At a glance, it may sound like an adventure novel. Family issues, European history and Jewish life: a tale that begins in the alleyways lined with cinnamon colored shops of the hamlets painted by Chagall and enlivened by klezmoyrin’s music, a tale that travels through the countryside to reach the major cities, intoxicated by Gustav Klimt’s colors and the magic of opera houses. Success and achievements, love and passion, but also mourning, suffering and sorrow. At a glance it does sound like an adventure novel, though in reality it’s Gustav Mahler’s biography. Mahler was born in 1860 in Kaliště, a little bohemian village. His father, Bernhard, owner of a distillery, was very strict, impulsive and ambitious. His mother, Maria, was a wellborn Jewish girl who had to accept, due to limb disability, a marriage without love, marked by the birth of 14 children, six of them dead at a young age.
1860 was the year of political and education reforms in the Czech territory, a milestone in the process that would lead to the emancipation of the Jewish community, set forth by the Statute of 1867. During those years of great migration several people moved from the countryside to the industrialized centers in Bohemia; one of these people was Bernhard Mahler, who decided to move to Jihlava. Like his coreligionists, he wanted to grant his children everything his generation never had. Gustav Mahler, a child prodigy with an extraordinary talent for music, grew up in this context; he was one of the many Jewish boys whose parents were shopkeepers and farmers who strived for social elevation and integration through education and culture.
His generation inherited both the consequences of the Jewish age of enlightenment and the education reforms of Joseph II, and was therefore experiencing the delicate transition that leads to the creation of new identity representations, owing to the birth of new demographic and political situations. Even though the sense of belonging to the German culture and language, a symbol of emancipation, was strong, a rediscovery of the Czech component was unavoidable.
From the second half of the XIX century, the need of recovering a unique and authentic history shared by everybody, also linked to the need of finding a solid reference point for identifying as part of a society, grew stronger and stronger. Being Jews, Germans, Czechs. Belonging, relating, creating new forms of culture and expressing themselves through literature, art and music, but sometimes also through simple everyday gestures. This is why Prague would become the “capital of the three cultures,” and by the dawn of the XX century the three different “nationalities” would have each their own schools, universities, clinics, intellectual circles and literary cafes.
Gustav Mahler grows in this melting pot, rooted in the ancient Jewish culture and eager to make “unprecedented creative syntheses” come to life, as the anthropologist Adriano Favole says. Mahler, Jew, Czech, German, integrated, enlightened, well-read, travels to Prague, Vienna, Budapest, where he meets intellectuals and artists and where he intertwines important relationships, although not always easy. “A little man, nervous, restless and with a wonderful mind,” wrote his wife Anna, who gave us the portrait of a man with a complex personality in which we can find the origin and meaning of his compositions. His music mirrors his personal identity in development; it’s a mosaic in which everyone can glimpse at different echoes, from klezmer to 20th century styles. Being able to identify and analyze them separately is interesting for sure, though it is crucial to take them all into consideration when it comes to understanding Mahler, his personality and the role he fulfilled as the voice of the Jewish way of life in Central Europe, of the connections among the different societies, of the cultural synergies. It’s not a charming novel, it’s the biography of a man who lived in his time and who recounts a fundamental piece of Europe’s history, as to say the history of everyone of us.
*Maria Teresa Milano is a Hebraist. The article has been translated by Letizia Anelli, student at the Scuola superiore interpreti e traduttori di Trieste, who is doing her apprenticeship in the newsroom of Pagine Ebraiche.