Hans Rott

Thomas Leibnitz
"Do not laugh, gentlemen ..."

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Translation of the website http://www.musikverein.at/service/d/monatszeitung/show_record.asp?monat=Februar&jahr=2000&index=146

with kind permission of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna.

"Do not laugh, gentlemen ..."

On the first performance of the "Pastoral Prelude for Orchestra" by Hans Rott

As his favourite student Hans Rott was at stake, Anton Bruckner put his foot down. Carl Hruby relates an occurrence at the Conservatoire of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music) in July 1878: "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!" Which of Rott's works caused the gentlemen's scorn is not mentioned in the account; most probably it was first movement of the young composer's Symphony in E major, a work which, more than one hundred years after it had been written, experienced an unexpected renaissance and confronted the general public with the hitherto almost unknown name of "Rott".

However, only part of Anton Bruckner's prophesy was to come true. When on June 25, 1884 the just twenty-six year old Hans Rott, patient of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum of Lower Austria, died of tuberculosis, the great hopes and expectations his friends had entertained of him, had been a matter of the past for some time already. Almost four years lasted the tragic epilogue of the musician's life who had been suffering from "hallucinatory insanity and persecution mania" and had been given up by the physicians. As a student of the Conservatoire he had gained Anton Bruckner's recognition and as a composer the admiration of a small, however select, circle of friends to which also Gustav Mahler belonged during his early years in Vienna.

Mahler is the keyword essential for Rott's rediscovery during the 80s of our century. Again, the initiative had to come "from outside": In the course of his archival studies of Gustav Mahler's youth and his Viennese circle of friends, the English musicologist Paul Banks also looked into Hans Rott's artistic estate which is kept in the Music Collections of the Austrian National Library since 1950. The manuscript of the Symphony in E major aroused his interest, not least because of the extraordinary praise which Gustav Mahler expressed to Natalie Bauer-Lechner: "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. Yet I know what he is aiming at. Yes, he is so related to my very own that he and I seem to me like two fruits from the same tree, brought forth by the same soil, nourished by the same air. He could have been so infinitely much to me and perhaps the two of us together would have fairly exhausted the content of this new age which was dawning for music."

It seems as if Mahler at that time - the summer of 1900 - had taken into consideration a performance of the Symphony which, for what reasons ever, did not come off. The work continued to lie dormant in drawers and archives until Paul Banks produced the material for a performance and initiated the first performance (March 4, 1989) in Cincinnati with Gerhard Samuel conducting It was met with great and international response; shortly afterwards Rott's Symphony was to be heard also in Paris, London and Vienna. Almost unanimously the reviews noted a number of striking reminiscences of Mahler in this work - or better anticipations, for the Symphony had been written many years prior to Mahler's First Symphony. "Mahler's Zero Symphony or Rott's First?" asked Wolfgang Fuhrmann in the "Standard" on the occasion of the Viennese first performance by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra with Carlos Kalmar conducting on March 4, 1990 and in summing up he wrote: "Inevitably this leads to the assumption that the fellow students Rott and Mahler must have entertained an intimate exchange of musical ideas."

It may be a similar case with the work which now - 120 years after it had been written - will be performed for the first time: the "Pastoral Prelude for Orchestra", finished in 1880, that is shortly after the completion of the First Symphony. The Rott biography does reveal almost nothing about the "Pastoral Prelude", the more curious we may be whether the phenomenon of the "anticipated Mahler" will be heard in this work, too, the score of which promises well in this respect. Above all the nature scene, determined by bird call and sustained tones, with which Mahler's First Symphony begins, seems to be a reminiscence of some parts of the "Pastoral Prelude" which - in contrast to the Symphony - was not intended to be presented to an examining jury. Thus the composer's imagination experienced no limitations at all with regard to sound and form. The question suggests itself: What kind of relationship existed between Rott and Mahler? Did the musical relationship really correspond with a congeniality of their characters?

