performed by the Radio Symphonieorchester Wien under Dennis Russell Davies
It is completely impossible to estimate what music has lost in him. His genius soars to such heights even in his first symphony, written at the age of twenty, and which makes him – without exaggeration – the founder of the new symphony as I understand it. He, however, did not reach entirely what he wanted. It is as if someone swings back to throw as far as he can and, still clumsy, does not quite hit the goal.(Gustav Mahler in Nathalie Bauer-Lechner’s reminiscences)
This website is a fantastic source for this symphony, and much of my information comes from there. I quote.
“The earliest hint on the Symphony in E major can be found in Rott’s letter to his friend Heinrich Krzyzanowski dated May 6, 1878:
The forthcoming end of term at the Conservatoire is keeping me busy; I still have nothing ready for it; the score of the second movement of a suite for orchestra will soon be finished and thus I would be prepared for the examination which will take place on the 27th May. As for the symphony I have begun for the competition, I have not got further than the main theme. […] the more I make every effort to receive the grant by my symphony which will get its strength from my enthusiasm for 500 fl.
We cannot talk about the piece for next week directly following Bruckner without mentioning this guy in the middle. This is a piece I have wanted to share for ages, and I’m not the first to talk about it, nor will I be the last, but relatively speaking, it’s a very new find. As I will address next week in the discussion of that piece, next week’s piece was one of the three pivotal pieces for this whole series we’re on; it marks the middle point (sort of) for this German(ic) Symphonies kick, and I’ll talk later (I can’t believe I haven’t yet) about how it all came to be.
I can’t remember where or how I came about this symphony, but my best guess is either the result of a search for “underperformed” or “underrated” symphonies or something, or as a result of his association (and not a positive one) with Brahms. In any case, it was also around the time that I was just starting to crack into Mahler, and it is screamingly obvious that they work in a similar vein. It wouldn’t be that apparent to me at the time aside from one readily apparent quality that I don’t even notice anymore: long! The thought of sitting down and listening to 50-60 minute of music felt a little bit like homework, but now it’s what I look forward to doing as much as possible at work.
The style or voice or whatever of this piece felt similar to or familiar to what I’d heard of Mahler, but it was only after I really came to know his first two symphonies that I had a “WAIT A MINUTE!” moment when listening to this piece. Before we talk about that any more, let’s chat a bit about who this guy is and why he’s in our series.
He was born outside Vienna in 1858, making him two years Mahler’s senior. His mother was an actress and singer and his father was also in the entertainment industry, but died when Rott was only 18. Also, the family’s actual name was Roth. Interesting.
He was able to continue his musical studies at no cost when his teachers recognized his talent and potential, and he actually roomed with Gustav Mahler for a short time. They also shared the same composition and counterpoint teacher, a one Mr. Franz Krenn, who also taught Alexander von Zemlinsky.
Rott’s more popular teacher, though, was Anton Bruckner himself, who started teaching the young man organ in 1874, graduating three years later with honors. Bruckner complimented the young student’s performance of Bach, and noted his talent at improvisation, high praise from a man known to be an excellent improviser himself. Like Bruckner, Rott highly admired the music of Wagner, and even had the privilege to attend the first Bayreuth festival in 1876. In addition, he was also a member of the Viennese Academic Wagner Society.
This is the only symphony the man ever wrote. He had some other pieces, like an overture to Julius Caesar, and a string symphony or something, but this is his only true completed symphony. The first movement was entered into a competition at the conservatory and, poor guy, he barely made the deadline. His correspondence with Heinrich Krzyzanowski through letters shows how stressful this period must have been for him, but it was accepted and performed. The whole experience could be summed up in one quote (but I highly recommend you read the entire article from which the quote comes):
As Bruckner related, Rott wrote a symphony movement for the graduation. This, however, seemed too “Wagnerian” to the narrow-minded brotherhood sitting at the examiners’ table and to whom R. Wagner was still the Marat of music! At the end a scornful laughter was heard from the “Merker” chair – sorry the examiners’ table. Thereupon the otherwise so timid Bruckner rose and cried the flaming words to the “Merkers” down there: “Do not laugh, gentlemen, of this man you will hear great things yet!
How wonderful… that a teacher has such admiration for and faith in his own student. And, as we shall see, Bruckner was not the only one. But this sentiment is almost to be expected from Bruckner. It’s his student, and a student who obviously highly regards Wagner’s works and style, a feeling with which Bruckner surely identified. So to have his student (granted, not his composition student) write a symphonic movement of such ambition in a style that Bruckner surely would have appreciated, the above statement is logical. And oh how right Bruckner would have been. But we’ll talk about that in a bit.
The first movement was heavily criticized when submitted in the final year of his studies by all on the jury except his teacher, as noted above. Chalk that up either to bias or genius. Also on that panel were Johannes Brahms and Hans Richter. Brahms was no fan of Bruckner, much less Wagner, and they in fact represented what amounted to opposite camps in classical music of the time. Richter was also associated with the Vienna Philharmonic, and so both of these names would obviously be great opportunities for the young Rott. Under pressure and very stressed, he completed the first movement and it was performed, to what apparently amounted to no more than derision.
