Eckhardt van den Hoogen
Hans Rott

Updated on
January 8, 2012
Hans Rott
His Life
His Music
His Importance
Works Index
What's On?
On This Site
Visitors' Book
Site Index
Zur deutschen Seite
Internationale Hans Rott Gesellschaft
Copyright Martin Brilla
All rights reserved

      There is one peculiar mind-set that perhaps manifests itself more clearly and obviously in Germany than anywhere else in the world. The minute that something unforeseen or unprecedented happens consequences of a magnitude having nothing at all to do with the particular occurrence and its actual significance have to be thought up. On closer examination one often enough will come to the conclusion that what has just been advertised as a big bang was hardly anything more than a little whimper which will take care of itself within a short time and without medical attention. A little time, a little thinking, and the hysterical attack will subside, provided of course that the cannonade that has just been fired has not taken its permanent toll on the birds, butterflies, and flowers.

      Toward the end of the 1980s the musicologist Paul Banks discovered the score of Hans Rott's Symphony in E major in the archives of the Austrian National Library. He helped it to earn attention arousing interest in its performance, saw to it that it was presented to the public, and thus without question rendered an important service to the music world. After all, here a remarkable piece had indeed all of a sudden resurfaced from the forgotten depths of history, and it was certainly a work that deserved its hearing from friends of romantic music.
      The reactions in expert circles were astonishing. This creation of a composer who was just twenty years old when he wrote it heralded great talent and produced a universal exclamation of ecstatic transport, for it was evidently here that the hen that had laid the egg of Columbus had finally been found. The young Hans Rott was immediately proclaimed the father of the new symphony, and the great Gustav Mahler, the contemporary of the future, the trailblazer of the modern era, proved to be a plagiarist who had without restraint helped himself to the oeuvre of his fellow student, who was two years his senior. Inevitably, there were those who went so far as to suggest that the whole of music history would have to be rewritten!
      A few years have since gone by. The waves have died down. One or the other expert by now must have recalled that Das klagende Lied is not later but at least as old, if not a little older, than Hans Rott's symphony and contains more »Mahler« in it than this work that inspired such enthusiasm. And perhaps people can also come to the realization that it is now high to time to clear the »field damage« caused by momentary euphoria for a more reasoned as well as more comprehensive view of things.
      We now have sufficient material at our disposal. Together with a good many articles, there are two book-length publications dedicated to the phenomenon of Hans Rott. The compilation including a biography, letters, notes, and documents from the unpublished papers of Maja Loehr (1888-1964) edited by Uwe Harten in 2000 deserves special consideration because it presents facts and not any hasty, partially incorrect conclusions and, moreover, offers a glimpse behind the walls of the Lower Austrian State Insane Asylum, where Hans Rott had to spend the miserable rest of a life which had begun under chaotic circumstances but also had shown great promise.
      Hans Rott was born in the fifteenth Vienna district on August 1, 1858. He was the son of the actor Carl Mathias Rott (Roth) and the singer and actress Maria Rosalia Lutz. His parents could not get married until after the death of his father's first wife in 1860. By the time the wedding was held in October 1862, Maria Rosalia already had a second child, Karl, who had been born on December 20, 1860. In the documents Archduke Wilhelm is listed as his father. Nevertheless, father Rott had the two half brothers legitimized, so that from the beginning of 1863 they could bear the same family name as their (official) parents.
      Hans Rott's education proceeded along the usual paths. The financial circumstances of his parents were satisfactory, and there was no reason why he should not pursue his early musical inclinations. During the winter semester 1874-75 he enrolled at the Vienna Conservatory, where he soon was exempted from tuition for a year and then was able to meet his expenses as a scholarship student. He studied harmony under Herman Grädener and piano under Leopold Landskron. In addition, he received instruction in organ from Anton Bruckner, who valued him very highly and wrote him an excellent recommendation even as late as 1880.
      Meanwhile Rott's family circumstances had taken a drastic turn for the worse. His mother had died in 1872, and in April 1875 his father suffered an accident on the stage that made it impossible for him to continue his acting career and eventually led to his death in 1876. Rott had to take an office job for a time but also could welcome two prizes of commendation from the conservatory, continued his education despite all the adversities which he had to suffer, and soon was able to pursue work more appropriate for a musician when he was hired as the organist of the Josefstadt Sacred Music Society together with free lodging.
