Mahler and Women

Family and Patrons, Muses and Activists

New York Philharmonic

Alma and Gustav Mahler (1909)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Mahler and Women

Women figured prominently in Gustav Mahler’s life in New York. In fact, he came to the Philharmonic in 1909 thanks to one resolute woman: Mary Seney Sheldon, a wealthy socialite determined to transform the Orchestra, then 67 years old, into a world-class ensemble. Among the women in Mahler’s life were Alma, his much-younger wife; their daughter Anna, alternately ignored and adored by her father; and Maud Powell, a self-possessed American violin virtuoso. Protests advocating for women’s suffrage were a fact of life during Mahler’s time in New York.

Mary Seney Sheldon (1881) by George Peter Alexander HealyOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

A woman from Brooklyn​

Born in 1863, Mary Seney Sheldon descended from a family that had been actively involved in the early American republic. One of nine children, as a teenager she lived at 4 Montague Terrace, in Brooklyn Heights. Her father was the president of the Metropolitan Bank in Manhattan, who, in 1881, gave half a million dollars to establish the Methodist Hospital in Park Slope. At 18 Mary married George Rumsey Sheldon, a Harvard graduate with his own banking firm in New York City. The couple would have two daughters, kept a yacht at Glen Cove, and opened their home in Manhattan's Murray Hill neighborhood for frequent musicales.​

Gustav Mahler, S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm II (October 1910)Original Source: Mahler Foundation

Mary Sheldon reveals her vision for the Philharmonic
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Musical America, 1908. Read by Marion Cotrone.

List of Guarantor Committee members (1909) by New York PhilharmonicOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The first woman president was a visionary​

By 1908 the New York Philharmonic had fallen on hard times. Performing fewer than 15 concerts a year, the Orchestra did not provide steady employment to musicians and, subsequently, was unable to attract the best players. A group of wealthy, music-loving New Yorkers led by Mary Sheldon determined that the 66-year-old Philharmonic was worthy of reorganization and modernization. Sheldon and her colleagues raised $300,000 (equal to more than $3.5 million today) to make America's oldest symphony orchestra also its best.Those enlisted to help financially included John D. Rockefeller, J. Pierpont Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, and August Belmont.​

Press Clippings Page 2 (1908-12-09/1909-12-12)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Mary Sheldon discusses the "new" Philharmonic
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Musical America, February 4, 1911. Read by Marion Cotrone.

Musical America, Vol. VIII, No. 16 (1908-08-29)Original Source: Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals (RIPM)

A skeptical evaluation of changes at the Philharmonic
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Musical America, August 29, 1908. Read by Brendan Timins.

Press Clippings Clipping, Minnie Untermyer, Mary Sheldon, and Walter Damrosch (1909-01-05) by Public LedgerOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Fighting the naysayers

Two and a half years after Mary Sheldon began, The Musical Courier supported her vision: “A woman, forceful as well as tender, with a consuming love of art and a deep love for humanity, has, by the aid of a few friends and her own determination, provided New York with a great orchestra, a thing that never existed until this new combination took matters in hand. Like almost everyone who does something extraordinary for the world, this woman, outside of her immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, has not received the appreciation due her. Mrs. George R. Sheldon ... is the lady who has wrought this marvel, and it is high time the American musical public was convinced of the fact.”​

Musical America, Vol. XVIII, No. 7 (1913-06-21)Original Source: Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals (RIPM)

Mary Sheldon died in June 1913 — just five years after she launched her reorganization plan and hired Gustav Mahler as Music Director. She was just one month shy of her 50th birthday.​

Alma Mahler (February 1909) by Madame d'OraOriginal Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Mahler's wife, Alma

When Gustav Mahler married Alma Schindler in 1902, after a tempestuous courtship, he was two decades older than thehis 22-year-old bride. Alma, who had grown up in Viennese artistic circles, was a gifted amateur pianist, and her composition teacher, Alexander Zemlinsky, thought she had promise as a composer. But on marrying Gustav, Alma put aside her own ambitions and became his muse, cheerleader, nurse, and even accountant. As her husband informed her in a letter: “The role of composer falls to me, yours is that of loving companion.”​

Alma Mahler, Anna Mahler, Maria Mahler (circa 1904)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Alma Mahler recalls her final Christmas with Gustav
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Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, edited by Donald Mitchell. Read by Nishi Badhwar.

Gustav and Anna Mahler (1909)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The daughter, Anna

Anna Mahler was born in 1904, the second of two daughters of Alma and Gustav Mahler. (The elder child died at a young age). Anna lived a peripatetic life: Mahler’s conducting appointments took them around Europe and to the United States, and every summer they retired to a mountainside retreat in Austria, where he composed. Anna did not know her father well; he was obsessed with his work and, after all, he died when she was only seven years old. But her memories of him capture his charm and warmth.​

Anna Mahler was musically gifted, but preferred the fine arts. She studied painting with Giorgio de Chirico, and found her métier as a sculptor. She was acclaimed for her work, and died in 1988 while preparing an exhibition of her sculptures.

