Czechs mark 150th anniversary of composer Gustav Mahler’s birth

Photo: CTK

One of the most significant composers of modern times, Gustav Mahler, was born on July 7, 1860, in a small village near the eastern town of Jihlava where he grew up. On Wednesday, both places staged a jubilee gala celebration on the composer’s 150th birthday anniversary, attended among others by the Czech president.

Photo: CTK
Czech President Václav Klaus and local dignitaries unveiled a monument to Gustav Mahler in the town where the composer spent 15 years of his life. The bronze state by Jan Koblasa now stands in the Gustav Mahler Park, located on the site of the former synagogue that Gustav and his parents went to on high holidays – and which was burned down by the Nazis in 1939.

President Václav Klaus noted that Czechs may have discovered Mahler later than other nations, but the town has eventually come to be proud of its famous countryman.

“Gustav Mahler is without a doubt one of the world’s greatest composers. The fact that he was born here, in our country - in nearby Kaliště, and went to school in Jihlava – means we can also ‘appropriate’ him to a certain extent, and that’s what we are doing. And I’m really glad that the Mahler park was inaugurated here in the town centre.”

Photo: CTK
But recognition does not come easy in a town whose 1,200-strong Jewish community was murdered in Nazi extermination camps and whose 10,000 German speaking inhabitants were driven out of the town after the war. 28-year-old Jana Součková came to see the dedication ceremony with her daughter.

“We see Gustav Mahler as a German composer much more than a Czech one. But I think it’s very good to have this, especially for the local people from Jihlava because they can now feel that Mahler was also a Czech composer.”

British musicologist Greg Hurtworth came all the way from Australia, although he had been to Jihlava and Kaliště many times before – during his term as a teacher at Olomouc University.

“Gustav Mahler is one of my passions in life.”

You came all the way from Australia to be here today?

“Yes indeed. For this and for the concert in the evening.”

Gustav Mahler was not recognized very much under communism. How do you see the Czech’s attitude towards him today?

Photo: CTK
“I think it’s very important to think that Mahler was a Czech. He spent his formative years here. Even though he was a German-speaker, he understood Czech and he certainly had an affinity to Czech music – Smetana was among his favourite composers. I feel very strongly that he is a Czech composer.”

In the afternoon, the celebrations moved to Kaliště, some 30 km north west of Jihlava- the birthplace of the famous composer. But before that, Mr Klaus and the American baritone Thomas Hampson planted a newly-bred rose named after Gustav Mahler. The American-born, Vienna-based singer was the first on that day to speak in Mahler’s native language.

Switching back to English, the famous opera singer said he considered his performance at Mahler’s birthplace very special.

“This afternoon, my recital, this evening’s concert – it’s all very special. It’s Mahler’s birthday, we are here in Kaliště, it’s a wonderful event. I think the programme was chosen very well to reflect the many different aspects of Mahler. It cannot be complete but it’s a very generous and certainly loving gesture on his birthday.”

Thomas Hampson,  photo: Martina Schneibergová
What are you guesses for the weather? Do you think it’s going to hold?

“Of course it’s going to hold. I made a deal and the deal is holding.”

The weather did hold, and the open-air Mahler Gala in Kaliště by Mahler Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Manfred Honneck and starring singers Thomas Hampson and Anne Sofie von Otter, was a spectacular homage to the great composer, who was born there 150 years ago.