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Popular Culture Association National Conference

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Alma Mahler, musicology, music reception, music performance, YouTube


The life and work of many nineteenth-century women composers cannot be satisfactorily studied or understood due to a lack of documentary evidence. In the case of Alma Mahler, however, it is not a lack of manuscript materials or biographical accounts that preclude the appraisal of her legacy, but rather the sheer volume and often contradictory nature of accounts. Although her early life writing emphasized the importance of music, she later downplayed her identity as a composer and emphasized her role of patron of the arts and muse to “great men.” I would argue, however, that if biography is a tool to understand the life and work of an individual, the best means of understanding a composer’s work is investigating their music, its reception, and ongoing performance. In this paper, I posit that Mahler’s biography as a composer is best understood by studying the performance of her songs. This is important, and potentially controversial, given how Mahler cultivated her preferred identity as a “muse to genius” through her later life writings. My work underlines the tension between the desire to believe women as they present their truth, and new possibilities to shape a legacy beyond the roles of wife and mother that were frequently unavailable to nineteenth century women artists.



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