Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Hans Rott’s First Symphony
Katherine Cooper
30th July 2012

“It is completely impossible to estimate what music has lost in him: His genius soars to such heights even in this first symphony, written at the age of twenty. It makes him – without exaggeration – the founder of the new symphony as I understand it.”

Hans Rott

Thus wrote Gustav Mahler in a letter to Natalie Bauer-Lechner, reflecting on the legacy of his former room-mate and fellow student at the Vienna Conservatoire, Hans Rott (1858-84). An unstable young man, Rott was already prone to paranoia and delusion, but the two students grew close: ideas were shared and fragments of scores exchanged for comment, including the early drafts of the staggeringly precocious Symphony which Rott began in 1878 and which has been described as both ‘Bruckner’s 10th’ and ‘Mahler’s 0th’. But whilst Mahler would bide his time and go on to produce nine fully-fledged symphonies which were eventually acclaimed as masterworks, Rott would complete just one before dying tragically young in obscurity and insanity.

It has come to my attention this week thanks to a terrific new recording from Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. This is by no means the first recording of the work but is certainly a well-performed and recorded account which I found both fascinating and hugely enjoyable.

The first movement was first presented in piano reduction as Rott’s entry for a conservatoire competition and met with howls of derisory laughter from the adjudicators, who included Brahms: what was this callow upstart thinking of, with his grandiose attempts to out-Wagner Wagner and out-Bruckner Bruckner? The latter (Rott’s former organ teacher) was in fact on the panel and rebuked his colleagues, exclaiming "Do not laugh, gentlemen, of this man you will hear great things yet!" but to no avail – Rott’s work was the only entry not to be awarded a prize at all, and though the young composer was dreadfully demoralised he pressed on with the remaining three movements.

Rott would never hear any of his symphony performed by an orchestra, and it’s entirely possible that he may have revised some of the brasher elements of the orchestration had he been given the chance. Though the scathing cruelty of Brahms & Co. was inexcusable, it’s easy to see why the first movement was dismissed as derivative, if accomplished, juvenilia: the influence of Rott’s recent trip to the first-ever Bayreuth Festival hangs heavy in the air, with the shimmering strings and brass chorale-writing evoking the opening of Lohengrin, and later passages bearing a striking thematic resemblance to the Transformation Music from Parsifal.

The third movement, though, is something else: on first hearing this manic landler, with its stopped horns, folksily sinister violin solos and klezmer overtones, I assumed that Rott had ‘borrowed’ liberally from his former room-mate’s First, Second and Fourth Symphonies ... until I checked the dates and realised that Mahler would not start work on his First Symphony for another seven years. That said, the song on which the scherzo was based is almost directly contemporaneous with Rott’s scherzo.

Rott’s material fortunes appeared to take a turn for the better in 1880 when he was offered and accepted a conducting job in Alsace, but en route he suffered a psychotic episode and was arrested for pointing a gun at a fellow traveller to prevent him from lighting a cigar: defending his actions to the apprehending officers, Rott raved that Brahms had booby-trapped the carriage with dynamite, and was committed to the Lower Austria State Asylum (the institution where Hugo Wolf would also spend time some fifteen years later). He died there aged just 26 from tuberculosis, following three years of hallucinations and delusions.

The score languished unperformed for over a century after his death – Mahler’s correspondence reveals good intentions to perform it in full, but these came to nothing. It was eventually premiered in 1989 following archive work by the musicologist Paul Banks, whose interest was piqued by Mahler’s letter to Bauer-Lechner. As a stepping-stone between the symphonies of Rott’s teacher and those of his one-time room-mate, it’s fascinating; in its own right and as a tantalising glimpse of What Might Have Been, it’s provocative and poignant – do give it a try!

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