I can’t quite determine if Rott had presented this work to Brahms twice or not. In some cases, it sounds as if Brahms and Richter were on some panel for Rott’s graduation studies, in which only the first movement was submitted. In others, reference is made to a Beethoven competition, and an occasion at which Rott gave the entire completed score to Brahms. In any case, Rott finished the entire thing in 1880. At whatever point it was, Brahms’ reaction was no different from the first, if in fact these were two separate occasions. My research seems to conflict itself.
The interwebs suggest that Brahms’ distate for the work may have been as a result of Rott’s association with Bruckner. That would make sense. He ultimately told Rott to give up music altogether. The biggest thing to note about Rott here would be that he perhaps had the courage, as some articles seem to suggest, to come to Brahms yet again with the full score of the piece after being rejected so strongly.
In any case, later in 1880, he cracked. There is mention of syphilis in some of the literature online, but for whatever reason, he had an episode on a train where he threatened a passenger with a gun and claimed Brahms had rigged the train with explosives. He was committed to a mental hospital a year later, and had a ‘brief recovery,’ but started battling with depression. A few years later, he was diagnosed with “insanity, hallucinatory persecution mania.” He apparently had a few unsuccessful suicide attempts and died of tuberculosis on June 25, 1884, only 25 years old.
That is about as thorough and brief a summation of this tragic life as I can provide, but I hope it puts into context the battles this man was fighting. Vienna was (and really still is) a capital of all things musical. Think of having Brahms, Bruckner, Richter all in the same room. They were titans of the music world at the time, but representing almost polar opposites in form and philosophy. Brahms was a staunch conservative, relative to Wagner and Bruckner. He did some new things to what Beethoven had given the world, but his inventiveness was rooted in tradition.
I talked last week (and before) about the Bruckner-Mahler association, and one of the reasons I find Rott’s work here fascinating is that I felt like it kind of bridges the gap between these two world-famous Austrian composers. This pupil of Bruckner, who shared both a composition teacher and a dorm room with Gustav Mahler, would produce a symphony under such tremendous pressure and trying circumstances, one that would make such a great impact on his friend, that it would be perhaps the very symphony to kick off Mahler’s career. That’s an incorrect statement, because, as mentioned in the email at the end of this fascinating article, Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied was already written by that time and was by no means unsuccessful. So it asks the question, at least to me, what inspiration did Rott provide to Mahler? What would his music have been like without this gem of a symphony? Were Mahler’s use of Ländler and folk tunes and birds chirping and all the like an inevitable conclusion, or was it, at least in part, an inspiration from his roommate and imaginative genius composer?
I wrote some beautiful words about this piece, and then somehow my Mac disappeared them… so I’m not sure what happened, but I’m having to start some of this over, which is rather infuriating. What I want to say about this piece is really twofold:
- This is a stunning piece of music that holds a critical place in the history of the symphony of the 19th century, one with drama and politics and passion surrounding it, and it stands on its own
- There is one striking strand of history, one important example to tie all this together and put Hans Rott clearly in the forefront of musical history and give him the limelight he deserves.
The first thing to discuss here is that I feel, perhaps more than any piece I’ve ever discussed, understanding the context surrounding its composition, its composer, and the general atmosphere of the musical world in Vienna is very important. In this drama that unfolds, we have a few main characters, and once you understand those main characters, the piece becomes much more significant. There is the staunchly conservative old, crusty Brahms (relatively speaking), Wagner the modernist, Bruckner the teacher, and Rott the pupil. Brahms represented one end of the musical spectrum, both philosophically and otherwise of the time, with his admiration for and adherence to everything Beethoven had established. Wagner and Bruckner, on the other hand, who were also friends, were doing things that had never been done before in harmony and orchestration, and taking the symphony (or in Wagner’s case, opera as well) into directions Brahms couldn’t accept. Even to someone with no previous listening experience, Bruckner has a distinct sound that is very different from anything Brahms ever wrote. So that’s our situation. This admiration may have come from his teacher, but it would likely have been popular for the time, as it was rather in fashion in his day. Do recall that the premiere of Brahms’ second symphony had to be put off because the Vienna Philharmonic were too busy learning Wagner’s Das Rheingold. And there was a lot for Brahms to resent, potentially because he was just kind of a jerk, but this is what Rott was up against: pressure to finish the first movement as part of his studies, his own teacher, Bruckner, on the panel, along with Hans Richter (at the time associated with the Vienna Philharmonic) and Johannes Brahms himself. When you understand the characters and the conditions under which this symphony was written, I feel it speaks entirely for itself. It stands alone as a stunningly moving, beautiful piece of music. Benjamin Zander, in a TED talk, before playing a Chopin etude, explained it a bit, and he told the audience to keep what he’d said in mind while listening, and that (I paraphrase) they would “hear everything the composer had in mind and wanted you to hear.” I feel strongly that the same is true with Rott. Listen to the passion and intensity of the first movement, the soaring beauty of the second, the blissful celebration of the third, and the towering fourth, and you’ll get what this guy and this piece are about, so I say no more there. (This is a first).
