Dr David C F Wright
If you are an admirer
of Mahler then you, like Mahler himself,
owe a debt of gratitude to Hans Rott.
Mahler wrote of Rott
that he was the founder of the new symphony
and that Rott's first symphony soars
to heights of genius. When I first heard
it I had to listen to it again at once,
even though it lasts an hour. The
next day I listened to it twice. Like
a good book, I could not put it down.
I still listen to it regularly. [CD
The Austrian Hans Rott
was born in 1858. His father was Karl
Rott who was a very famous comedy actor
who graced all the theatres of Vienna
and elsewhere. Hans's mother died in
1860 when Hans was in his second year
of life, and Karl had a serious accident
while performing on stage in 1874 and
died two years later. Hans was eighteen
and had to fend for himself . He had
no money to continue his studies at
the Vienna Conservatory which had begun
the previous year. The loss of his parents
and financial worries made him mentally
Among his studies were
those with Anton Bruckner and Rott developed
into a very fine organist. Bruckner
was a very kind man, decent, honourable
and upright all his life and he excused
Rott from paying the tuition fees even
after Rott had graduated from Bruckner's
organ class in 1877 and throughout the
final years of the student's studies.
Bruckner bestowed on young Hans the
highest accolades praising his immaculate
technique and his amazing understanding
of the works of Bach.
Composition was Rott's
main interest and he studied with Franz
Krenn at the conservatory. Krenn was
an admirer of Wagner and, to a slightly
lesser extent, of Bruckner as well but
he did not wish to seem sycophantic.
For his final year Rott had to compose
a symphonic movement and what he submitted
was to later become the first movement
of his Symphony in E, the work that
has so impressed me.
But the symphonic movement
did not go down well. It was condemned
as being too much like Wagner which
is absurd. The jury laughed at the performance
and this added to all the tragedies
in Rott's life and deeply distressed
him. It is not like Wagner. It is gentler
and more lucidly scored although it
could be argued that certain melodic
fragments from Bruckner may appear or
be suggested in it, particularly Bruckner's
Third Symphony. Bruckner, a mild and
gentle man by nature, was furious at
the jury's response to Rott's movement,
berating them with assertions that one
day Rott would prove them all wrong.
Even today there is
a lot of injustice meted out to composers,
and this in turn is exacerbated by misplaced
praise and attention to other composers.
Rott worked at the
symphony completing it in June 1880.
Mentally frustrated by the complaint
that the work was Wagnerian, Rott quoted
the main theme from the finale of Brahms's
Symphony no. 1 in his finale. This created
another storm. There were many who disliked
the music of Brahms and Rott subsequently
suffered more scorn which added to his
already precarious mental condition.
Bruckner stood by him at some cost to
himself. Rott was heard to say that
he could not do anything right, but
that is often the case and the plight
of many composers and writers.
The twenty two year
old could find no work in Vienna but
it is clear that he tried and tried
and tried. All his rejections proved
to prolong his depressed state. He applied
for grants. He approached the conductor
Hans Richter to perform the symphony.
One of my choir members,
has supplied an idiomatic translation
of a letter Richter wrote to Rott dated
13th October 1880
‘Dear Herr Rott
Excuse my rushing today but my time
is not my own and I was then prevented
from being home in good time. Permit
me though that I may look at your
work in detail. It would be very kind
of you if, with you, I might run through
your work, but I will not burden you
with more excuses. If you have time
and would wish it, you could find
me at home tomorrow, Thursday at 3.30pm.
With best greetings, Yours, Hans Richter.’
Rott visited Brahms
in September 1880 and played the symphony
to him but Brahms did not like it. Richter
refused to perform it. Rott entered
the Beethoven competition but was unsuccessful
and concluded that he did not win any
prize because Brahms was on the jury.
Rott took up a post
in Mulhausen. The Ministry for the Arts
in Vienna, some months later, awarded
him a grant for composition but, by
then, he had his contract with Mulhausen.
Mahler was a fellow
student with Rott in Krenn's composition
class and thought Rott very personable.
Many comparisons have
been made between Mahler and Bruckner
and, as with the Wagner/Brahms, divide,
very many make injudicious statements
about which composer is the better of
the two. I suppose we all have a view.
