, "It has the best view of the mountains."
Frau Redlich seemed to break away from her self-induced trance easily and with a sly disapproving smirk on her face interjected, "Is Lieutenant Gropius still in France?"
Alma folded her hands over her bulging belly, 7 months pregnant. "My husband is still at the Front, as far as I know."
"And Manon? We haven't seen her yet. Is she well?"
"Quite well. I believe she is with Gucki somewhere in the garden."
"Oh, that's good. Manon is such a darling, and so German, like her father the Lieutenant."
"She has her father's Aryan good looks and even temperament," Alma agreed proudly. She put her lips together and raised her head to show off her own classical nose, flawless alabaster skin and blue eyes.
"I imagine the next one will be just as good looking. Perhaps a boy this time, to carry on the family name. That's important to the fathers. I'm sure Herr Gropius is hoping for a son?"
In an instant she had thrown the focus away from the grand melodies of Mahler and Alma's secret memories, chattering on and on about Gropius and Manon. Alma listened patiently at first, but soon tired of it. She closed her mind to her friend's thinly veiled attempts to remind her of her duty to her noble husband, and turned her thoughts inward to the poetry of her new lover, Franz Werfel.
Werfel slept through most of the two hour trip from Vienna. He was still groggy when he awoke to find the train steaming towards its Alpine destination. From his comfortable window seat, he gaped in amazement as they crossed over a long narrow bridge which seemed suspended in mid air, high above the best of Austria's countryside shimmering in the sunlight like a miniature landscape chiseled on the face of a cameo. Scenes of lush greenery, terraced gardens and the panoramic views of distant snowy mountain peaks were elixirs to the soul of the city dweller, and a welcomed change from the crowded streets and smoke-filled coffeehouses surrounding his digs at the Bristol Hotel in Vienna.
Everything went dark as the train snaked its way through a mountainside tunnel. Then, as if a firecracker had suddenly gone off against a night sky, the sun burst through on the other side, bringing them within sight of the sleepy village of Breitenstein on Semmering. Franz rubbed the sleep from his eyes with the palms of his soft beefy hands and yawned. He reached into the pocket of his crumpled tweed jacket and retrieved Alma's latest cryptic telegram. "Awaiting your arrival with great anticipation. Always, Alma."
His heart raced at the thought that soon he would be alone with her. Twice she'd invited him to her hillside retreat on Semmering, but circumstances beyond his control had made the long awaited tryst impossible. The first time, his work schedule had interfered. The second rendezvous was foiled by the unexpected arrival of Alma's husband on one of his infrequent military leaves from the Western Front.
Franz had great regard for Gropius. He was a decorated German soldier and a respected architect who Franz had spent a pleasant evening with once; although he and Alma hadn't planned it that way. Sometimes, he felt a twinge of guilt about their affair. But his conscience was easily soothed by rationalizing that a relationship such as theirs was the only logical and natural consequence when two souls find themselves so instantly compatible: spiritually, intellectually and sexually.
As for Alma's complicity, Franz didn't really know how she felt. She'd proclaimed a strong belief that she and the others in her intellectual circle were above the restrictions of "bourgeois" conventions. Artistic creation, talent and intellectual prowess, these were the things that mattered, she'd told him. Her own morality seemed to be lumped within a wide net of tolerance to which these lofty attributes belonged. He supposed that in her mind, adultery was as easily overlooked as any other minor character flaw or eccentricity among geniuses.
Franz found her provocative thoughts on the subject enticing from the first moment they met. Only two days later, after a special Mahler concert, she'd invited him back to her apartment to read his poetry to a distinguished group of friends. After all the guests had left, Franz experienced the ultimate with the sensuous Widow Mahler.