The other thing I want to bring out is something that was a bit puzzling, and that we will talk about a bit more next week. It’s this business of the quote. What quote? Listen to these:
- Here’s the original, the famous theme from the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth.
- Here’s Brahms’ quote of said theme in the final movement of his own first symphony
- And here’s Rott’s homage to them both in the final movement of his first symphony.
This theme is of course one probably one of the most enduring of all classical music themes. It’s used in commercials and cell phone tunes and jingles all over the place, but the quotes here are significant. I won’t talk about it as much today as I will next week, because the saga will continue. For now, let’s just remember that Rott quoted Brahms’ quote of Beethoven. That could have been a respectful bow to Brahms, and that’s what I am most inclined to count it as. Could it perhaps have been seen as a presumptuous move from Brahms’ standpoint, for this young composer to include himself among Brahms and Beethoven? After all, by the time Brahms made that gesture, Beethoven was gone, and Brahms had been somewhat… Hailed as the steward of the future of classical music. He was still criticized by some for the quote, but Brahms’ work was a success.
What about Bruckner? I read somewhere on the interwebs that Bruckner modeled every one of his symphonies on Beethoven’s ninth. This is perhaps not as much in content as in form. I don’t recall where this is or what other evidence there was for it, but it was an interesting statement, using Beethoven’s ninth (and maybe Schubert’s ninth) as jumping off points for where he would take the symphony from there. The general impression I get is that he aspired to being as great as Beethoven was, but, admirably, never viewed himself as having attained that goal. He was apparently an incredibly humble man. The Beethoven ninth melody skipped a pedagogical generation, it seems, while the admiration stuck.
Rott’s quote, if you didn’t know it was a quote, doesn’t seem out of place. It’s beautiful. But it’s definitely more than that. It is intentional, in my opinion, well-placed, but perhaps a bit desperate, and not in a pitiful way, but in an endearing, respectful way that most of us can identify with, maybe. But all of that is looking backward, toward the past, and again, was perhaps just a ploy to get points with Brahms, but I don’t buy that.
Looking forward, the one character we didn’t include in the saga is Mahler.
This piece was written in 1878, and finished in 1880, but didn’t get its actual premiere until over 100 years later, in 1989, in Cincinnati (of all places). Mahler’s first symphony was written and completed a number of years after that, but not published until 1898. Apparently the whole revision process was finished a few years earlier than that. In any case, Mahler would have finished most of the writing (or the beginning of the writing process, or something…) three or four years AFTER Rott died. It’s Mahler’s first two symphonies that pull material right out of Rott, not the other way around. The obvious use of pastoral, Ländler-like tunes for the scherzo is so indicative of what Mahler would later do. One can only imagine the impression this had on the young Mahler, that he would use it in his first two symphonies, almost exactly as stated here. These are all the things that go through my head when I listen to how stunning a work this piece is. Rott’s devotion to his music and admiration of those who came before him. It’s also inspiring that an established, recognized genius like Mahler was so impressed by his roommate’s work. What would it have taken to impress Mahler? He made some scathing comments about Tchaikovsky’s sixth that come to mind, but Rott clearly clearly left an impression on him, as is seen from his first two symphonies (and his fifth).
While the symphony, even after just the first few listens is stunningly, brilliantly beautiful, as you get more familiar with it, it does feel a bit… Rough around the edges somehow. I can’t quite describe what makes it feel that way. I would guess that if given more time, the young composer would have edited, reforms, and polished the piece a bit, and that the final result, while possibly more mature, tightly-connected, and logical, might not have had the boldness and raw energy that this youthful version does. You can practically hear the piece dripping with potential. Was it almost as if everything he was going to be able to write needed to fit into this one symphony? This was, tragically, his only go.
That all being said, in any previous list of my favorite symphonies one-nine, this would almost undoubtedly take first place, over Mahler, Bruckner, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Nielsen, Sibelius…
This is what moves me the most about this piece: the youth and brilliance of the work in contrast with the tragedy of its composer’s tragic death. What boldness and inspiration it must have taken for this young man to write something like this, so inventive and unique for the time. It may be my inclination to think of him more as a victim… the image of Brahms wielding his authority to squander this impressive, youthful (and perhaps even intimidating) talent has kind of stuck with me. That doesn’t keep me from enjoying Brahms’ symphonies, but I feel this is the sort of thing that he would have done more than once if given the opportunity.
And then there’s the question of responsibility. Was Brahms responsible for Rott’s demise? Yes and no, I feel. If Rott did have syphilis, like some suggest, he would have been doomed anyway, and paranoia just kind of latched onto the Brahms idea. I find it hard to believe that something like this would have set off a sane person to such an extreme degree; I would argue that he had some propensity for insanity or something to begin with, so Brahms obviously can’t be blamed for that. What I think he can 100% be convicted guilty of is successfully burying this work, squandering the talent, and ensuring it was never given the credit it deserves in his lifetime (and even for the next century). For whatever Brahms had against him, I would say Rott still prevailed. Thankfully, Rott had a savior of a sort in Mahler. His quotes of his friend, not only in word but in music, are a testament to the former’s success, and one can only imagine how great a name he would be if he could have given us another eight symphonies.