Anna and Gustav Mahler in Central Park (1910)Original Source: Kaplan Foundation

Anna Mahler recounts memories with her father in New York​
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William Malloch's "I Remember Mahler," New York Philharmonic: The Mahler Broadcasts, 1948–1982

Maud Powell (1904) by Hermann ErnstOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The violinist, Maud Powell

At a time when musicians and conductors in this country were men, and most of those men were German, Maud Powell was the great anomaly: an American woman whose virtuosity on the violin made her an international star.​

Powell was born 1867 in Peru, Illinois. Her father was an educator, and her mother was an amateur musician active in the women's suffrage movement. Maud began violin lessons at age seven, and later studied widely in Europe. She made her New York debut in 1885, at age 18, with the New York Philharmonic.​

Powell toured to great acclaim, appearing with such conductors as Damrosch, Saint-Saëns, Safonov, Seidl, Herbert, and Stokowski. She gave the American premieres of concertos by Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, and Sibelius, and was among the first solo instrumentalists to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Powell died in 1920.

Maud Powell (circa 1900)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Mendelssohn: "Allegro molto vivace" from Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
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On May 20, 1909, Maud Powell recorded several pieces of music, among them the finale of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor. It is one of the works she performed with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Mahler. Powell wrote this arrangement for violin and piano.

Naxos Historical release Maud Powell: The Complete Recordings, Vol. 3

Program (1909-12-03) by New York PhilharmonicOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Maud Powell with the Philharmonic

After training with noted teachers in Europe, 18-year-old violinist Maud Powell made her New York debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on November 14, 1885. Theodore Thomas led the concert, in which she played Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1. The New York Times reported: "The young lady was warmly received by the audience, and her performance … was applauded with much heartiness."​

Maud Powell (circa 1910)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Maud Powell talks about her experience with Mahler and the New York Philharmonic
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Excerpt from an unpublished biography of Powell by her husband and manager, H. Godfrey Turner, on her experience of working with Mahler in 1909, a triumph over misunderstandings. Read by Erin Roy.

Women's Suffrage March (1917)Original Source: League of Women Voters of the City of New York

"Hurrah for Woman Suffrage," with lyrics by Nettie Metcalf to "Dixie"
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Women's suffrage

Mahler arrived in New York at a moment when American women’s fight for the right to vote was reaching a pinnacle of agitation. The women’s suffrage movement, which sought in particular the empowerment of working women, proceeded hand in hand with the rise of unions.​

Although historians tend to characterize American suffragism as middle-class, the movement had a more complex character in New York. The first New York City Woman Suffrage Association was formed by generally elite or high-society professional women, among them such members of the Philharmonic’s new leadership as Minnie Untermyer. In the spring of 1910, New York's largest suffrage march to-date took place, with thousands of women marching (and driving) down Fifth Avenue. Beginning at the 59th Street corner of Central Park, the marchers passed The Savoy Hotel, where Mahler stayed, and ended in Union Square at 14th Street. Protest songs, which put new lyrics to familiar tunes, were part of the demonstrations.

Hurrah for Woman Suffrage! Songs of the Woman Suffrage Movement 1848‑1920, Miriam Reed Productions, 1995

Women's suffrage event (1910)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

A woman as Mahler's boss?

The group that Mary Sheldon assembled to help restructure the Philharmonic and hire Gustav Mahler was characterized as being made up of meddling women with too much money and time on their hands. But while women were among those who made decisions and held positions of power, there were men as well. This group was successful in its goals: to modernize the New York Philharmonic, to make it the best symphony orchestra in the city, and hire to an internationally renowned conductor.​

Why did these women think they could be successful? Were they influenced by the burgeoning women’s movements of the day? It was a brief window of opportunity for women at the Philharmonic; it would be 70 years before another woman would hold a position of comparable responsibility.

Youngest parader in New York City suffragist parade (1912-05-04/1912-05-06) by American Press AssociationOriginal Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Newspapers report on suffrage events during Mahler’s tenure at the Philharmonic
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The New York Times, February 2, 1909, and June 10, 1910. Read by Brendan Timins.

Alma Mahler (February 1909) by Madame d'OraNew York Philharmonic

More on Mahler's New York

Mahler in New York

Mahler's First Symphony

Mahler as Interpreter

Mahler and Musicians

Walking Mahler's New York: A Digital Walking Tour

Mahler's New York: A Digital Festival from the New York Philharmonic

Credits: Story

Created by the New York Philharmonic Archives
Gabryel Smith, Director, Archives & Exhibitions
Sarah Palermo, Assistant Archivist
Bill Levay, Digital Archivist

Adapted from original exhibit Mahler in New York
Curated and written by: Barbara Haws and Bob Sandla
Music Commentary on First Symphony: Charles Z. Bornstein
Biographies: Kristen Houkom
Text Readers: Nishi Badhwar, Forrest Buckman, Marion Cotrone, Erin Roy, Brendan Timins
Audio Engineer: Lawrence Rock

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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