Jihlava - the city of Mahler´s childhood

House of Gustav Mahler, photo: Dáša Kubíková

The city of Jihlava hides a well-kept secret. Not many people know that one of the best known and admired composers of late 19th century spent the forming years of his life right here. Our reporter Vít Pohanka traveled to the heart of the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands to find out more.

House of Gustav Mahler,  photo: Dáša Kubíková
Jihlava’s main square is lined with fine historical buildings. It would be beautiful if it were not for an ugly concrete building right in the middle –the former Prior Department Store – built under communism some thirty years ago in the brutalist style. But I am not here to admire the architecture. I am heading to one of the side streets where I can see a house with a big sign DGM – Dům Gustava Mahlera –the House of Gustav Mahler.

Entering it is as if you were stepping into another world in which a boy grew up to be one of the most famous composers of late 19th and early 20th century.

Jana Součková is the manager of this part monument/part gallery run by the city hall.

“Visitors can go through this permanent exhibition which presents Gustav Mahler´s childhood and youth which he spent in this city. So we are talking about the period from 1860 to 1875, years that he spent here in Jihlava.”

He was actually born in a small village of Kaliště not far from here and the family moved to Jihlava when little Gustav was a few months old. His father Bernard came from a very humble background but was obviously a man of good fortune.

“He was helped by the dowry of his wife Maria. Bernard Mahler was from the start a very enterprising and ambitious young man. It was just a question of time when he would leave the small village of Kaliště for some city. Jihlava with a population of some 20 thousand was a regional industrial as well as cultural center. Bernard knew the city well from his business trips. For a man with great aspirations, it was an ideal place to expand his trade.”

Gustav Mahler,  photo: Public Domain | photo:
He built a distillery and tavern and began to prosper. Even though Gustav´s family lived a relatively comfortable life, there was a lot of unhappiness and even tragedy. Jana Součková again:

“The Mahlers had 14 children but 8 of them died at an early age. Gustav´s parents often argued bitterly. They were of very different temperament: his father was ambitious, quick-tempered and could often be cruelly rude even to his own family. His mother, on the other hand, was very sensitive and quite sickly, probably due to frequent pregnancies. Little Gustav, naturally, felt all this and it did not make him happy. Those frequent arguments between his parents made him run away and wander through the streets around the square and in a nearby forest park. There can be little doubt that these dark shadows over his childhood were in a way inspiration for his later works.”

In what kind of city and society did little Gustav grow up? What needs to be said first is that the Mahlers were a German-speaking, Jewish family. German, at that time, was also the predominant language in Jihlava which is now the heart of the Czech Republic, but used to be called Iglau in the time of Gustav´s childhood and was in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. But why did this often unhappy son of parents who themselves did not show musical talent or inclination, grow up to become such a talented musician, director of the Vienna Court Opera and a composer celebrated for his works in the New York Metropolitan Opera? Local historian, Radim Gonda of The Highlands Museum of Jihlava leads me to some posters that little Gustav would see while wandering around his house.

“They show the life of Jihlava society, promoting concerts and musical performances. There was a local men´s choir that performed regularly in Czap Hotel. There was church music, a military band and a lot of folk singing in the streets. So it can be said that music was quite a „big thing" in 19th century Jihlava.”

All this, naturally, had an influence on little Gustav Mahler. Nearly all of the historic posters that doctor Gonda shows me are in German. That leads me to a very simple and basic question: can we say whether Mahler was German or Czech? The answer is not that simple:

House of Gustav Mahler,  photo: Dáša Kubíková
“The trouble was that even though there were censuses in the 19th century, nationality was not one of the categories listed. People were simply asked what language they used in public. Here in Jihlava German was simply dominant. Whatever nationality you were, you would speak German in the shops and when in contact with the authorities, no matter that it might not actually be your native tongue.”

In any case, a vast majority of Jewish people living in what was then called the Czech Lands and later became the Czech Republic spoke German. Gustav Mahler might have grown up here, but he spent his life in German-speaking society and even though he would probably understand at least some Czech there are no records that he ever spoke the Slavic language. In this respect, he was very similar to another world-renowned Jewish artist born in today´s Czech Republic – Franz Kafka. And as far as Mahler´s Jewish faith is concerned, well, he was never much of a synagogue-goer, Jana Součková says.

“Even though his family was Jewish they went to the synagogue only very rarely. It is true that later on Gustav Mahler as a composer worked with some Jewish musical themes but he was always closer to Catholicism, especially Catholic mysticism. What is more, to secure his post of Director of the Court Opera House in Vienna he converted to Catholicism.”

So it is obviously useless to try and put some national or religious labels on his music. He was simply a natural, great talent who when still a little boy – as legend has it – found an old piano in the attic of his father´s house and simply started playing away:

Gustav Mahler,  photo: Public Domain
“We know that as a seven-year-old he listened to tavern and drinking songs in his father´s establishment and started composing some children´s songs inspired by this kind of music. Unfortunately, they did not survive to this day. Already when he was ten, he performed in the city theatre with great success. The local press predicted that as a musician he had a great future.”

Mahler was lucky that at that time even provincial cities such as Jihlava offered excellent music education possibilities. And, of course, great musicians have their muses and Gustav Mahler met his first muse here in Jihlava:

“Mahler fell head over heels in love with the daughter of the local postmaster Josephine Poisl. He was her piano teacher while he was a student at the Vienna Conservatory and was coming back to Jihlava for his vacations. Unfortunately, Josephine did not return his feelings. What was worse, she married a much older professor of the German Gymnasium – secondary school. 20 years her senior! Mahler even composed a few songs for Josephine, but they did not survive. Be it as it may, we know for sure that even in this respect Jihlava offered the young composer great inspiration.”

Mahler met his „femme fatale" much later in Vienna. His marriage to Alma Mahler could fill a few books in itself. Suffice it to say that it was not a very happy marriage. Gustav – then an already famous and overworked Vienna Opera Director - tried to suppress her own musical talent, she had an affair with Walter Gropius, a German architect and founder of the Bauhaus School. Mahler was so distressed that he sought help in psychoanalysis with none other than Sigmund Freud. But that is an altogether different story.

Alma Mahler,  photo: Public Domain
Mahler never returned to the city of his childhood after his parents died. Maybe it was because of the traumatic experiences of his childhood, maybe disappointment in love, we will never know for sure. And Jihlava itself seemed to have forgotten her famous son for decades. Jana Součková again:

“All these connections were more or less forgotten in the second half of the 20th century. The German-speaking population was expelled from Jihlava after World War II and Mahler was for years seen as a completely foreign composer. This changed only after the fall of communism in the 1990s. People became interested in finding out what sort of background Mahler came from. And Jihlava started drawing the attention of the general as well as the classical music-oriented public.”

Jana Součková, the manager of the Mahler House in Jihlava, adds that even now most of the visitors to his house actually come from abroad and not from the Czech Republic.