      At the same time Rott's own catalogue of works was expanding. The first major product of his conservatory years was the Symphony in A flat major for String Orchestra (1874-75). It was followed by works including a symphony finale, one overture each to Hamlet and to Julius Caesar, and an orchestral suite. Between these works he wrote sacred and secular choral pieces as well as a few songs. He also sketched the beginnings of an oratorio. After he had been relieved of his duties as organist at the beginning of in November 1878 (at his own request and together with an extensive letter of recommendation), he began working out his Symphony in E major. He submitted its first movement to a composition competition at the conservatory already in July of the same year. Although Anton Bruckner put in a word for him, Rott was the only graduate who did not receive a prize. Nevertheless, his diploma certified that he had completed the »study program of the School of Composition ... with outstanding success.«
      Shorter trips and excursions, a »great love« (the first and only one of Rott's life), and the completion of the symphony all occurred during 1879-80. The Pastoral Overture begun in 1877 was completed. A second symphony was composed. A sextet for strings was finished. (1) At the beginning of September Rott attempted without success to get Hans Richter to perform his first symphony. Hardly two weeks later he paid a call on Johannes Brahms, who, together with Eduard Hanslick and Karl Goldmark, had to decide about the awarding of a state fellowship. Brahms doubted that Rott was the author of the symphony because »together with such beauty there was also so much triviality and nonsense in the composition that the former could not stem from Rott.« Rott then made another try. In the meantime he had good prospects for a post as music director or choir director with a choral society in the Alsatian town of Müllhausen/Mulhouse but continued to cling to the hope that his symphony might be performed. On October 14 he played it for Hans Richter. On October 21 his friends brought him to the train bound for Müllhausen. During a stopover in Linz he heard knocking on the walls of his room. On October 22 or 23 he continued his journey. A fellow traveler wanted to light a cigar. Rott drew his revolver and threatened the man. He was afraid that Brahms had loaded the train with dynamite. On October 23 he was brought to the Psychiatric Clinic of the General Hospital in Vienna »in a completely crazy state.« It was thus that his death sentence was pronounced. After a first suicide attempt Rott was transferred to the Lower Austrian State Insane Asylum at the beginning of 1881. It was there that he died on June 25, 1884, not even at the age of twenty-six.
      To the credit of those who treated Rott, it must be said that he held out relatively long. Robert Schumann lasted exactly two years and five months in Endenich, and Friedrich Hölderlin in all likelihood would not have managed to survive so long in the Autenrieth Clinic in Tübingen if he had not been brought in time to master joiner Zimmer's tower. Who would have wanted to wear the Autenrieth mask, which was supposed to keep clinic patients from shouting and according to all descriptions looked very much like Hannibal Lecter's muzzle? (2) Who would have wanted to survive even only one day while wearing such an inhumane device if he was not a genuine psychopath?
      Here an excursus on the state of psychiatry in 1880 seems to be in order. »The classification of mental illnesses ... cannot yet be made on an anatomical basis,« so we read in the then most up-to-date encyclopedia. Under the same heading it is also stated that »mental illness« concerns »those illnesses which announce themselves by disturbances in the area of sense impressions, of the imagination, volition, or action.« The tenor of all these remarks is that »delusions,« »insanity,« and »persecution mania« are in principle incurable, while »psychiatry« - unabashedly - admits of definition as the »science of the healing of the mind.« Every abnormality, even if it is nothing more than the abnormality of feeling a special calling within oneself, can be interpreted as as an illness and accordingly treated by having the person concerned locked up: »Every overexertion of the brain, excessive mental and emotional excitement, is to be avoided; on the other hand the development and exercise of physical strength very particularly should be kept in mind; the goal must always be to work as much as possible toward the simplest, most ordered external relations, toward the avoidance of all passionate excitements, toward the accustoming to subordination under objectively given circumstances.«
      What here sounds like a caricature consists of excerpts from the fourth edition of Meyer's Konversations-Lexikon, which came out on the market four years after Rott's death. Here we find the treatment ideas of a clique which - undisturbed by any and all scientific knowledge - for many years had been licensed to maintain the status quo, which amounted to seeing to »the accustoming to subordination under objectively given circumstances,« whether Social Democrats or large-format crazies like artists were concerned. The Gulag was everywhere. (3)
      This does not mean that normal behavior includes resorting to armed force to keep a smoker from his pleasure. But the lack of diagnostic acumen distinguishing the guild of self-appointed psyche-plumbers is also quite evident in the case of the unfortunate Hans Rott. What would have happened if, for example, a few friends of the most profoundly insecure composer had kidnapped him, taken him off to the Styrian Salzkammergut, provided him with a piano, a stack of music paper, a couple of cubic meters of firewood, and a lumberjack's ax, if they had given him the opportunity for mental and physical activity in quiet surroundings? But as things were, surrounded by people suffering from genuine and imagined mental illnesses, Rott had to lose his marbles, like Robert Schumann before him.
