Mahler celebrated amid ambivalence

Satellite trucks will be struggling through dense Czech forests in the first week of July, heading to cover a ceremony of extraordinary ambivalence.

July 7 marked the 150th birthday of the composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), the most influential symphonist after Beethoven and, with Freud and Picasso, a maker of modern culture.

Mahler, who directed the Vienna Opera and the New York Philharmonic, was born in the highland village of Kalischt and grew up in the military town of Iglau.

He left to study in Vienna at 15 and never returned, though that is not why the region disowned him. History in these parts is a patchwork alternation of placid co-existence and merciless cruelty.

When the Czechs formed their first republic in 1918, Iglau was renamed Jihlava; not much else changed. Hitler's troops marched in May 15, 1939, forcibly evicted all 1,200 Jews and set fire to the synagogue.

Vengeful Czechs

Six years later, German residents were driven out by vengeful Czechs. Today, around Jihlava, the past is kept distant, hence the hedgy attitude toward Mahler.

With the composer's anniversary looming and tourism in a slump, Jihlava put in for a European Union grant to restore Mahler's boyhood home. External funds and municipal zeal have turned it into an all-purpose museum of impeccable EU blandness. All that remains of Mahler's time is the dank cellar and the public bar upstairs. The German and Jewish heritages have been glossed over, laments a local historian.

Vanished synagogue

North of the square, the town also got around to doing something about the synagogue desecrated 71 years ago. The rubble has gone and the site is renamed Gustav Mahler Park, slated for an opening held July 7 with a televised performance of his Resurrection Symphony.

The streets of Jihlava have been festooned with Mahler banners in anticipation of the big day. Still, my fellow bus passengers knew nothing about him. Only the national composers Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek are taught in schools.

Final resting place

The composer's birthplace of Kaliste (formerly Kalischt), some 20 miles away, has twice burned down. Over the past 16 years, with the help of the American baritone Thomas Hampson and other musicians, it has been restored by Jiri Stilec, owner of a Prague record label and president of the Czech Mahler Society.

Stilec has converted the wayside ruin into a bijou hotel, owned and operated by the village. There's a small recital room, where Hampson performed July 7. No other great composer lets you sleep in his home. Mahler, the eternal outsider, now has a place to call his own.