They'd worked up to it slowly all evening. Each stimulated by the other's art. A cosmic spark, ignited by the music of Alma's dead husband had been fanned into a raging flame by Werfel's prose. It had been a night such as he'd never experienced before. All his senses were aroused; physically, mentally and emotionally. And judging by the sight of her eyes closing, her luxuriant gold hair tossed backwards and the whimpering submissive tone of her moan, Franz was certain that she too had been transported to heaven. After that exhilarating moment, he visited her often in her apartment, and she came to his hotel until their bliss was cruelly interrupted by the Army Press Corps. Franz was sent on a reading tour in Switzerland, and it had been a month since they'd last made love.
Franz' s erotic memories were abruptly broken off when the train pulled into Breitenstein station close to noon. From there, he was whisked up the steep mountain road by Alma's caretaker in her motorcar.
The villa wasn't very impressive on the outside; a large house in the shape of a barn with a mansard roof and three chimneys poking through the shade trees. Carved into the lower face was a lengthy verandah with cylindrical white pillars holding up the sloping roof. Franz's attention was immediately drawn to the center where Alma sat conversing with two female friends. As he approached she stood and without much fanfare, casually welcomed him with a friendly embrace and a peck on the cheek.
Instantly, the warmth of her presence and the sight of her womanly form glowing with the new life, excited something spiritual in his poetic soul. She introduced the two women, who, he was informed, were also staying the weekend. He couldn't help showing his disappointment, but it quickly passed with Alma's furtive, knowing glances during lunch.
For the rest of the day, Franz endeavored to pour on his usual charm while maintaining a respectable distance from his hostess. He knew that until they could be alone, he would have to act the part of the perfect house guest, sort of poet-in-residence, engaged in readings and intellectual conjuring like all the artists and musicians Alma routinely surrounded herself with. God forbid someone should pick up a hint of anything other than friendship, he thought to himself. Even so, the perfume of her charm and her intense interest in everything he said lured him closer and closer to her until they ended up sitting together in the living room in front of the huge empty hearth, chatting while the others listened.
"Herr Werfel, I can't help noticing your interest in the fresco painted above the fireplace," Alma said at one point in the conversation. "Would you like to know the history behind it?"
Franz admitted he had been curious about the large mural that stretched the length of the hearth, picturing Alma scantily dressed in a white peasant frock and pointing heavenward with her left hand. He recognized the startled blue eyes of the artist Oskar Kokoschka, who stood behind her with his hand over his heart. Next to him, a devilish wolf-like creature beckoned with open palms, his hairy face turned towards a bony skull, the symbol of death. All three figures seemed to be rising above the flames which had been painted to represent a continuation of the fire in the hearth.
"I would love to know more, Frau Gropius. Tell me about it."
Without modesty Alma explained that Kokoschka had painted it for her to symbolize her role as his muse, leading the troubled artist out of his hellish struggle for inspiration towards creative enlightenment.
Franz argued with fiendish pleasure that the painting might also be interpreted as Frau Gropius being summoned to the murky underworld by the servants of hell.
The conversation seemed to make the other ladies uncomfortable because they soon found excuses to visit the back garden, leaving Franz and Alma alone, though not beyond earshot.
The masquerade continued after dinner when Frau Redlich asked Alma to play through the entire second half of Mahler's Eighth Symphony on the harmonium.
"The subject of Mahler's greatest symphony was taken from Goethe's Faust," Alma explained, sitting down at the keyboard. "Before we begin, perhaps you would like to tell the story Herr Werfel. You have such a marvelous speaking voice."
Franz was delighted. He was famous for his storytelling skills and Faust was one of his favorite recitations.
There were no electric lights in the villa and the living room was dark except for the fire glowing in the hearth and the dancing flames of lit candles playing off the rich wood paneled walls. Franz realized the dramatic potential of the scene immediately and stood where the candlelight would best illuminate his face. "As you know," he began summarizing. "Faust, the legendary devil-worshipper and womanizer of Goethe's tale, makes a pact with the devil. In life, his every whim, all his perverse pleasures would be satisfied. 'Infinite wisdom...done,' said Mephisto. 'Property, wealth beyond imagining...it shall be yours. Another man's wife...you shall have her.' "
Alma smiled at him coyly from the piano, her serene blue eyes as deep and telling as a gypsy's crystal ball. Franz lifted his head proudly and cleared his throat. "'Do you desire a woman...the choice is yours. A mistress you say...an innocent?'" he crooned, his wide eyes staring seductively at the ladies. "'A virgin, perhaps? She shall come to you.'"