      Two things here are cause for alarm. The arbitrariness with which the supposed diagnoses are passed on in the secondary literature, and the self-glorification of the diagnosticians, who always recognize the symptoms but never the possible causes. And it is precisely the causes that would be interesting to investigate. Why is it that Robert Schumann as well as Hans Rott and Hugo Wolf all meet under the rubric of »Johannes Brahms«? Is this really only a biographical coincidence? Anton Bruckner must have been of another opinion, given the fact that at the coffin of his favorite pupil Rott he made such heavy accusations against his local rival Brahms that even Rott's friend Friedrich Loehr, the father of the aforementioned journalist Maja Loehr, saw himself forced to do some fancy argumentative footwork: »I believe Brahms behaved in this way [in his rebuke] toward the >beginner< who enlisted all the expressive means of his art, with a good >educational< intention; given the experiences and convictions of his own artistic formation and nature, he could not do otherwise, and I believe that in doing so he objectively committed a most genuine artistic injustice. At the time, however - it was just before his illness manifested itself - Rott could no longer at all be saved and had fallen victim to his bitter fate: his illness, caused by very different psychic and emotional factors, had already been long in preparing« (Friedrich Loehr, Die Musik, 1903-04).
      Loehr's exertion here was no success, first, because he suppressed the »very different factors« and, second, because he overlooked other cases and incidents from the Brahms's files: Heinrich von Herzogenberg over many years attempted to gain recognition from the master; Max Bruch had to put up with the question about where he had obtained such nice score paper; and even Ethel Smyth, truly a tougher operator than Rott or Schumann, did not exactly have flattering thing to report about him. Moreover, one should recall what Hans Richter, a friend of Brahms, did to Hugo Wolf's Penthesilea: he tore it to pieces because the young Wolf had attacked the great Brahms in his reviews. ...
      Our purpose here is not to find fault with Johannes Brahms; his works render him immune from prosecution. But one should perhaps consider the fact that Wolf and Rott, like Gustav Mahler, were pupils of Anton Bruckner and were not situated on the classicistic line that played the coquet with the status quo. At best one might be willing to accept the hypothesis that the whole thing was nothing more than a perpetuated misunderstanding, in other words, that Brahms did not understand the meaning of the trivialities that do indeed gambol about in Rott's symphonic score. This would be an acceptable way out of the bind, inasmuch as one could cite, so to speak, the fate of Mahler's oeuvre as a star witness. How long did it indeed take until the disparate substances of his works were recognized for that which they really are - parts of those worlds that in his view symphonies had to be? »Where the beautiful trumpets blow,« where »Brother Jacob« strides by in the funeral march, and where the »cuckoo has pleased itself it death.« Until a few decades ago many observers who had set out to teach banality to fear went out on strike at these points. The task of the citation, of the allusion, of the thematic »silhouette« in which one only has an inkling of what might come into view behind the contours - all of this as well as the life's achievement of Robert Schumann, who without exaggeration may be described as the genuine father of literary-musical composing, remained concealed from the view of the music world's moral policeman . Those who do not hear Florestan's »In des Lebens Frühlingstagen« in the first theme of the piano concerto or cannot follow the manifold transformation of the almost obsessive rhythmic formation
with its different manifestations throughout the composer's whole oeuvre but at the most are capable of hearing the »Marseillaise« in the Faschingsschwank will have no end of trouble with a large part of the late-romantic repertoire, whether Peter Tchaikovsky, Gustav Mahler, Hans Rott, or even Johannes Brahms is involved. As far as Brahms is concerned, he who would have had to have been an idiot not to have immediately discovered what kind of mirror the young student of his rival was holding up to him on September 16 or 17, 1880: a symphonic world map of the nineteenth century on which he himself, the Northern German Viennese-by-choice, had his place as one of the many famous greats of the past and present.
