Satellite trucks will be struggling through dense Czech forests in the first week of July, heading to cover a ceremony of extraordinary ambivalence.
July 7 marks the 150th birthday of the composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), the most influential symphonist after Beethoven and, with Freud and Picasso, one of the makers of modern culture.
Mahler, who directed the Vienna Opera and the New York Philharmonic, was born in the highland village of Kalischt and grew up in the military town of Iglau. While the Bohemia-Moravia borderland was a German-speaking region and Mahler was a Jew, relations among Czechs, Germans and different faiths were amicable, so much so that the boy sang in a church choir and picked up much folklore.
He left to study in Vienna at 15 and never returned, though that is not why the region disowned him. History in these parts is a patchwork alternation of placid co-existence and merciless cruelty. When the Czechs formed their first republic in 1918, Iglau was renamed Jihlava and not much else changed. Hitler’s troops marched in on May 15, 1939, forcibly evicted all 1,200 Jews and set fire to the synagogue.
Six years later, German residents were driven out by vengeful Czechs. Today, around Jihlava, the past is a distant country of which little is known and less spoken, hence the hedgy attitude toward Mahler, the region’s only claim to creative fame.
With the composer’s anniversary looming and tourism in a slump, Jihlava put in for a European Union grant to restore Mahler’s boyhood home. At the foot of the medieval town square, “House GM” has squatted for decades with just a brass plaque on its outer wall, the interior preserved pretty much as the tumbledown multifamily dwelling that Mahler fled.
External funds and municipal zeal now have turned it into an all-purpose museum of impeccable EU blandness, replete with children’s playroom, safety requisites and dreary exhibitions of mediocre modern artists. All that remains of Mahler’s time is the dank cellar where his father brewed brandy, and the public bar upstairs, which has become a somnolent cafe. The German and Jewish heritages have been glossed over, laments Alena Jakubickova, a local historian.
North of the square, the town also got around to doing something about the synagogue desecrated 71 years ago. The rubble has gone and the site is renamed Gustav Mahler Park, to be opened on July 7 with a televised performance of his Resurrection Symphony, featuring soloists Anne-Sofie von Otter and Birgitte Christensen and the augmented Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck.
The streets of Jihlava have been festooned with Mahler banners in anticipation of the big day. Still, my fellow bus passengers knew nothing about him. Only the national composers Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek are taught in schools. The town archivist, Renata Piskova, who conserved Mahler’s schoolwork, told me that under Communism she had been forbidden to waste public time on this foreigner.
Twenty miles away, through thick forest and rolling meadows, lies the sleepy village of Kaliste (formerly Kalischt). There’s not a soul on its streets at 6 p.m. on a Monday evening.
The composer’s birthplace has twice burned down. Over the past 16 years, with the help of the American baritone Thomas Hampson and other musicians, it has been restored by Jiri Stilec, owner of a Prague record label and president of the Czech Mahler Society.
“Mahler for me is a mission,” Stilec tells me, “a way of building a better society. I understand Mahler as a message of a lost harmony -- among the nations who once lived here, Czechs, Germans and Jews. Now, only Czechs live here.”
Stilec has converted the wayside ruin into a bijou hotel, owned and operated by the village. There’s a small recital room, where Hampson will perform on July 7. Guests can stay in the house where Mahler was born, owned and operated by the village -- http://www.mahler-penzion.cz/en/ -- and wake up to the birdsong that fills his first symphony.
Mahler described Kaliste as a miserable place -- the name means “muddy pond” in Czech -- but the surroundings are heavenly and the silence so pervasive it feels tangible. Newborn lambs tottered into the yard as I departed. No other great composer lets you sleep in his home. Mahler, the eternal outsider, has a place at last to call his own.
(Norman Lebrecht is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own. His book “Why Mahler?” will be published by Pantheon in the fall.)