In the glittering hotbed of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Vienna, one woman’s life would define and defy an era.
Coming of age in the midst of a creative and cultural whirlwind, young, beautiful Alma Schindler yearns to make her mark as a composer. A brand-new era of possibility for women is dawning and she is determined to make the most of it. But Alma loses her heart to the great composer Gustav Mahler, nearly twenty years her senior. He demands that she give up her music as a condition for their marriage. Torn by her love and in awe of his genius,
In the glittering hotbed of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Vienna, one woman’s life would define and defy an era.
Coming of age in the midst of a creative and cultural whirlwind, young, beautiful Alma Schindler yearns to make her mark as a composer. A brand-new era of possibility for women is dawning and she is determined to make the most of it. But Alma loses her heart to the great composer Gustav Mahler, nearly twenty years her senior. He demands that she give up her music as a condition for their marriage. Torn by her love and in awe of his genius, how will she remain true to herself and her artistic passion?
Part cautionary tale, part triumph of the feminist spirit, Ecstasy reveals the true Alma Mahler: composer, author, daughter, sister, mother, wife, lover, and muse.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- April 2019
- 416 Pages
“This winning historical novel offers an enjoyable portrait of an ambitious woman whose struggles are as relevant today as they were a century ago.”—Publishers Weekly
“[Sharratt] has in-depth knowledge of classical music and turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna…Recommended for readers who like the peaks and valleys of nonstop drama.”—Library Journal
1. Did you know anything about Alma Mahler before you read this novel? If so, what opinion did you have of her before you read Ecstasy? Did this book change your view? How did Mary Sharratt’s portrayal of Alma differ from that of other books you’ve read or from films you’ve seen?
2. Young Alma Schindler comes of age in the glittering hotbed of turn-of-the-twentieth century Vienna—birthplace of radical new art. Her first love is none other than Gustav Klimt. Alma yearns to make her mark as a composer. What hurdles and opposition does she face as an ambitious woman in this era?
3 . Early 1900s Vienna is cosmopolitan and sophisticated, but it’s also a place of deep-seated, culturally ingrained antisemitism and misogyny. What shadows do these two forms of bigotry and hatred cast on the characters in the novel?
4 . Under the tutelage of her mentor and lover, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Alma has made great progress with her music and has drafted the beginnings of an opera. Then she meets the great composer Gustav Mahler at a dinner party. She and Gustav fall deeply in love, but he demands that she give up her music as a condition of their marriage. Torn by her love and in awe of his genius, she reluctantly consents. Why do you think she agreed to this despite the heartbreak it caused her? Why did she choose Mahler over Zemlinsky, who would have supported her development as a composer?
5 . Gustav Mahler’s friends are horrified when they discover he intends to marry Alma, nineteen years his junior. They view her as a frivolous socialite, unworthy of him. Likewise, Zemlinsky tries to persuade Alma that this match is ill-advised. If you were Alma or Gustav’s friend, what advice would you have given? Do you think they were mismatched?
6 . How do Alma and Gustav change and grow during the course of their life together? How does Alma cope, now that she is forbidden to compose? What repercussions does this have on their marriage? Do you see any similarities between Alma’s plight and that of other accomplished women who set aside their careers and ambitions for marriage?
7. While Alma has sacrificed her music for marriage, her friend, Ilse Conrat, perseveres with her creative career and goes on to become a renowned sculptor. Why do you think Ilse succeeded in fully realizing her artistic ambitions, despite the double prejudice that she faced, as both a woman and a Jew? When Alma follows Gustav to New York, she meets other high-achieving women, including Natalie Curtis, ethnomusicologist, composer, and activist, and Mary Seney Sheldon, the first president of the New York Philharmonic. How does encountering these women in New York alter the course of Alma’s life?
8 . What do you think of Alma’s affair with Walter Gropius? Why do you think he sent a love letter to Alma in an envelope addressed to Gustav? How does Gustav’s discovery of the affair change their marriage? Do you feel more sympathy with Gustav or Alma at this point in the story?
9 . Having read this novel, what do you make of Alma’s character? Do you see her as a “bad woman,” as some biographers and Mahler fans have done? What’s your opinion on Alma? Can you identify with her as a character? Or are you repelled by her? What do you think of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s observation that well-behaved women seldom make history? Do you think we’d still be talking about Alma today if she had behaved herself?
10. Tom Lehrer’s famous “Alma Song” (you can listen to the original 1965 recording here.) begs the question: Alma, tell us. All modern women are jealous. Which of your magical wands Got you Gustav and Walter and Franz? As Lehrer points out, Alma married—or had affairs with—some of the greatest creative geniuses of her time. Why do you think these men were drawn to her? What was her secret? What do you think of the title of this novel, Ecstasy? What ecstasies does Alma experience and impart on those around her?
11. Have you read Mary’s other books? How does Alma Mahler compare to some of Mary’s other historical heroines such as Hildegard of Bingen in Illuminations or Aemilia Bassano Lanier in The Dark Lady’s Mask?
Here is where my awakening shall occur, Alma told herself.
In magical Venice, in the spring of the year and the spring of her life. Never mind that it was pouring rain and fog hung as thickly as wool.
In the hotel salon, she played piano, accompanying her mother who sang lieder to entertain their fellow tourists sheltering from the miserable weather. How beautiful was her mother’s soprano, how flawless her diction. Mama had been an opera singer before she married Alma’s father, now almost seven years dead.
