The Mahler Trail

(Gustav Mahler, 7 July 1860 – 18 May 1911)

The years 2010 and 2011 mark a memorable double anniversary for the great conductor and composer Gustav Mahler -- 150 years since his birth in an out-of-the-way Czech village and 100 years since his untimely death in Vienna at the age of 50.

Mahler conducted in great cities all over Europe -- among them Hamburg, Budapest, Prague, Leipzig, London, Moscow and, most notably, Vienna, where he directed the Court Opera for 10 years.

Born into a Jewish family, Mahler famously converted to Catholicism in 1897 in order to get the Vienna job. Despite this, he was dogged by anti-Semitism and eventually left to spend most of the last four years of his life in New York, where he directed the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

His stirring symphonies, song cycles and other compositions almost palpably captured central Europe's sense of angst in the tumultuous decades before World War I, and the twin anniversaries of his birth and death have been celebrated by performances, festivals, exhibitions, publications, memorials, web sites and other tributes.

I myself joined crowds of other devotees at major anniversary events including a gala concert in Budapest and an exhibition at the Belvedere palace museum in Vienna.

For a more personal homage, however, I decided to bypass the sites of his trials and triumphs as a world-renowned musical star.

Instead, I followed the footsteps of his early youth in today's Czech Republic, visiting the places where he first immersed himself in music and driving through the lovely landscapes from which he drew inspiration throughout his life.

(Landcape of Vysocina)

"Mahler needs a remembrance of boyhood sights and sounds before he can write a note," stated 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 last year.

My route meandered through the lovely Vysocina upland region of Bohemia and Moravia, one of my favorite parts of the Czech Republic.

Along the way I stayed the little village of Kaliste, where Mahler was born, and found the gravestones of his maternal grandparents in the Jewish cemetery in Ledec nad Sazavou. I visited Mahler haunts including Zeliv, the village where his first love lived (and committed suicide), and the town of Jihlava, where the composer lived until the age of 15 and where the family home is now a Mahler museum.


I also spent hours simply driving through the rolling hills, fields and forests of the Vysocina, listening all the while to Mahler symphonies played loud on the car stereo....

"Do you hear? That's a symphony for you!" Mahler once wrote about his Symphony #7. "It was as early as in my tender childhood in a forest in Jihlava that it first moved me so much, imprinting itself in my mid. It's entirely immaterial whether it is heard from this din or from the birds' singing, from the roar of a storm, the splash of waves or the crackle of a fire.... "

I only spent a weekend following the Mahler trail. But it would be easy -- and rewarding -- to spend much more time exploring the region, using the composer's early life as a means of discovering some of the many remaining treasures here of local Jewish heritage.

Here are some of the highlights:


(Penzion Mahler Kaliste)

Mahler's birthplace makes a good base, particularly as a pleasant and inexpensive little family-run guest house -- the Penzion Mahler -- now occupies the site of the house where Mahler was born on July 7, 1860.

His parents ran a shop and tavern here, and the sleepy little hamlet, centered on a church and large grassy common, looks much the same as it did in the 19th century.

Mahler only spent the first few months of his life in Kaliste, before the family moved to Jihlava, a regional center about 30 km away. But the Penzion Mahler bears a monument to the composer on its wall, and its amenities include a modern little concert hall as well as a cozy, wood-paneled pub.


The main attraction in this village at the confluence of the Zelivka and Trnava rivers is a sprawling monastery complex, dominated by the ornate church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, with its white façade and two 44-meter-high towers.

When he was a student, Mahler used to come here to visit his friend Emil Freund. Young Mahler's first romantic involvement, in fact, was with a cousin of Emil's named Marie Freund, who, tragically, committed suicide in 1880.


(Exhibition in Humpolec)

)Kaliste is just eight km from the quaint market town of Humpolec. Mahler's paternal grandparents and other Mahler relatives are buried here in the walled and tree-shaded Jewish cemetery located just outside town beneath the hilltop ruins of the medieval Orlik castle. Here is also found the grave of Mahler's early love, Marie Freund, and members of her family.

The synagogue still stands near the center of Humpolec, but it now serves as a church. And the town museum off the main square includes a permanent little exhibition of photographs, documents and other material on Mahler that was opened in 1986. Humpolec was the birthplace of the influential Czech-American anthropologist Ales Hrdlicka, and the town museum bears his name. (Humpolec is also home to the brewery that produces one of the Czech Republic's best beers -- Bernard.)


A soaring castle dominates this picturesque little town on the Sazava river where Mahler's mother Marie was born. Some accounts say that Mahler's bris, or ritual circumcision, took place in the synagogue here. Built in 1739, the synagogue, with a tall peaked roof and arched windows still stands amid the old Jewish quarter near the main square. Restored a decade or so ago, it is used now as a concert and exhibition hall.

As a child, Mahler often visited his relatives in Ledec, including his grandfather, Abraham Hermann, a wealthy soap manufacturer. The story goes that Hermann introduced Gustav to music when the child was just four years old by allowing him to play an old piano stored in his attic.

Abraham and his wife Teresie are buried side by side in the Ledec Jewish cemetery, an evocative graveyard founded in the 17th century that is reached from within the municipal cemetery at the edge of town.


Called Iglau in German, Jihlava is the regional center where Mahler lived from infancy until he left to study in Vienna in 1875, and many sites in the town are connected with Mahler's boyhood and family life.

The family house at Znojemska street 4, a few minutes' walk from the from the expansive main squar e, now serves as a museum that focuses on the composer's 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 the time.

The towering St. Jakub church is said to be the first place that Mahler first heard a Catholic Mass.

The town's synagogue, however, was destroyed by the Nazis in 1939. The empty synagogue site on Benesova Street was turned into a rather strange memorial called "Gustav Mahler Park," which was inaugurated last year as part of Mahler's birthday celebrations.

It incorporates the ruins of the synagogue foundations and a modernistic sculptural arrangement reminiscent of Stonehenge. Its centerpiece is a larger than life-sized bronze statue of Mahler himself, by sculptor Jan Koblasa, that depicts him as an elongated, stylized cloaked figure.

Jihlava's Jewish cemetery (U Cviciste Street) still exists and is well maintained -- and Mahler's parents and brothers are buried here.

Mahler himself, though, is buried in Vienna, in the Catholic cemetery in Grinzing, a wine-making village now on the northern outskirts of the city -- and I rounded out my Mahler trail journey by making a pilgrimage to his grave.

His tombstone is a simple upright slab that bears his name. On its top, in Jewish tradition, visitors 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.