It is my contention that Mahler, as
a composer and as a man, was not as
refined as Bruckner, and that Bruckner
is probably the better composer whose
music sometimes reaches a profound spirituality
that Mahler's never did. It is also
recorded that Mahler was a difficult
man with people and a martinet with
orchestras. There is some evidence that
Mahler was cruel and defamatory to Hugo
Wolf and some scholars believe that
that may have triggered Wolf's madness,
although it is more likely that Wolf's
syphilis brought on dementia. On the
other hand, all the contemporary records
that I have seen portray Bruckner as
a very kind and decent man. Bruckner
stood by Rott. Mahler admired Rott when
he was dead, sixteen years later in
fact when, in 1900, Mahler read the
score of the symphony again and praised
it highly . But he had seen and studied
it in Rott's lifetime.
What is clear is that
Mahler emulated Rott in his own symphonies.
There is evidence that Mahler reused
the material Rott uses in his symphony
and one could call it exploitation.
If you listen carefully to both Rott
and Mahler you will discover this for
yourself. In his music Mahler perpetuates
his own personal debt not only to Rott
but to Wagner and Brahms as well.
Rott's symphony was
complete by 1880. Mahler began work
on his first symphony in 1884.
But referring back
to the fundamental differences between
Mahler and Bruckner, it seems that Mahler's
compliments were always tinged with
unsavoury criticism. He said of Rott's
symphony, "It does not quite hit the
mark but I know what he is driving at."
It seems an arrogant and unfair remark.
On his journey from
his native city of Vienna to Mulhausen
in October 1880 the first major sign
of Rott's mental illness displayed itself.
Another passenger was lighting a cigar
and Rott restrained him with considerable
force and while holding a revolver.
Rott said that Brahms had had the train
booby-trapped with dynamite. Further
outbursts followed at various places
and by 1881 he was residing in a mental
hospital. Here he was tortured by his
demons, the death of his mother whom
he hardly knew, the death of his father,
his poverty, the derision meted out
to his symphony, his rejection by Brahms
and Richter, his inability to stay and
work in his beloved Vienna, being turned
down for grants and having to travel
to Mulhausen to work. No wonder he sank
At first it was thought
that he could be helped to a full recovery
but he sank further into depression
as well as distressing eccentricities.
He used some of his compositions as
toilet paper claiming that they were
worthless, an idea forever etched into
him by the rejection and humiliation
he had suffered. It is all very well
dismissing this as persecution mania,
as if his condition was of his own making.
But this is surely unfair. To add to
his state he was diagnosed with tuberculosis
and died on 25 June 1884. His grave
is in the Zentral-Friedhof.
Up to 1989 none of
his music had been published or performed.
It was the splendid Symphony that was
the first work heard being premiered
by the Cincinnati Philharmonic Orchestra
under Gerhard Samuel on 4 March in that
city. It was repeated on 10 March 1989
in Paris by the same forces and at St
James's Church, Piccadilly in London
on 12 March.
I have not seen a score
of the Symphony but I have listened
to it many times in a performance by
an orchestra from the Netherlands and
so I can only describe it from repeated
hearings. It is in E major, an unusual
key for a symphony. It is set in four
movements. The scoring would appear
to be for double woodwind but there
is also a part for double bassoon along
with four horns, three trumpets , three
trombones (there does not appear to
be a tuba part). The percussion consists
of timpani and triangle and there is
the usual string section. Generally
speaking the orchestration is not thick
as with some composers. The first movement
is leisurely but never dull and in ‘alla
breve’ time. The second movement which
begins in the subdominant key is a broad
slow movement often of great beauty.
There follows a scherzo and trio in
ternary form with some marvellous effects.
The finale is the most original in form,
and is often quite staggering. One expects
the Valkyries any moment! It contains
a prelude and fugue thus revealing Rott's
love of Bach and the closing pages are
Yes, there are flaws
(e.g. he does not know when to end)
which may be attributed to his youth
and to the fact that it was his Symphony
no.1 (and I take it to be his only symphony)
but then composers of mature years still
show flaws in their music.
Six months after writing
and completing this article I have heard
the performance by the Cincinnati Orchestra
on Hyperion which is not as good as
the Dutch performance I have lived with,
the American performance being, in my
opinion, somewhat lack-lustre. But it
is a splendid symphony and, surprisingly
emotive at times. While it is not a
dark work it does seem to be prophetic
of the tragic life of this very gifted
With thanks to Richard Noble
"Copyright David C F Wright 2002.
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