At the song’s close came a burst of applause. Alma beamed at her audience. Sitting among the English and German tourists were Gretl; their stepfather, Carl; and his colleague Gustav Klimt, who seemed to regard Alma with amused speculation. For Easter, Herr Klimt had given her a silly card of a shepherdess encircled by adoring sheep sporting gentlemen’s hats—Alma kept it tucked in her journal.
He is so handsome, she thought, heat rising in her face. With his powerful body, his curly hair and beard, he reminded her of the figures on ancient Greek vases. If Gustav Klimt had even the faintest clue how infatuated she was, she would die. Thirty-seven years old, the most celebrated painter in all Vienna, he could marry a countess just by snapping his fingers.
Nonetheless, Alma made herself stare right back at him to prove she wasn’t some giddy girl he could disarm with a smile.
Her stepfather was so fond of Klimt, he had all but begged him to join them on their journey through Italy even though Klimt swore that he hated foreign travel and was terrible with languages. As a painter, Carl was nowhere near as brilliant as Klimt—or Emil Schindler, whose protégé Carl had been. Klimt and Papa are giants, Alma told herself. But Carl was a lesser talent who hung on to the coattails of the great in hope that some of their glory might rub off on him. It wasn’t that her stepfather was a bad man, but Alma often wondered why Mama seemed to worship him.
Alma set her sights higher. Nothing less than a man of brilliance would do for her, a truly modern man who understood her need to continue composing even after she was married. She wasn’t one, like her sister, to settle for the very first suitor. Gretl was engaged to the tedious Wilhelm Legler, a painter of almost numbing mediocrity. No, Alma vowed to wait for the right man, the one whose love would help her unfold to her highest purpose.
Rising from the piano bench, Alma was gathering up her music scores when an elderly English lady approached her.
“Fräulein, you played so beautifully, like a concert pianist,” she said. “Tell me, who was the composer?”
“I am,” Alma replied. She lowered her eyes.
“My daughter composed all eight lieder we performed,” Mama added, with warmth and pride.
The English lady seemed most impressed. She grasped Alma’s hands. “Keep on composing, won’t you, dear? Show the men that we women can achieve something.”
Alma found herself flushing and speechless, seized with both a bottomless joy and an ambition that left her breathless. Many a girl showed talent and promise only to give it up for marriage, as Mama had done when she was only twenty-one and pregnant—out of wedlock!—with Alma. But wasn’t a new age dawning, all the rules for art, music, and society changing at once?
As the English lady and her companions took their leave, Gretl announced that she was dying for a game of whist, so Mama and Carl sat down with her at the card table. But Alma could think of no pastime more deadening to the intellect and spirit. Mumbling her excuses, she carried her music scores upstairs to the room that she and Gretl were sharing.
Closing the door behind her, Alma sank into an armchair and buried herself in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which Mama considered unseemly for a young girl. But Mama had long given up trying to control what Alma read. You’re so stubborn, her mother was always saying. So boneheaded.
Yet truth be told, Alma was rapidly losing patience with Emma Bovary. She found the character incomprehensible. Her madness, her degrading love affairs, her endless lying to herself and others—was this woman flighty, cowardly, or simply coarse and common?
Tossing the book aside, Alma opened the French doors and stepped out on the balcony to breathe in the fresh, cool air now that the rain had finally let up. The canal below was gray with a shimmer of yellow as the sun broke through gaps in the fog. Gray was her favorite color, the way it so seamlessly merged with other hues. An artist’s daughter, she observed how every raindrop on the balcony rail became a gleaming pearl. The crumbling palazzos across the canal seemed almost rosy. Everything flickered and glowed in dreamy gray light.
Hearing a noise in the room, Alma left the balcony and stepped inside.
“Gretl?” she called. She had left the door unlocked since her sister was always forgetting her key.
Instead, she found Gustav Klimt standing in the middle of her room. Her heart began to pound even as she told herself that he must be looking for Carl and had wandered in here by mistake.
“Alma,” he said. “Are you on your own?”
“Why, yes,” she said, without thinking. “The others are—”
Before she could finish her sentence, Klimt crossed the room in two huge strides. A gasp caught in her throat as he pulled her body against his, kissing her with vehemence and heat, his lips firm and insistent, his beard bristling against her chin. Her first kiss.
What magic was this? It was as though her hidden longing had summoned him straight into her embrace. Time seemed to drop away, everything before or after this single moment diminishing into nothingness as the ecstasy surged inside her, crashing like a wave inside her heart.
Klimt cupped her face to his. “I could see all the passion locked inside you while you were playing the piano. The time has come to set it free.”
She trembled just to gaze into his gray green eyes.
“Love me,” he whispered, running his fingers around her lips.
She tenderly caressed his hair, feeling the thick, springy curls twining around her fingertips. She kissed him with a hunger that left her aching. The soft quivering in her belly and knees was countered by a shooting heat, a rising energy that made her want to dance. But instead of losing herself in her frenzy, she made herself slow down, kissing him with deliberation, savoring each nuance of his lips against hers, her chest against his, their lungs swelling in unison as if sharing the same breath. All the dusty descriptions of love scenes she had read in Madame Bovary and elsewhere seemed meaningless now. This was what passion, what awakening, truly was.
When Klimt asked if he could take out her hairpins, Alma nodded, moved beyond speech. He pulled them out one by one until her brown hair fell over her shoulders like a cloak. As if in holy awe, Klimt drew back and stared.
“How I long to paint you.”