      To be sure, with his positively »indecent« advances Hans Rott had set the fox to keep the geese and with a wondrous naiveté had stepped on the toes of a composer who did not like having his toes stepped on - as will be shown in the finale of the symphony. In his »megalomaniac« quest for a universal music Rott evidently had not reflected on what he was getting into when he tried to reconcile the Viennese antipodes Brahms and Bruckner and even went far beyond this in his effort to integrate different stumbling blocks like Wagner and Schumann into his composition.
      Let us put ourselves in the place of Rott's hearer on that occasion and try to imagine what he would have felt when he encountered the first movement from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (at ca. 5' on the present recording) or had to suspect a reference to the Spring Symphony in the ample use of the triangle, not to mention the reminiscences of Lohengrin and Rheingold, which the anti-Wagnerian No. 1 could not have ignored. The second movement does not make things any easier in that here after some time (1'40) the Schumann motif alluded to above appears. Owing to its frequent employment, it quite easily could be linked to »Clara,« and Brahms was genuinely familiar with it (here one need only think of the beginning of his third symphony). Rott did not leave it at one single reference; no, he repeated the motif again a few minutes later (4'30) so that even »an ass could hear it« - and very probably without knowing the nerve he would hit with it.
      And in the finale Rott really went too far. After he lets the previous events pass in review very much in the manner of Anton Bruckner's fifth symphony, he chooses a melody that (unintentionally) does its provoking: its proximity to the finale theme from Brahms's first symphony is so obvious (4'40) that the evaluator perhaps may have felt that Rott was poking fun at him. The repetitions (8'20 and 12'25) would only have intensified the unfavorable impression. And the fact the Rott had the quasi-quoted Brahms end up proceeding into Valhalla with the gods was clear evidence of his mental state: Rott had fallen victim to the »primary insanity« which affects »mostly young individuals of seventeen to twenty-five or older ones, namely women, of forty to fifty years of age.«
      From the viewpoint of Rott's fellow student Gustav Mahler, things were completely different. Although the two students had quarreled horribly about whether one needed a roast for composing or might not rather make do with some cheese (Quargel, a variety of Harz cheese), the disputes between the roast-beef composer Rott and the cheese composer Mahler never went so far that their mutual estimation would have suffered for it. Even when Rott was in the insane asylum, he answered as follows when asked if he could remember Mahler: »Certainly, certainly, Mahler is a genius« (according to the notes of his friend Joseph Seemüller). And Mahler said of Rott, »What music has lost with him cannot at all be measured: his genius rises to such soaring already in his first symphony, which he wrote as a twenty-year-old and which - it is not too much said - made him the founder of the new symphony as I understand it. That which he wanted, however, has not yet been reached entirely. It is as when somebody gears up to throw something as far as he can and, still unskilfully, does not completely reach the goal. But I know where he is aiming. Yes, it is so related to my very own that he and I seemed to me like two fruits from the same tree, which the same soil has produced, which the same air has nourished. I could have obtained infinitely much from him, and perhaps we too together in a certain way would have exhausted the content of this new time which was dawning for music« (Gustav Mahler in the memoirs of Nathalie Bauer-Lechner).
      It is documented that Gustav Mahler already very early had precise knowledge of the E major symphony. Joseph Seemüller, who visited Rott on Christmas Eve 1882, reported to his pitiable friend that his former companion Mahler had recently played the work in a private circle. Nevertheless, the influence that the score had on Mahler's own formation, the role that is played in his symphonic music, cannot be answered with a general rewriting of music history.
      Above all we will have to reach an agreement about what connections we want to look for. The importance of quotation and allusion, significant in both cases, speaks very generally in favor of what Mahler termed the kindred nature of the two composers. Elements such as the horn tones in the second movement of the E flat major symphony point to a more direct relation, and so does the beginning of the last movement, in which the »intermediary realm« from the finale of the Resurrection Symphony, with its bird calls and its »proclaimer in the desert,« incontestably is prepared. Both composers have in common a free treatment of traditional forms. The design of Rott's symphony, however, is a very concrete example of something that is not to be found in Mahler. To a certain extant, Rott designed his symphony in a temporal progression, so that the sequence of movements is accompanied by a continuous increase in performance duration.The twenty-minute tone poem at the end turns the course of musical events toward immeasurability. Nevertheless, in both composers the symbol of the status quo comes undone, and immediately Robert Schumann's ambivalent aphorism, according to which »form is the vessel of the creative spirit,« comes to mind. Conservatism will always interpret this statement to mean that creativity has be made to fit the prefabricated earthen vessel, but the progressive spirit either forms his own vessels in order then to fill them or produces them while he strives forward ... It was thus that Schumann was able to write his Carnaval or his Fantasy, which formally is nothing other than a retrograde and overextended Moonlight Sonata in three tone poems. At the end it was thus even possible for Gustav Mahler to turn the inside outside in a symphony, namely in his ninth symphony. And so too Hans Rott was able to design his quasi-spiral-form masterpiece. (4)
      There is a very good reason why the scherzo occupying the third position has not yet been discussed. For it is here that the roast-beef composer and the cheese composer meet on such intimate terms that one might be (mis)led to think that Mahler not only helped out his pal with a couple of ideas but also with a whole supply of elaborated score pages and later integrated them into the scherzo of his own first symphony after Rott, for the reasons described above, no longer had any need of them.