Frau Redlich's skinny daughter blushed.
"'In exchange', said the devil," Franz whispered in a low gruff voice. Then louder he cried, "'You Faust! You shall serve me in the afterlife.'"
He froze. With all the drama of a Shakespearean actor, the lusty glow in his eyes drained away. He stood there for several seconds, staring at an imaginary spot on the wall, keeping the silent intensity alive until he caught Frau Redlich squirming in her chair. Then slowly, he began lowering his head. When it was half way to the floor, he drew his short muscular arms up to his sides and reached out.
"Faust's last crime against humanity, the ultimate low point in his career of deceit and debauchery," he moaned, his head slowly rising again, his limp eyes glazed over. "The crime, ladies...the crime for which he could never forgive himself occurs when he seduces the fair Gretchen." He laced his thick fingers together and shook them, nodding his head from side to side as though sympathizing with the horror of it.
"Gretchen, the trusting young seamstress...sweet Gretchen, whose heart is brimming with goodness and youthful naiveté, succumbs to the spell cast by Mephisto, the evil Faust's henchman. The consequences are grave...her mother poisoned, her brother dead. After only one fall from grace, the wretched girl is condemned. The devil has claimed her soul." He paused again. After a long silence, he continued. "Left alone, without a family, her purity lost forever, Gretchen is forced to support herself through prostitution. She goes mad and eventually dies. Even Faust cannot save her from the fiery flames of hell."
At this point, Alma began playing the mystical opening melody of Mahler's symphony on the harmonium. Franz's arms slumped to his sides and as he dragged himself slowly across the makeshift stage his shadow loomed against the walls in the flickering candlelight. With sorrowful eyes and his thick lips pursed together in a frown he looked towards the ladies once more before bowing his head and sitting down on his chair.
"Filled with remorse, Faust pleads for her soul," Alma continued where Franz had left off. Gretchen's heart-wrenching motif rose from the piano keyboard. A hero's theme soared above the tragic melody. "In his pursuit of redemption for the innocent Gretchen, Faust is blinded by the light of the great Spirit!" The music completely took over the drama. The themes turned from hope to hopelessness and back again. "All heaven prays for his forgiveness. Can this spiritual transformation atone for a life of evil?" Alma cried, seemingly oblivious to anything but the music and its program. "Finally, Faust and his beloved are snatched from the clutches of Mephisto, and flown to the top of the mountains. Both are redeemed. Love has saved them. In death, the two live again in paradise, in the all-embracing arms of the Creator."
The music played on and on. Alma mouthed the mysterious words of the angel choruses, her sensuous lips and electric eyes caught in the emotions as if she were Gretchen herself. Franz felt his heart beating in his throat as he watched her skillfully recreating the passion of Faust's remorse and his longing for spiritual intervention. By the end of the evening, he was in such an agitated state he could hardly contain himself during the obligatory hugs and hand kissing. With all deportment, he took his hostess's hand in his own sweating palm and kissed it.
She drew it closer to her breasts and he sensed the beating of her heart. "Goodnight and pleasant dreams Herr Werfel," she said, and without taking her eyes from his, she kissed him delicately on the cheek.
Franz withdrew to his upstairs bedroom with haste. Restlessly, he lay on top of the bed sheets fully clothed, waiting. When the others had finally retired and all was quiet...so quiet he worried that his pounding heart would wake them, he crept cautiously from his room into the hallway. The only sound was the methodical swinging of the pendulum in the clock at the bottom of the iron staircase.
For a moment, he stood outside Alma's bedroom listening. Then he brazenly pushed open the unlocked door. It was dark, except for a narrow beam of moonlight crossing the wooden floor boards from the window. The thin linen curtains waved in the breeze, and the cool night air felt like the breath of an angel against his sweating face.