An answer, however an extremely subjective one, has a the friend of Rott's youth, Heinrich Krzyzanowski, who in his written reminiscences recalls the relationship with Mahler: "By the way, there was no real friendship between Rott and Mahler - although they saw a lot of each other...". Indeed, no statement by Rott has been handed down to us which points to a closer friendship with Mahler. Besides Mahler must have withdrawn himself after 1878 from the circle of musical friends who regularly met in Rott's room at the Piaristen monastery during 1877 and 1878. But Rott's tragic fate and the greatly individual character of his music seem to have left a deep impression in the colleague, his junior by just two years, which - thinking of his remarks to Natalie Bauer-Lechner - remained vivid for decades and, in a way, made Mahler remember Rott as a symbol of failure.

Attempts, abandoned hopes - this is the motto of Rott's short life. Born on August 1, 1858 as son of the actor Carl Mathias Rott, the boy first attended the Academic Secondary School and afterwards a commercial school for two years. Only then he must have realized his talent for music, as from 1874 on he studied at the Conservatoire of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (organ with Bruckner, harmony with Grädener, composition with Krenn). Wagner, the idol of the circle around Bruckner, enthralled him, too: 1875 Rott became a member of the Viennese Academic Wagner Society, 1876 he attended the first Bayreuth Festival. During the next two years he was employed as organist at the Josefstadt Church Music Society and lived in the Piaristen monastery - in very poor circumstances. He resigned as organist in 1878; in the same year he finished his studies at the Conservatoire, and then a two years' search for a permanent position began which was determined by repeated failures.

His negotiations with St. Florian and Klosterneuburg were in vain and so were his applications at the St. Michael Church and the Votiv Church in Vienna. Bruckner helped with letters of recommendation; one of them survived in the Rott estate: ""The signer of this letter deems it a great pleasure to confirm that he got to know Hans Rott during his studies at the Conservatoire as a disciple of art who, due to his excellent talents, his diligence and pure character and last but not least his performance as a musician, especially at the organ, gives rise to the greatest hopes."

An emotional attachment to his hometown and a romance kept Rott tied to Vienna, however, it was becoming more and more clear that his future did not lie there. Yet, despite all the pecuniary worries and the struggle for existence, the years until 1880 had also been a creative period; not only the Symphony in E major was written during that time but also - simultaneously - the "Pastoral Prelude" and the String Quartet in c minor (a highly advanced composition). Rott competed for the Beethoven Prize and the state scholarship for musicians and in 1880 he presented the Symphony and the "Pastoral Prelude" to the Ministry of Education. Furthermore he considered visits to the jury members, one of them was Johannes Brahms, appropriate. His visit to Brahms must have been a traumatic experience for the young composer whose extreme nervousness already pointed towards a psychical crisis. As Rott told his friends afterwards, Brahms flatly refused the Symphony and added: "it could not possibly have been composed by himself".

Furthermore, the imminent farewell to Vienna also meant a grave strain for Rott, for a half-hearted application for a position as director of the Alsatian choir association "Concordia" had met with success; Rott had to take up the employment and at the end of October 1880 he departed from Vienna. On the train disaster struck. With his revolver Rott threatened a fellow traveller who wanted to light a cigar and said that Brahms had had the train filled with dynamite. He was brought back to Vienna and committed to the Psychiatric Clinic of the General Hospital. For the rest of his short, tragic life he remained behind the walls of psychiatric asylums.

It may sound cynical to call such a fate "more interesting" in retrospect than a well-ordered "normal" biography. Certainly, this alone does not justify the interest in his posthumous compositions, of course; these have to legitimate themselves in concerts by their own immanent qualities. The Symphony in E major has already stood the public test which is still in store for the "Pastoral Prelude". Certainly, there is one thing or two to be said about the score: it had been conceived as a broadly constructed crescendo and divides into a prelude and a fugue, it shows a clever chamber musical instrumentation and proves the composer's imagination as to counterpoint. Yet only the real sound event will prove whether the essential will be a success. Which would be the discovery of a work which we experience as a direct musical event, not only in the sense of a late "rehabilitation" of Hans Rott.

Further information on the "Internationale Hans Rott Gesellschaft" can be found under: http://www.hans-rott.de/ ; www.hans-rott.org

Thomas Leibnitz

Dr Thomas Leibnitz is librarian at the Music Collections of the Austrian National Library, Vienna.

Friday, February 18, 2000

Internationale Hans Rott Gesellschaft