      Naturally, the circumstances involved were quite different. The third movement of the E flat major symphony is about eight years older than its Mahlerian counterpart and without the slightest doubt a blood relative of the same. Much more interesting than the often almost note-for-note agreements should be the questions why Gustav Mahler had a funeral march follow his scherzo à la Rott and why the outburst in the third movement of the second symphony is produced with Rott's »words«. Might it perhaps be that the greatest master (after Schumann) of sophisticated quotation was commemorating the »Titan« and then went on to help him to »Resurrection«? We should not forget that Mahler's scores are no less rich in allusions than the trailblazing novels of Arno Schmidt: one always has the suspicion that what one hears is not what is meant. Until the present day is there anyone who has ever figured out what business the first sonata from Paganini's Centone is has at the beginning of the fifth symphony, why Beethoven's Storm Sonata and Schumann's Manfred Overture frolic about in the first movement of the sixth symphony, or why the first movement of the third symphony begins with the song »Ich hab' mich ergeben,« which, in turn, seems to be a silhouette of the main theme from the finale of Brahms's first symphony?
      He whose aim it is to produce a »universal symphony« must include and ought not to exclude. This supposedly so naive principle opens the gateway to the new symphony. A universe full of music, full of signs and concepts is at one's disposal, everything can be placed in relation to everything else and becomes a glass-bead game, but the decision whether the hen is more important than the egg suddenly becomes completely irrelevant. Suddenly times and places really having nothing to do with each other stand side by side. (How did it happen that Mahler had Charles Ives's third symphony in his baggage when he made his last Old World journey?) And it is precisely at this point that things get exciting - without one having to take refuge in Bernd Alois Zimmermann's »Kugelgestalt der Zeit«!
      In contrast to the Symphony in E major, Hans Rott's Pastoral Overture (1877-80) is overvalued. Although a few "Mahlerian elements" can be detected in the score, the work as a whole points in another direction. To be specific, the fugato has the effect of a piece of work from Bruckner's contrapuntal school, and it would be extraordinarily bold to interpret this »fugue« as »flight« from the thunderstorm that Ludwig can Beethoven had let pour down over the »Lustiges Beisammensein der Landleute« in his Pastoral Symphony. If at all, then it is toward the end of Rott's pretty atmospheric picture that one gets the sense of an anticipation of Max Reger. But Reger, at least verbaliter, was oriented more toward Brahms, and for this reason much less importance should be assigned to the seeming anticipation than to the fact that in Hans Rott one of the many great talents of the nineteenth century was crushed between the millstones of the status quo and then was deprived of his creative life because of his supposed megalomania and persecution complex.
Eckhardt van den Hoogen
Translated by Susan Marie Praeder
(1) The symphony remained a fragment, and Rott evidently destroyed the sextet shortly before his death.
(2) The Silence of the Lambs with Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, USA, 1990.
(3) Today, of course, everything is completely different. A disciplinary sentence is a landmark achievement that not infrequently has as its consequence running amok and sex crimes or leads those who are released, depending on their particular obsession, to commit suicide, blow up a courthouse, or mow down the members of a parliament.
(4) A thorough, »measure-by-measure« analysis of the symphony by Frank Litterscheid is found in the Hans Rott volume of the Musik-Konzepte.

Copyright van den Hoogen/cpo ©2002
With kind permission of the author (Pro Classics) and cpo

This article is part of the booklet of the CD::

Symphony in E major
Pastorales Vorspiel (Pastoral Prelude)
Vienna Radio Symphoniy Orchestra
Dennis Russell Davies
2002 (cpo 999 854-2)
More about the CD

Internationale Hans Rott Gesellschaft