'It is completely impossible to estimate what music has lost in him. His First Symphony soars to such heights of genius that it makes him – without exaggeration – the founder of the New Symphony as I understand it' (Gustav Mahler)
'A revelation … the source for a suprising number of what one always assumed to be Mahler's own themes, but it also proved to be a work that … has an integrity and an individual sound world of its own' (The Musical Times)
'Nobody pursuing authenticity in Mahler can afford to ignore Rott's precocious symphony' (The Sunday Times)
'Definitely one of my records of the year' (BBC Record Review)
'A revelation' (The Washington Post)
'Very strongly recommended' (CD Review, USA)
'Readers should investigate this issue without delay' (Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)
Alla breve [9'48]
Sehr langsam [11'22]
Scherzo: Frisch und lebhaft [12'00]
Sehr langsam – Belebt [23'52]
Late in October 1880, a twenty-two-year-old Viennese musician was travelling by train from his home city to take up a post as a choirmaster in Mühlhausen. As an organist Hans Rott had completed with distinction his course of studies with Anton Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory, but he had found it difficult to establish himself in Vienna as a composer and so had been forced, much against his wishes, to seek employment elsewhere. During the journey to Mühlhausen something snapped; a fellow passenger tried to light a cigar, only to be forcibly restrained by Rott brandishing a revolver and saying that Brahms had filled the train with dynamite.
These tragicomic events marked the end of a brief but extraordinary creative career; Rott was committed to a mental hospital, and although there was initially some hope of a recovery – he was able to see friends – he gradually sank into depression and destroyed some of his compositions, including his last work, a String Sextet, using them as lavatory paper with the comment, ‘that’s all the works of men are worth’. In the autumn of 1881 a diagnosis recorded ‘hallucinatory insanity, persecution mania – recovery no longer to be expected’. By the end of 1883 physical deterioration had set in and on 25 June the following year Rott died of tuberculosis. None of his music had been published or performed in public, and it seemed destined to be forgotten even sooner than his grave in the Zentral-Friedhof.
Against all the odds this did not happen. Two of Rott’s closest friends assumed responsibility for his welfare during his illness, and also collected together all the surviving manuscripts after his death; eventually these were deposited in the Music Collection of the Austrian National Library in Vienna. Moreover, Bruckner never forgot his outstanding pupil and talked about Rott’s fate to his friends and students. It had been a hard struggle for the young organist to study at the Conservatory. His mother had died in 1860, and his father Karl Rott, one of the most famous comic actors on the Viennese stage, had been forced to retire by a stage accident in 1874 and died in 1876 leaving Hans with little or no financial support. However, the Conservatory recognized Rott’s ability and he was excused from paying any fees during the last three years of his studies (1875 to 1878). He graduated from Bruckner’s organ class in 1877 with the highest honours, his teacher commenting that he played Bach excellently and improvised wonderfully.
A career as an organist might have been possible for the young musician, but Rott saw himself as a composer so he returned to the Conservatory to complete the composition course with the dull and old-fashioned teacher Franz Krenn. Despite his conservatism Krenn attracted a number of young musicians of decidedly progressive sympathies who, like Rott, saw Wagner and Bruckner as models to be imitated. The principal event in the final year of the course was the composition competition for which Rott submitted a symphonic movement, later to become the first movement of his Symphony in E major, but instead of providing a successful conclusion to his student career, the contest turned into one of the first of a series of bitter disappointments which clouded the rest of Rott’s life. The jury was deeply unsympathetic to new trends in music and laughed derisively at the movement’s very clear debt to Wagner. Bruckner was incensed, calling out to the jury members that they would hear great things from Rott one day – sadly a prophecy that remained unfulfilled.
In one sense the jury was right: Rott, following the precedent of the first version of Bruckner’s Symphony No 3, responded to Wagner’s influence by incorporating explicit references to the master’s music in his symphonic movement. Undeterred by the critical response the piece had evoked Rott devoted most of his creative energies to the completion of the remaining three movements, in June 1880 finishing the finale with an evocation of Die Walküre to bring the work to a resigned and peaceful conclusion.
