Czech town celebrates famous composer

PRAGUE, Oct. 18 (JTA) – The Czech town of Jihlava echoed to the music of Jewish composer Gustav Mahler during a three-day festival to celebrate the 140th anniversary of the birth of its most famous son.

The festival last weekend, which included special performances of Mahler’s work and an international conference, was the biggest cultural event ever held in the south Bohemian industrial town.

Mahler converted to Catholicism in order to further his career, but he remained aware of his Jewish roots throughout his life.

Among the distinguished guests who attended the festival were the Austrian and French ambassadors to the Czech Republic, as well as the cultural attache to the Israeli Embassy.

Festival organizer Libor Ferda said interest in the event was higher among foreigners than Czechs.

“Most of the interest we have registered has come from abroad because Mahler is still undervalued in the Czech Republic,” he said. “The Austrian ambassador was expected to come to the festival for only an hour, but he was so thrilled by it all that he turned up the next day to thank all of the organizers personally.”

The town’s civic authorities spared no expense in staging the festival. One of the highlights of the event was a performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony by the 90-strong Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra.

“The church in which the concert took place holds 550 people, but we squeezed in 800,” Ferda said. “There were still people standing in the streets who wanted to get in.”

Several hundred commemorative medals were produced for the occasion, and a 9-foot-tall pyramid-shaped memorial was unveiled in the town center during celebrations.

Mahler was actually born in 1850 in a village a few miles from Jihlava, but his family moved to the town when he was 3 months old. He was to spend the next 15 years of his life there before being drawn away to Vienna, the political and cultural heart of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

His musical talent was apparent at a very early age. He mastered the accordion when he was 4 and learned to play piano by the age of 6. Four years later, he gave his first public performance in Jihlava’s Municipal Theater. In 1875, Mahler left his hometown to study music in Vienna. Mahler’s early career as a conductor was spent at a serious of regional opera houses, including Prague and Budapest, before he was offered the prestigious post of head of the Vienna Opera in 1897.

It came at a price, however. His Jewish origins were an obstacle in an era of rampant anti-Semitism, so he accepted Catholic baptism in February 1897. His appointment at Vienna came two months later.

But that conversion later counted for nothing with the Nazis who banned his music because of his Jewish background.

On one occasion, Mahler famously expressed his sense of heritage with the words: “I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.”

In 1907 Mahler joined the Metropolitan Opera in New York before taking up a post with the New York Philharmonic. After developing heart trouble, he died at the age of 50 in 1911 and was buried in Vienna.

Mahler, whose career spanned the late Romantic and early Modernist classical periods, completed nine symphonies and a number of song cycles. His Fifth Symphony includes the adagietto movement that was used as a theme to the classic l960 film “Death in Venice.”

Organizers of the three-day festival say the next big Mahler event won’t take place for another 10 years. “We will have small events each year to mark his anniversaries, but we just don’t have the money to hold such a big festival every year,” said Ferda.

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