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It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Hans Rott (1858-1884) is one of the great what-ifs in music history. Gustav Mahler wrote of his Vienna Conservatory roommate: "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."

Rott was, in a sense, a victim of Brahms's rivalries with Wagner and Bruckner. He studied under Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory from 1874 through 1877, and he was influenced by Wagner's work, having attended the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876. He composed the first movement of his 1st Symphony as a graduation piece in 1878 -- hence Mahler's reference to him writing it "at the age of twenty" -- and it received high praise from his teacher Bruckner. But in 1880, when Rott completed the entire symphony, he was no longer a student, he presented the piece to two of Vienna's leading conductors, Johannes Brahms and Hans Richter, in an effort to get the symphony played. It was rejected almost out of hand. Brahms, knowing Rott was his rival's student, even told the young composer he had no talent whatsoever and should give up music.

Only a few months later, Rott had a psychotic break during a train journey: he reportedly threatened another passenger with a gun, shouting that Brahms had filled the train with dynamite and ordering his fellow passenger at gunpoint to extinguish his cigar. Rott was arrested and committed to a mental hospital. After a brief recovery in 1882 and 1883 in which he was able to begin work on a second symphony, he relapsed into psychosis in 1883 and was committed a second time. A year later, he died of tuberculosis, aged just 25. Where Rott's symphony greatly influenced his friend and one-time roommate Mahler, his untimely demise contributed to the theme of human mortality that pervades Mahler's work.

As for Rott's music, Mahler kept and catalogued it to ensure that it would not be lost to posterity. But despite Mahler's lengthy career as a conductor of major orchestras, he never performed Rott's symphony. The symphony would remain unheard until Gerhard Samuel conducted the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in its first-ever performance in 1989, more than a century after it was composed. Since then, it has been sometimes described by conductors and musicologists as "Mahler's Symphony No. 0" for the influence it had on Mahler. To be sure, it isn't a mature work; had it been rehearsed by an orchestra during his lifetime, Rott likely would have made revisions. Its orchestration is at times awkward, especially in the brass parts: modern performances generally divide its four horn parts among six players, for example. And to modern listeners, the resemblance to Mahler may be rather jarring -- but remember that Rott completed this symphony seven years before Mahler began to work on his first. Nonetheless, this is a brilliantly moving piece, full of imagination and emotional depth, and arguably one of the most important symphonies of the late Romantic era.

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Andrew

September 2017

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