"Come to me my darling," he heard Alma croon in her low musical voice.
She was so beautiful lying there in the moonlight, even more so than she'd been earlier in her golden hostess gown and pearls. Her long golden-brown hair had been loosened from the confines of its tightly wrapped bun and allowed to stream over the pillow.
Franz fell to his knees next to the bed. His whole body trembled. "You've tantalized me beyond all restraint," he admitted and fumbled to find her hand under the sheets. "I'm afraid...I'm afraid I may make a beast of myself tonight."
"Let's make the music passionate and loud, my love. I hear Wagner, my Tristan. I am your Isolde," she whispered.
Franz heard the music too; the lush chords of the great musical seducer streaming in full flight towards the climax. They made love with all the energy and drive of an enormous heavenly orchestra.
The clock downstairs chimed three times as Franz stumbled back to his bed, too exhausted to undress again. Just before he laid his head on the pillow, he heard the frantic cry of a lone Alpine bird somewhere deep in the forest. The echo of its haunting squawk penetrated the darkness and rose above the other night sounds. An omen, he thought, just before closing his eyes and falling into a deep sleep.
An hour later, Franz barely heard the frantic tapping at his door.
"Sir! Sir, it's the mistress...Sir, please! Wake up!"
As the knocking became more insistent, he felt himself slowly returning to consciousness, but his eyes wouldn't open.
"Please sir. Frau Gropius is very ill. It's an emergency."
The words suddenly registered. Quickly he pulled himself upright. His disheveled appearance brought the events of the evening back in a flurry. "I'm coming," he called in a panic.
Hurriedly, he jumped up from the bed. He plunged his hands into the icy cold basin on the night stand and splashed his sleepy face with water. Murmurs were coming from Alma's room. He stood listening, wondering what had happened.
Again, someone knocked loudly.
"Herr Werfel!" It was the voice of Frau Redlich. "Herr Werfel, I'm afraid Frau Gropius is hemorrhaging and in a lot of pain. We need your help."
My God, he thought, could it have been....could we have? The idea was too terrible. He yanked at the door knob nervously, stopping the door halfway to peer out.
"I've sent the caretaker to fetch the midwife," she told him. "Run into the village and get the doctor. There's no petrol left in the motorcar and the phones haven't been turned on yet." She spoke with the efficiency and sensibility only middle-aged matrons seemed to know in a crisis. The effect calmed him temporarily.
"Yes! I'll go right away."
"Of course, Lieutenant Gropius will have to be informed. We'll get a specialist from Vienna, but it will be several hours before phone service in the village is turned on."
Franz brushed past her mumbling, "Yes, yes Madame. I'm on my way."
Alma's room seemed cluttered in confusion. She centered her eyes on her daughter Gucki who sat stone-faced at the foot of the bed.
"You'd better go back to your room," she heard Emmy Redlich say. "I will take care of your Mama."
"You go on to bed, Gucki. I'll be all right," Alma assured her, surprised by how much effort it took to speak.
The room began to swirl and sway. Her head was swimming and she felt about to faint. "Herr Werfel?"
"He's gone for the Doctor." It was the last thing she heard before everything went black.
Sometime around dawn, Alma drifted into a dream. It was daylight and she was back at Plankenberg with her mother Anna. They were inside the house, but in her mind's eye she could see the clock tower on top of the gabled roof. The medieval manor and grounds had been part of Prince Liechtenstein's crumbling estate set on two acres at the edge of the Vienna Woods. An imposing iron gate marked the entrance which was surrounded by a row of ancient walnut trees. The grapes had just begun to ripen on the vines and the late summer flowers were in full bloom. Their fragrance and the smell of wood drifted past her nostrils brought on a host of old memories. She was the Princess again, back in her childhood castle.
Someone was playing the piano and her mother Anna was singing Schumann. Suddenly, the door flew open and her father, Emil Schindler, walked in. He'd just returned from a painting trip, a commission from Crown Prince Rudolph who'd written a book he'd wanted Schindler to illustrate.
