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The paradox of Gustav Mahler's heritage legacy

Italy is blessed by supreme diversity of landscapes. So, to escape winter winds, Sicily is one answer. To escape Rome’s heat-wave, the Tre Cime Unesco World Heritage park is a blissful solution. I had wanted to visit the park’s First World War fortress at M. Piano but ferocious tempests have blocked the road. Looking for an immediate alternative – and Italy is always blessed with them – I sought out the hotel where Gustav and Alma Mahler used to stay.

Gustav & Alma Mahler

The little hotel overlooks Toblach/Dobbiaco and its prominent church with a lime green baroque lantern tower. Nothing but a grey plaque exists at the hotel, but buy a ticket for the little zoo and beyond the wild boar and below the racoons is Mahler’s celebrated composing hut.

Here, in the three successive summers of 1908-10, Mahler wrote Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth and the Unfinished Tenth symphonies. Each summer was squeezed between his engagement as chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

The unassuming hut is little more than a large garden shed, one of three in which he composed in his lifetime. The north facing side looks across at the hamlet of Aufkirchen and the high but soft-backed tyrollean ridge beyond. Most visitors walk by it and fail to notice the little display mounted by the hotel in honour of its most celebrated patron.

Mahler's cabin and the view he would have seen while composing

Walking the forested trails above, it is hard not to hear echoes of the great song cycle and the Ninth Symphony as Toblach church bells toll noon. Were these the bells threaded into his scores? Here surely Mahler and his wife, Alma strolled, before the composers untimely death in May 1911.

The little hut still possesses great spirit of place, a sanctuary for one of the greatest creative artists of the 20th century. Strange then that it appears to rest outside the arena of the cultural heritage authorities, a mere appendage to a tiny zoo. Worthy of a brown road sign and no more. How to explain it? Sheer oversight? Not monumental enough?

Privately (as opposed to state or regionally) protected, it begs many (Italian) cultural heritage questions, especially being in the Alto Adige with its political and cultural autonomy. Best to simply be grateful for its survival. Still, listen hard and you can hear Kathleen Ferrier singing Das Lied von der Erde. The very definition of sublime.

Bruno Walter conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Wiener Philharmoniker), playing the 'Lied von der Erde' (Song of the Earth) by Gustav Mahler. Sung by Kathleen Ferrier.

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