Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Mary Sharratt - Ecstasy - Book Review

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Mary Sharratt's new book, Ecstasy.  A fiction based on fact  book about composer, Alma Mahler, who was the wife of composer Gustav Mahler.  Many thanks to her publisher for sending me the book.   

Below is my review of Ecstasy with hopes that you the readers of my blog will read the book.  

The late 19th century was witness to three women composers of renown – Clara Wieck Schumann, Fanny Mendelsohn Hensel and Alma Schindler Mahler.  All three had their compositional talents repressed by the men in their lives - Clara’s husband, Robert, and Fanny by both her brother Felix and father.  Alma Mahler’s pianistic skills, as well as her intuitive and subtle understanding of music, portray a woman of musical talent beyond the norm.  Her career was stifled by not only her mother but her composition teachers and future husband.  Clara and Alma’s husbands were over-achieving and depressed individuals. 

In Mary Sharratt’s new book, Ecstasy, we are given an in-depth look at the music and life of Alma Mahler.  Sharratt takes us on an emotional and musical journey with its highs bordering manic behavior to lows of despair. And, through it all the author guides the reader to see Alma as a woman who not only survives what comes her way, but finds her own life’s path choosing whatever manner she deems correct for herself.  Ecstasy, an historical and coming of age book, is one to read slowly while you absorb an era long gone.

History tells us that Alma was not a soft, demure person.  She was anti-Semitic yet married twice someone of the Jewish faith.  She had her edges and demands based on her family’s connection to the rich and famous of Vienna. 

Alma’s allure caused artist Gustav Klimt to give her her first kiss.  He wanted to paint her and seduce her.  Alexander von Zemlinsky taught her piano and yearned for her.  He saw her passionate understanding of the poetry she set to music.  Penniless and knowing he could not afford to support her in the manner she was brought to expect, he desperately wanted to marry her.  Alma, who caught the eye of nearly every man of importance in Vienna, was a beauty with a personality that absorbed adulation.

Vienna’s high society parties, the opera house, walks in the park and the beautiful clothing worn by the rich are described by the author with vivid attention to detail.  The reader felt immersed in the moment of Vienna’s magical glory.

The depth of research about Alma Mahler is apparent from the opening sentence of the book.  We are introduced to her accompanying her mother, a soprano, singing art songs.  Alma is easily drawn to the audience member, Gustav Klimt, who has given her a great deal of attention.  Thus begins the path of each man who enters her life.  A slight flirtation by this beautiful woman and men become her love interest.  With great concern over proper behavior and correct manners, she insists her music comes first.  Her songs with their painstaking choice of texts to express her longings, despair and ongoing fear of love express what is suppressed in her.

Ms. Sharratt’s colorful and descriptive language paints for the reader a woman of some naiveté whose underlying goal is to marry a man of fame and be kept as properly as she wants.  We see a soft, feminine side with disappointment and despair that make us sympathetic to her. 

At the opera, Alma is introduced to Gustav Mahler. 
Her infatuation with the famous composer and conductor, a man considerably older than she, becomes intense and his interest in her is ignited.  Her mother and stepfather voice their concern over her involvement with someone of the Jewish faith.  They express to Alma the crime of her future children having a Jewish father.  No one will stop Alma from marrying a man of high esteem in the music world who would not disregard her songs and who she loves passionately.

The couple’s engagement and marriage were the highlight of Vienna’s season with the press following their every move.  Sharratt captures the monetary woes, destination travel exhaustion and two creative personalities bound together in love and a husband’s career.  With clarity she describes the roller coaster marriage of Gustav and Alma.  She leads the reader to believe you are one of the characters involved in their everyday happenings. Gustav’s total commitment to his conducting career and in his off-season vacation, composing, leave Alma alone, void of a partner to participate in her emotions and desires.  She has become, in some ways, a trophy wife who is deeply loved yet must understand her place as wife, mother and organizer of her composer husband’s hectic career.  With the loss of their oldest daughter, a chasm of grief and non-communication grows.  Sharratt’s writing connects us with Alma’s grief and the reader hopes she will come through this time.  We feel her doubts and anger.  We crave for her to express herself in a more forthright fashion.

Alma’s passions and desires culminate in an affair with architect Walter Gropius, who would become her second husband.  She has made a decision of the heart to attend to what she defines is her need for love and understanding.  She openly admits to ardently loving both men.  When Mahler challenges her about the affair, Alma returns to him.  Mahler falls ill and she becomes his caretaker until his death.  Only after his death, does she realize how much Gustav wanted her to be his soul mate, the love of his life and the person who kept him grounded amidst the demands of his music career. 

Author Mary Sharratt completes Ecstasy with Alma’s return to her lover, Walter.  A confrontation between the two questioning each other’s fidelity and love is a scene where Sharratt leaves the reader with a view of the woman Alma was in real life.  Alma was a determined, self-absorbed, articulate woman in control of her life no matter what may come her way. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

A Memory

Recently a CD of turn of the century symphonic works was released on the Naxos label.  Entitled American Romantics III,  the CD includes works by Carl Busch, Edward MacDowell, Charles Wakefield Cadman, Cecil Burleigh, Ludwig Bonvin, David Stanley Smith and Gena Branscombe.  The music is performed by the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Reuben Blundell

All the music on the CD was provided by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia.  Edwin Fleisher (1877-1959) did not intend to have an orchestral library but rather a Symphony Club that trained students interested in playing orchestral music.  One of the first employees of the Symphony Club was William Happich (1884-1959), a teacher and conductor.  For his students, Happich would arrange works from the collection.  Miss Branscombe’s violin and piano work, “A Memory” was arranged for harp and strings.  The work is beautifully played on the CD.

Two months after the CD was released in late April, Miss Branscombe’s original 1911 violin/piano sheet music for “A Memory” came up for sale on E-bay. 
Several days later her “An Old Love Tale” also composed for violin and piano came up for sale.  Both works were published by Arthur P. Schmidt of Boston and are inscribed to Ilse Niemack with good wishes to her from Gena Branscombe.  Ilse was an American violinist and composer who concertized across the United States.  She was known for having a warm tone and a sincerity of expression.

Gena Branscombe dedicated “An Old Love Tale” to Kathleen Parlow, a Canadian born violinist nicknamed “The lady of the golden bow”. 

Congratulations to the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra for releasing these lesser known American works.  What a gift to the music world at large.