"Papa!" Alma shouted with excitement.
The sight of her father's broad grin and open arms made her feel warm and happy. She rushed forward to hug him, feeling the strength in his arms as he whisked her up off the floor.
"Only thirteen and already a beauty!" he exclaimed.
When he finally let go, Alma's small arms clung to his waist. "I love you Papa," she said. She kissed his cheek and felt the tingle of his neatly trimmed beard scrape against her lips. "What shall we do today?" she cried, still clinging to him.
Anna followed dutifully behind as he carried Alma to the piano and laid her gently on the bench. "Play for me Princess," he said. "Play all the songs you've composed since I've been away."
Alma could hear the music and see her fingers moving easily over the keyboard. In the dream, she played all afternoon for her father's pleasure. Gradually, the scene faded from their home at Plankenberg to a lonely beach. The place was familiar but strangely, the music wasn't. A woman sang a sad song as the waves crashed against the shore.
"In this grim weather, this raging storm,
I'd never have sent the children outside!
But they've taken them out of the house,
I had no say in the matter."
Alma watched herself as a child dancing along the shallow shoreline, full of wonder and exuberant with the innocence of youth. Each small footprint made a mark in the sand as she dashed in and out of the water. The sad music kept on. Alma giggled and laughed in the salty waves of the North Sea. The sun was bright overhead, but in the distance, a low wall of black, billowy clouds threatened.
Alma recalled a feeling of childish happiness and contentment. The music grew louder, but she kept squealing and laughing. A tall man walked slowly towards her from farther up the beach. It wasn't Papa, it was his assistant, Carl Moll. He kept plodding towards her with his arms swinging. The music, so sorrowful now, grew more intense. A strong wind blew sand against her face.
Carl had almost reached the beach when Alma suddenly turned and ran from him. She ran and ran until she reached the cottage on the North Sea, the Isle of Sylte...a place of great sorrow. The piano played on and the voice lamented.
Alma opened the gate to the cottage and to her horror, she saw a tall bronze statue standing in the front garden. "Papa?" she cried.
The bronze lips on the statue of Emil Schindler remained closed. The rain splashed against the cold metal and dribbled down the outstretched palm of his hand.
Suddenly she was running again. She ran into the house. Her mother sat playing the piano with her back to the door. She was singing the music, the sad music, Mahler's Die Kindertotenlieder, Songs of Dead Children.
Alma was overcome with tears. She turned to run out of the house but Carl was blocking the door. She tried to push past him, but couldn't. The children's funeral bell rang, and the final chords of Mahler's music peacefully and quietly died away.
"He's dead Alma. Your Papa is dead." Carl's cold eyes fell on hers as he said it.
She turned to the piano where her mother sat staring at a crucifix on the wall. "Oh Mama," Alma cried. "Papa is dead."
Anna's heavy torso twisted slowly until she was looking straight at Alma. She wasn't crying. Her face was shaded and her eyes hollow slits. Her dry white lips opened and she uttered a whispery warning. "You, my daughter, carry the legacy of an unfulfilled prophecy," she hissed. "It was a long time ago. I was told I would die at age 39 giving birth to a son!. Now my fate falls to you my dear, because...I didn't die, Alma. I didn't die."
Alma struggled to wake from the paralyzing dream. The pain kept her from sitting up. She lay against her pillow staring through the darkness, alone. The faces of her father and Mahler lingered in the fog. The prophetic words of her mother and the mournful voices of Die Kindertotenlieder whispered omens from the open window. A cruel breeze blew raindrops against the leaves on the linden tree.
"Papa!" she whispered. "Gustav!"
No one answered. The faces were sucked into the gloom that surrounded the dark lonely bedroom as the memories returned. Now that she was about to die, she looked back on her life. In the warmth of the quilt tucked around her body, she felt the tender caresses of all her lovers at once; Werfel, Gropius, Kokoschka...and Mahler. He was the clearest of all. She knew then that she hadn't really loved any of them, except Gustav. She would always love him, and music. Always, music.