Bert Hagels
On the Origin of the Symphony No. 1 in E major

(Part 1)

Updated on
January 8, 2012
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The discovery of composer Hans Rott has justly been called "the musicological discovery of the 1990s"1. First and foremost it was his only finished symphony, which had been rediscovered only two decades ago and performed for the very first time in 1989, which caused sensation for it shows various parallels to the symphonic œuvre of Rott's fellow student Gustav Mahler. It thus anticipates essential elements of a symphonic style Mahler hitherto had been considered to have exclusively originated. Convergences in theme, harmony and structure with Mahler's Second, Third and Fifth Symphony have been proved2.

Hans Rott was born on August 1, 1858 in Vienna; following private lessons, secondary school and a two years' interlude at a commercial school, he registered at the Viennese Conservatoire for the winter term of 1874/75; his teachers are among others: Hermann Grädener, Franz Krenn and Anton Bruckner. He receives his diploma in August 1878. During his studies at the Conservatoire Rott, besides various plans, sketches and drafts, composes a Symphony for String Orchestra (no. 37; 1874/75)3, lieder, a Prelude for Orchestra (no. 32; 1876), a prelude to Julius Caesar (no. 40; 1877) and a Suite for Orchestra of two movements (no. 33; 1878).

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."4

The completion of the composition studies at the Viennese Conservatoire consisted of an examination in composition fixed for May 27, for which Rott planned to present a suite for orchestra5, and a composition contest, which Rott called "Concurs", for which he had "started on" a symphony. A successful graduation was to win him the fine sum of 500 florins (fl = florins). Rott was extremely pressed for time as he reports to the same friend on May 18; at the same time he gives more detailed information about the context of the examination in composition and the "Concurs":

"As for me I am pretty down, in the word's flattest and most disgusting meaning. Monday, 27th of this month, there will be the examination in composition, for which I will have to hold the first rehearsal on Tuesday (like Rudolf [sc.: Krzyzanowski; brother of the addressee]). Tomorrow, Sunday, comes the copyist and I have hardly copied half of the parts which means I have to do the greater part of it tonight. So you will fully understand my gloominess which will become even more profound when you learn what I will tell further down. - The above examination will have very bad results this year following Hellmensberger's forecast, for he plans to have every presented piece played only once and if there are more than six mistakes in it, the score will be presented to the honourable jury. Besides, they will be very severe with this procedure and only the best will be admitted to the Concurs [competition]. For the examination Rudolf presents his opus aeternum "Zacconi" and for the competition the first movement of the symphony. Presently, I'm at a loose end with mine."6

We learn that Rott, hardly ten days prior to the examination held on May 27, is busy copying parts of his suite and also that he has asked a copyist to come and see him on Sunday, May 19 and that the first rehearsal had been fixed for Tuesday, May 21. Obviously Rott wants to have the copying of the parts done before the copyist is due who has to either make further copies of the parts or a fair copy of the score. Furthermore Rott informs that only "the best" will be admitted to the "Concurs, i.e. those who have passed the examination. Unlike his fellow student Rudolf Krzyzanowski Rott is still "at a loose end" with his contribution to the "Concurs"; for this is what the word "mine" in the last sentence certainly refers to, as Rott has finished composing and is now busy copying his contribution, the Suite for Orchestra, to the examination on May 27. That means that he has not got on with his symphony movement. Three days after the examination, on May 30, Rott informs his friend of the result and reports on the further procedure:

"Until now I was and I still am busy with the disgusting examination bustle from which I cannot flee until after the competition. On the 1st of July the examination in music history is held, and on the 15th of June the one in literary history. The result of the examination [sc.: of May 27] has been awful, because all of us had been admitted to the competition considering the fact that all of us students are to pass the second term. With my pieces the fact had been decisive that I have quitted "Wagner-ing" for which I was rewarded with the licence to take part in the Concurs! Since my last letter I did not do a stroke of work on the movement of my symphony. I think of saving the theme for a composition not to be presented at any competition and of writing a "more ardent" movement than the present one, as Krenn already told me to cut the theme short. If things continue the way they are now I will neither write something "ardent" nor anything else [...] But I have to fully concentrate on the "Concurs" because of the grant".7

He had passed the examination with success, however with a drop of bitterness for all candidates had been admitted to the "Concurs", and on technical grounds at that: all of the same age-class thought of graduating from the Conservatoire! His self-consciousness as a composer was awakened, and the "Concurs" was no longer the only goal now which he wanted to reach by composing the planned symphony. His professor of composition Franz Krenn's doubts only encouraged him in his plans to write a "more ardent" composition. We may assume that Rott believed he could leave behind the narrow rules of academic composing - no surprising resolution considering the (in the early and the final version identical) range of 28 bars of the main theme. However he firmly concentrates on the "Concurs" for practical reasons; he obviously faces financial difficulties and hopes to gain the "grant", the payment of the last instalment of his scholarship which obviously depended on the successful graduation from the Conservatoire.

Part 2

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