Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Vienna -- Pebbles on Gustav Mahler's grave

 Pebbles on the top of Mahler's tomb, following Jewish tradition. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

We are in the midst of Gustav Mahler year -- a double whammy anniversary: July marked the 150th anniversary of his birth; next May marks the 100th anniversary of his death.

Researching a couple of articles (see my article in the nytimes.com here), I spent much of the past few days following the footsteps of  young Gustav  in central Moravia -- the lovely Vysocina upland region, one of my favorite parts of the Czech Republic. I stayed in the pension that now occupies the house Mahler was born in in the village of Kaliste, found the gravestones of his grandparents in the Jewish cemetery in Ledec nad Sazavou, visited various Mahler haunts including Zeliv, the village where his first love lived (and committed suicide), and the house in Jihlava, where the composer lived until the age of 15 and which is now a Mahler museum; I also spent hours driving through the wonderful landscape, listening all the while to Mahler symphonies on the car stereo..... (more on all this in a later post, with pictures).

I skipped over his adult life as a composer, conductor, world star and -- because of anti-Semitism -- a convert to Catholicism in order to get the job of director of the Vienna Opera.

But I did conclude my Mahler weekend with a pilgrimage to his grave in the Catholic cemetery in Grinzing, a wine-making village now on the northern outskirts of Vienna.

Mahler's tomb is a simple upright slab. And on its top, in Jewish tradition, visitors to the grave have placed little stones in his memory (I did so myself). As far as I can see, his is the only tombstone in the cemetery where people have done this.

PS -- Mahler's widow, Alma, is also buried in the cemetery in the next row (other family members are also interred there, too). Which compels me irresistibly to attach this video of the classic Tom Lehrer song about Alma and her three prominent husbands: Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel.

Lehrer wrote his song after Alma died in 1964. As he put it:
Last December 13th, there appeared in the newspapers the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary that has ever been my pleasure to read. It was that of a lady name Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel who had, in her lifetime, managed to acquire as lovers practically all of the top creative men in central Europe, and, among these lovers, who were listed in the obituary, by the way, which was what made it so interesting, there were three whom she went so far as to marry.

One of the leading composers of the day: Gustav Mahler, composer of Das Lied von der Erde and other light classics. One of the leading architects: Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus school of design. And one of the leading writers: Franz Werfel, author of the song of Bernadette and other masterpieces. It's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished. It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years. It seemed to me, I'm reading this obituary, that the story of Alma was the stuff of which ballads should be made so here is one.

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