On the Trail of Gustav Mahler
By RUTH ELLEN GRUBER
Published: October 15, 2010KALISTE, CZECH REPUBLIC — I slept very well in the house where Gustav Mahler was born, waking in the morning to the bright sound of chirping birds in the trees outside my window.Once a shop and tavern run by the composer’s father, Mahler’s birthplace is now a snug, family-run pension whose amenities include a modern little concert hall as well as a cozy, wood-paneled pub.
Born on July 7, 1860, Mahler spent only the first few months of his life here before his family moved to the busy regional center of Jihlava, known in German as Iglau, about 30 kilometers, or 20 miles, away.
But Kaliste remains an essential stop for Mahler pilgrims, and I made the sleepy little hamlet my headquarters when I spent a late-summer weekend following the trail of the composer’s early life in the beautiful Vysocina highlands of Bohemia and Moravia.
This year and next mark two Mahler anniversaries: 150 years since his birth in Kaliste and, in May, 100 years since his death in Vienna.
Kicked off by a gala commemorative concert in Kaliste on Mahler’s birthday, the anniversaries are being celebrated with performances, festivals, exhibitions, publications, memorials, Web sites and other tributes.
I decided to visit the composer’s boyhood haunts as my own way of paying homage. The Vysocina region, about halfway between Prague and Brno, is one of my favorite parts of the Czech Republic — in Mahler’s day, of course, it formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Although he moved to Vienna at the age of 15 to study music, Mahler returned frequently for holidays and drew lasting inspiration from the landscape and local traditions.
“Mahler needs a remembrance of boyhood sights and sounds before he can write a note,” wrote the British critic Norman Lebrecht in “Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World,” a biography of the composer that came out this year.
Setting off from Kaliste, I followed narrow back routes through stately forests and rolling fields. Heavily laden apple and plum trees lined many of the winding roads, and goldenrod flecked the fields where corn stood tall, waiting for the harvest.
With Mahler’s symphonies playing loudly on the car stereo, I could easily appreciate how landscape and memory were powerfully reflected in the music.
“We would go for walks lasting half the day,” Mahler’s boyhood friend Fritz Lohr once recalled, “wandering among flowery meadows, by abundant streams and pools, through the great woods, and to villages where authentic Bohemian musicians set lads and lasses dancing in the open air.” I drove north to Ledec nad Sazavou, a small town on the Sazava River dominated by a soaring castle.
Mahler’s beloved mother, Marie, came from Ledec, and as a child, Mahler frequently visited his relatives there. The story goes that his grandfather Abraham Herrmann, a wealthy soap manufacturer, introduced the 4-year-old Gustav to music by letting him play an old piano stored in his attic.
Herrmann and his wife, Theresia, are buried side by side in the Ledec Jewish cemetery, a centuries-old graveyard that is reached through a gate from the municipal cemetery at the edge of town. The synagogue in Ledec — where some accounts say that the infant Gustav’s circumcision ceremony took place — still stands. Built in 1739, it was restored some years ago and now serves as a concert and exhibition hall.
From Ledec, it’s a 25-minute drive to Zeliv, a village at the confluence of the Zelivka and Trnava rivers. When he was a student, Mahler would come here on vacation to visit his friend Emil Freund, and it was in Zeliv that he had his first romantic involvement, with a cousin of Emil’s named Marie Freund.
Zeliv’s main attraction is a sprawling monastery complex, dominated by the majestic church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. The monastery was closed down during the communist era, but religious life resumed in 1991, and today white-robed monks lead regular services in the ornate sanctuary of the church.
The little town of Humpolec makes a triangle with Zeliv and Kaliste. It was market day when I arrived, and I threaded my way through the stalls on the main square to get to the town museum, where a small permanent exhibition of photographs, documents and other material on Mahler opened in 1986.
Mahler’s paternal grandparents and other Mahler relatives are buried in the walled and tree-shaded Jewish cemetery, which lies just outside town in parkland beneath the ruins of the medieval Orlik Castle. The Freund family, including Marie, who committed suicide in 1880, also are buried here.
The Humpolec synagogue still stands near the center of town, but it now serves as a church. Jihlava, where Mahler lived from infancy until he left to study in Vienna in 1875, was my last stop on this exploration of his youth.
Many specific sites in the town are connected with Mahler’s boyhood and family life: the towering St. Jakub Church is said to be the where Mahler, who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1897, first heard a Mass.
The house at 4 Znojemska, where the family lived, is just a few steps from the large and graceful main square — which today is somewhat blighted by a modern commercial structure in its center.
The Mahler house now serves as a museum that focuses on his family and his relationship with Jihlava and the surrounding region, as well as on the Czech, German and Jewish traditions that made up the cultural landscape of his time.
Mahler’s parents are buried in the Jewish cemetery, but the synagogue was destroyed by the Germans in 1939. The ruins of its foundations have now been incorporated into what is called Gustav Mahler Park, a rather jarring sculptural arrangement reminiscent of Stonehenge that centers on a bizarrely attenuated statue of the composer.
The park was opened this summer as part of Mahler anniversary celebrations. The day I visited, a bride and groom were using it as a backdrop for their wedding photos.
More information is online. For the Czech Mahler Trail, go to gustavmahler2010.cz; the Mahler Pension in Kaliste, mahler-penzion.cz/en/; and the Mahler House Museum in Jihlava, mahler.cz/en/