What Do Mahler, Rilke and Kafka Have in Common?

They were born in what is now the Czech Republic. But Gustav Mahler is renowned as an Austrian composer, Rainer Maria Rilke as a German poet and Franz Kafka as a Jewish writer who wrote in German.

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth in Jihlava (German: Iglau) in eastern Bohemia, the Internet site of the Czech president’s office praises him as a world-famous “Czech” composer and conductor. In the daily Právo, his publicist Jiří Franěk bemoans how little the Czechs know about the famous non-Czech-speaking personalities born in their country.

“Mahler now has his monument. But things are far worse for one of our most celebrated authors – Rainer Maria Rilke. In the US, which does not exactly have the best educational system, practically every high school student is familiar with him. Here in the Czech Republic he’s almost unknown. He was born in Heinrichsgasse in Prague, but wrote in German…. The same would be true of Kafka if [the Germanist] Eduard Goldstücker hadn’t spread his fame. It’s not about the monuments, but what we owe to our compatriots who were perhaps not full-blooded Czechs, and even more what we owe ourselves. It is embarrassing not to know that someone was born just around the corner who the ‘rest of the world’ honours.”

Source: Eurotopics, July 8, 2010


9 responses to “What Do Mahler, Rilke and Kafka Have in Common?

  1. They all were German speaking. But that is the way it was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The upper classes and, especially, the intelligentsia were German speaking. That changed after WWI.

  2. True. But Rilke’s father was a railway official – not very upper class. His mother more so. Mahler and Kafka were Jews whose native language was German.

  3. Hi,

    I did not know that Rilke was born in Prag !! Thanks for that piece of information. It is of interest to me, since I am working on Kafka, who was born in the same city, ten years later.

    Do you happen to know if Mahler and Kafka knew/met each other ?

    Kafka, by the way, spoke Czech besides German; it made him an exception among the Bohemian Jews (who were German oriëntated, not only for upperclass-reasons) and less vulnerable throughout and shortly after WWI, where Czech nationalism gained full power. Kafka’s father was a sales man, probably became more ‘upper class’ throughout his life. A railway officer is not upper, but neither lower class and the classes in society tended to look up to mirror their customs & language. If you look at the language at school (and probably a railway officer dit get some schooling), you will have the answer, to your language dispute, I guess. I’m not a specialist either.

    Thanks again.


    • Thank you for your response.

      I don’t know but I doubt very much that Kafka and Mahler ever met, but I have not checked in his diaries.

      You may be interested in the Kafka chapter in the book VERTIGO by W.B. Sebald.

  4. Mahler was psychoanalyzed by Freud.

  5. Wim De Belder

    Thank you for the Vertigo-hint. I just happen to see your reaction now, I must have missed it in september.
    I read more about Kafka now and I think Mahler and Kafka dit not meet. Kafka did not travel a lot and Mahler was older (a generation fellow of Freud, 25 years born before Kafka). In general, Kafka, was not a writer orientated at the world. He stayed in Prag until the end of his life and started writing when Mahler was almost dead.
    If we follow art analysis, Mahler is the end of Romantics, while Kafka is Modernism. That pushes me to the question whether he did not hear the followers of Mahler as Webern, Berg and Schoenberg, the beginning of Modern Music and Vienna-based. Probably World War I made the Vienna-Prag connection more difficult for a while, cultural life would have been low. Maybe Schoenberg and co were working ‘in silence’ as well. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I will not work on the Kakfa-Mahler connectiion any more so I guess I will not find out. This is as far as I can go.

    Bye and thx again for the W.G. Sebald – tip. Does Vertigo treat Kafka (‘s themes) in a way ?

  6. Kafka was an apostate Jew for the record.

  7. Daniel J. Webster

    I once read a book in English called “Conversations With Kafka.” As I recall, the author’s name was Gustav Janouch (or perhaps Janousch), whose father was head of the insurance firm for which Kafka worked. It’s from that book that I learned that Kafka was an exception to the German-speaking middle class, in that he did speak Czech–and was, in fact, also learning Hebrew in anticipation of possibly emigrating to Palestine. What I find rather strange, though, is that I haven’t been able to find mention anywhere of the original German in which it must surely have been written. (I assume that its title must have been something like “Gespräche mit Kafka.”) Has anyone come across this book in the original German?

  8. Daniel J. Webster

    Here is an addendum to the note I’ve just written: The English Wikipedia lists the author as Gustav Janouch; but strangely enough, the title is in French: “Conversations avec Kafka.”