Saturday, July 24, 2010

Revisiting Hans Rott (1858-1884)

Let’s imagine another time about 130 years ago, 1880, a time full of promise for the future, a time that is called “Romantic” or “Late Romantic” today, neither term adequately fitting explicitly what that period was about, but we’re stuck with them until a broader realization makes it clear that these times were as “modern” or indeed as some academics are quick to assert, “post-modern,” as are any of our own times.  Yet, in 1880 so much was innocent or at least seemed to be compared with what was to follow. In 1880, the world had another three years to see and use the Brooklyn Bridge and nine years to behold the finished Eifel Tower. 

In 1880 in Western music at the time, certain famous people were alive and active:

Richard Wagner, the composer of Tristan und Isolde and The Ring Cycle was 67 years old.  Wagner was probably the most influential composer of the 19th century, just as Igor Stravinsky perhaps was of the 20th, and was at the peak of his fame and had three more years to live. 
Franz Liszt was 69, his daughter became Wagner’s wife.  Liszt, the amazing and hugely charismatic Hungarian virtuoso pianist / composer had six more years to live and was likewise in 1880 at the peak of his career. 
Wagner’s rival, Johannes Brahms was 47 years old.  Brahms wielded amazing critical authority (he could literally make or break careers and often did so), based largely on his precision and definitive musical craftsmanship, which has endured to the present time.  That same year, 1880, Brahms delivered his Academic Festival Overture and had been working on his monumental Second Piano Concerto which was to be released to the world the following year.  Brahms had 17 more years to live. 
And Anton Bruckner, who was 56 years old that year, the same age as Beethoven when he died, had by that time acquired quite a reputation at the Vienna Conservatory and was hugely influential on the students there.  Bruckner had 16 more years to live.

This piece is going to focus on a particular person, these days largely unknown, because after all he lived for all but 25 years and a few months.  His name was Hans Rott (1858-1884) the name pronounced like the English word wrote.  In 1880 at 22 years old, Rott was at the peak of his musical powers and would be dead four years later.  He was a native of the Vienna metro area, was of Jewish descent (his original name Roth) and there’s a considerable probability that he converted to Catholicism in order to functions in the musical milieu of that day which required that one assimilate to the state religion.  Of course, another more fortunate composer had to do the same thing.

The sketchy biography of Rott says that he was orphaned by the time he was 18, was studying at the Vienna Conservatory by his sheer talent alone since he was too poor to pay tuition, so basically on scholarship, where he studied organ with Bruckner, had been to the inaugural Bayreuth Festival where Richard Wagner’s operas are still performed every year, in 1876, the same year Rott’s father died and that he roomed at the Vienna Conservatory briefly with Gustav Mahler.  Mahler would have been two years or so younger than Rott and we know that Mahler also decided to convert to Catholicism in order to have any chance at a career in Catholic Austria.

Now we come to the pivotal point in Rott’s career, his meeting with Brahms who wielded enormous influence outside academe and could get one’s compositions performed or not.  Brahms had an antipathy to anything that rolled around harmonically or was too experimental with regard to form.  This is the man who made the careers of Antonín Dvořák (who was 39 in 1880) and later of Ferruccio Busoni (who was just 14 that year). 
1880 was also the year Hans Rott completed his Symphony in E Major and he of course wanted to get it performed, so he presented it to Brahms.  Well the official accounts say that owning to Bruckner’s influence at the Conservatory (Brahms positively loathed Bruckner’s “snakes of symphonies” as he called them) that Brahms decided that he, Rott, had no talent whatsoever and should give up music.

Now, while we may continue to like, even love, much music that has come down to us from these all too human people, even the young JS Bach reputedly got into fist fights, we can stand back and look at what happened next.

Here is this young man, Hans Rott, who has lost his family, has had to disavow his heritage and his faith, has done well in school (on scholarship) and has just put everything he has into a monumental symphony (links to which I hope work long enough to give one some idea of this work).  He goes before the one man who can make or break him and due to the cultural politics of the day this man decides to break him.  This happens far too often everywhere and in many disciplines, to the great disservice of the human race.

What then happened to Rott next, happens to a lot of very sensitive and talented people whose lives have given them more than enough stress and strain for them to bear; Rott goes mad.  Rott very soon after his eventful meeting with Brahms has his psychotic break, is hospitalized in an insane asylum and dies of tuberculosis (for who really took care of the insane back then?) in 1884 and almost the only person who knew him well enough, and certainly was influenced by his music, Gustav Mahler, had this to say;

“"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."

As you listen to Hans Rott’s Symphony, you may certainly hear Wagner and Bruckner and even a little Brahms, especially in the last movement, but you will also hear early Mahler.  Here then we have one of the missing links in orchestral music of that time, Hans Rott was a link between Wagner and Bruckner and Mahler.

I also note that one person who was instrumental in getting Rott’s symphony performed was Gerhard Samuel (1925-2008), someone I knew in my youth as the conductor of the Oakland (California) Symphony Orchestra and associated with the Junior Bach festival. 
So here it is on You Tube, Hans Rott’s Symphony in E Major from 1880:

1st movement: Alla breve
2nd movement: Sehr langsam (Very slow)
3rd movement: Scherzo: Frisch und lebhaft (Fresh and vivid)
4th movement: Sehr langsam / Belebt (Very slow/ Brisk)


  1. I agree that Rott's symphony is great music, and it is a tragedy that he died so young. The Scherzo is very much like the second movement of Mahler's first, and it was probably written before.
    Rott was one of Bruckner's favourite students and this would not have endeared him to Brahms.

  2. Shostakovich has with no doubt heard Hans Rott.
    It is a fantastic symphony and his story is very interesting.

    Rott's influence on Mahler is also very obvious, but I do not think Mahler ever reaches what Hans Rott came up with in his first and last symphony.