A belated Happy Mahler Day

Three times an exile, Mahler was born and bred a Bohemian. Now the Czech Republic is out to bring him home. By Judith Hendershott
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The Independent Culture
A lot of Mahler has been performed, commented upon, and written about in the Press of late. At the Edinburgh Festival, the Cadillac of American orchestras, the Cleveland, have just given his Fifth Symphony, while at the Proms, the Mercedes-Benz of German orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic, offered the Second; later on this month, Manchester gets to hear its first ever "Symphony of a Thousand", courtesy of Kent Nagano and the Halle Orchestra, in the city's brand-new Bridgewater Hall. Unremarked upon, though, was a much smaller-scale homage to the composer held earlier this summer.

Often referred to as a Viennese or a "German", Gustav Mahler was actually born (on 7 July 1860) in a sleepy village in what is now the Czech Republic; and, on a scorching July afternoon, a benefit gala for the rescue of his birthplace, a humble coaching inn, took place in Kaliste, located in the beautiful, remote Bohemian-Moravian Uplands, 90km southeast of Prague.

Billed as "The Music of Thousands", this event had created much public interest among not only classical music aficionados, but also ordinary Czech citizens. For weeks, national television and radio had announced the Mahler Day activities, and the festivities and concert in the tiny baroque church of St John the Baptist (capacity: 60) were filmed and shown to the nation on Czech television.

Packed into the small altar space, a youthful chamber orchestra under conductor Jiri Belohlavek performed the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, while the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen were sung by mezzo-soprano Dagmar Peckova.

Outside the church, the local villagers were treated to an outdoor party, complete with beer tent, speeches by visiting dignitaries, and a broadcast of the concert. The cries of children dressed in their Sunday best and barking dogs competed with the visiting glitterati for attention.

Among the Mahlers and Mahlerians who made the pilgrimage to this rural backwater was the composer's granddaughter, Marina Mahler, his only living direct descendant. Marina - herself a wanderer with homes in London, Paris, Spoleto and the States - has devoted her life to the preservation of Gustav's memory. She spoke of the importance of the language and landscape of his childhood to the development of the composer's sensibilities.

Mahler himself said: "Into many of my works there entered the Czech music of my youth. The national accent in my music can, in its roughest outline, be traced to the fiddling of Czech itinerant musicians." As I stood in the shade of the famous linden tree in the village square, I closed my eyes and imagined the folksongs sung by the Mahler family servants, the drinking-songs at his father's inn, the military music he heard as a youth in the nearby garrison town of Jihlava, the sounds of nature which fill the air in this verdant but melancholy countryside.

Imaginary transports were soon brought down to earth by the many speeches of local and visiting dignitaries, including the village mayor, who said he hoped the restoration of the coaching inn would "bring in the tourists". The Czech Republic's Minister of Culture and the president of Britain's Dvorak Society laid their claim to Mahler's "Czechness", while the Austrian ambassador amiably said he would do anything he could to help. Two rose bushes (in tribute to the fourth movement of the Second Symphony, Roschen rot) were planted outside the village school in memory of the Czech Philharmonic conductors Vaclav Neumann and Zdenek Kosler, who died last year.

The project's organisers hope to set up an annual music festival, taking place each July, in Kaliste and surrounding towns. The American-based General Motors company is sponsoring the restoration of the coaching inn via their European product, Opel. Additional funds are needed for the restoration of the other buildings, including Mahler's father's now-derelict brandy distillery.

Mahler once famously said: "I am three times homeless - as a native of Bohemia in Austria; as an Austrian among Germans; and as a Jew throughout the world. I am everywhere an intruder, never welcomed."

The fundraising foundation hopes to counter that claim by establishing Kaliste as "a symbol of human, linguistic, national and cultural tolerance".

Donations may be sent to: Musica Noster Amor Foundation, Komercni Banka, Gustav Mahler account number KB 195804740277/0100, Staromestske namesti 24 (Old Town Square 24), 110 01 Prague 1, Czech Republic