Yet for all his evident enthusiasm for Wagner, Rott also admired Brahms – as is made clear by his reference to the famous main theme from the finale of Brahms’s Symphony No 1 in the last movement of his own symphony. Just as his admiration for Wagner had caused one rejection, Rott’s esteem for Brahms provoked another. Having found no post in Vienna, Rott was compelled to accept the offer from Mühlhausen, but he desperately wanted to remain in the Habsburg capital and formulated three plans which he hoped would achieve this end. He applied to the Ministry for the Arts and Education for a State stipend; he approached Hans Richter, the conductor of the Philharmonic concerts, hoping he would perform the symphony; and he planned to enter the annual Beethoven competition for graduates of the Conservatory’s composition course. One of the competition’s adjudicators was Brahms, and in September 1880 Rott visited the elder composer and played him the symphony, hoping to win his support. The result was the opposite – a Brahmsian rebuff.
Nothing had been heard from the Ministry and shortly afterwards Richter also rejected the symphony, so Rott had to face the inevitable and took the train to Mühlhausen. Six months later, by then too late, the Ministry awarded Rott a grant to enable him to devote himself to composition.
Apart from Bruckner, one other participant – in fact a prize-winner – in the fateful 1878 composition competition remembered Rott; Gustav Mahler was a fellow student in Krenn’s class and greatly admired his friend’s musical gifts, so much so that in 1900 he borrowed the score of the symphony during his summer vacation and read through the work. His enthusiastic comments were recorded by Nathalie Bauer-Lechner:
It is completely impossible to estimate what music has lost in him. His First Symphony … soars to such heights of genius that it makes him – without exaggeration – the founder of the New Symphony as I understand it … His innermost nature is so much akin to mine that he and I are like two fruits from the same tree, produced by the same soil, nourished by the same air. We would have had an infinite amount in common.
As it is, the musical links between Rott’s symphony and Mahler’s mature symphonic oeuvre are striking. The symphony’s enormous and complex Scherzo and the slow opening section of the finale are replete with numerous and disconcertingly accurate anticipations of Mahler’s style, but all four movements also contain musical ideas which reappear in Mahler’s symphonies. To some extent Mahler’s explanation may be correct; perhaps many similarities are the result of a shared musical heritage. But the close thematic links seem too precise to be accounted for in this way, and point instead to a conscious or unconscious reuse and creative exploitation of Rott’s material by Mahler.
The Mahlerian dimension of Rott’s symphony is striking, and its Wagnerian and Brahmsian debts are obvious, but over and above such features the work has a clear and distinctive character of its own, not least in the way it is structured. Rott seems to have been anxious to rethink how a large-scale multi-movement work could be put together, and he came up with some interesting and innovative answers. Although at first sight the work appears to conform to the standard four-movement plan, the conventions are continually subverted. The first movement is a curtailed sonata-form design which acts as an introduction concerned mainly with presenting and elaborating the first theme (which makes cyclic returns in the Scherzo and at the end of the finale) and the home key. The slow movement begins in A major, but ends not with a return to its opening material in that key, but with a completely new chorale-like theme in E major (this too will play a crucial role at two points in the finale). The Scherzo expands the traditional ternary form by constantly postponing the expected recapitulation of the opening section after the trio; more and more thematic ideas are added to the swirling contrapuntal development, generating an extraordinarily insistent forward momentum. The finale dispenses with familiar symphonic models almost entirely, but in some respects comes close to a design sometimes employed by Mahler, with two extended slow sections flanking a central passage of faster music. This central section is designed as a sort of prelude and fugue; the theme may be borrowed from Brahms, but the design and some of the textures owe much to the composer’s background as an organist, and particularly to his love of Bach’s music. The gradual infiltration of the cyclic theme from the opening movement during the work’s closing pages is one of Rott’s most ingenious and imaginative inventions.
Mahler offered a perceptive critical evaluation of the work: ‘It is true that [Rott] has not yet fully realized his aims here. It is like someone taking a run for the longest possible throw and not quite hitting the mark. But I know what he was driving at.’ Despite the half-assimilated influences and the traces of inexperience, it is indeed possible to grasp what Rott sought. The fertility of his musical imagination, his concern to control music in an innovative way on a large scale, and the emotional power and sincerity are unmistakable and surely compensate for any momentary uncertainties. In the face of such an achievement one can only wonder what more Rott might have accomplished had his career not been so tragically short.
Paul Banks © 1989