Sorry, this episode is not currently available on BBC iPlayer Radio

There are so many versions of Gustav Mahler that you can pick your own: the ultimate visionary who slipped mysteriously into obscurity for almost a century, the conducting genius recreated in a Ken Russell film, or perhaps the mystical figure re-imagined in the works of jazz musicians and electronic composers. And then there's one of the most fascinating Mahlers of them all: the one portrayed by his wife Alma in a famously controversial yet compelling biography.

This week Donald Macleod explores this alluring source, and with it the last decade of the composer's life - the 'Alma' years. It's a portrait which says as much about the biographer as her subject. We meet a seductress, magnetically drawn to the greatest artists of her time, and who admitted openly that her love was more for Mahler's creative powers than anything else. But she was also an essential part of Mahler's life, helping to create a stable background for a man utterly obsessed with music both as composer and conductor.

Through her, we glimpse Mahler's many passions and foibles: his quest for physical fitness, his dedication to his home city of Vienna despite the open hostility it returned him, and his emotional frailties which led him to a famed consultation with Sigmund Freud. We see Alma's weaknesses to, not least her marital infidelity which rocked their marriage in Mahler's last years.

The music includes many of his most impassioned works: the fateful 'hammer blows' of the Symphony no.6, the emotional devastation of the Kindertotenlieder encapsulating Mahler's response to the death of his brother in childhood, and the gargantuan 'Symphony of a Thousand' written in a flurry of emotion at his composition retreat.

There's also a rare chance to hear Alma Mahler's own songs, kept from publication until Mahler encouraged her to release them at the very end of his career. And we also hear from a landmark BBC broadcast, the first presentation of the posthumously completed Symphony no.10, a programme which Alma Mahler embargoed from repeat transmission. It's an insight not just into the compositional mind of its creator, but also Alma's ardent belief in herself as the guardian of his legacy.

To open the week, Donald Macleod sets the scene for Mahler's relationship with his wife, from her unflattering account of his clumsiness at their wedding to happy memories of the private symphony premieres he would give her at the piano.

Release date:

1 hour

Last on

Mon 30 May 2011 12:00

Composer Help Page


Find resources and contacts for composers from within the classical music industry.

Take a tour of Ravel's house

At Ravel's house at Montfort l'Amaury

Sara Mohr-Pietsch reveals Ravel's character in his exquisitely-decorated house near Paris

The absurdly talented Herr Mendelssohn


Donald Macleod reveals Mendelssohn's gift for sketching and watercolours.

Composers A to Z


Visit the extensive audio archive of Radio 3 programmes about Composers and their works.