Monday, December 9, 2013

Rott - Symphony No. 1 In E Major

Fellow student of Gustav Mahler, favorite pupil of Anton Bruckner, Hans Rott was born in Vienna in 1858 to a father that was a comic actor and a mother that was an actress and singer. His family didn't have the economic means for his schooling but the young Rott showed so much ability that his tuition was waved. He studied with some of the best teachers in Vienna, with Anton Bruckner being the most notable. He passed Bruckner's organ class with high honors and Bruckner commended him on his playing of Bach and his improvising skills.

Rott composed the first movement of his symphony in 1878 while still a student and submitted it to a composition competition. The only jury member that didn't severely criticize the work was Bruckner. Rott completed his symphony in 1880 and worked towards getting it performed. He showed the work to Brahms in hopes of getting his backing to have the work performed, but Brahms rejected the work severely.

Later that same year Rott had accepted a position as music director and choirmaster and while he was on the train trip there, he pointed a loaded pistol at a fellow passenger to prevent him from lighting a cigar. Rott believed Brahms had sabotaged the train by loading it with dynamite. The pistol was wrestled from him and he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Vienna and later ended up in the lunatic asylum in lower Austria. He continued to compose, but his mind gave way to severe depression and hallucinations. He tried to commit suicide several times and ended up dying of tuberculosis in 1884. He was 25 years old.

Gustav Mahler
Mahler had seen Rott's symphony shortly after it was completed, and again in 1900. He had this to say about his former room mate:
a musician of genius ... who died unrecognized and in want on the very threshold of his career. ... What music has lost in him cannot be estimated. Such is the height to which his genius soars in ... [his] Symphony [in E major], which he wrote as 20-year-old youth and makes him ... the Founder of the New Symphony as I see it. To be sure, what he wanted is not quite what he achieved. … But I know where he aims. Indeed, he is so near to my inmost self that he and I seem to me like two fruits from the same tree which the same soil has produced and the same air nourished. He could have meant infinitely much to me and perhaps the two of us would have well-nigh exhausted the content of new time which was breaking out for music.
Rott's symphony was not performed in his lifetime. It was rediscovered and performed in 1989 by the Cincinnati Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gerhard Samuel. It is in 4 movements:
I. Alla breve -  Rott gives a nod to traditional sonata form in the opening movement. The opening theme soars lyrically to a powerful crescendo, punctuated by the clanging of a triangle. The first theme fades and the next theme begins in the woodwinds.  The development section deals with the themes contrapuntally, the themes return in the recapitulation and the movement builds to a huge climax as the first theme ends the movement.  Rott turns the tables on the practice of a symphony having an expansive first movement, as this first movement is the shortest one in the entire symphony.

II. Sehr langsam -   The movement begins with lyrical music played adagio. This theme is repeated and expands the second time around. It rises in a crescendo, dies down, and continues to undulate up and down in volume until it reaches a uniformly loud statement of the theme. It continues to expand and unfold, and again begins to die down in volume. Another crescendo ensues which takes the music to darker places. The music grows in quiet tension, the brass surge in loudness, the strings increase in volume, the orchestra plods loudly and darkly until a rather bizarre episode begins as the horns hold a long note, low strings play pizicatto and the violins make a harsh sforzando. The lyricism returns as the music slowly unwinds to the peaceful ending of the movement.

III. Frisch und lebhaft -  While the entire symphony can remind a listener of Mahler, it must be remembered that Rott's symphony was written before any of Mahler's. There are those that accuse Mahler of 'stealing' things from Rott, but perhaps steal is too strong a word. Perhaps Mahler was paying tribute to Rott, and composers are notorious for intentionally writing music  that intentionally (and on occasion unintentionally) sounds similar to other composer's music. Rott himself did it in this symphony in the last movement with music of Brahms, but more about that below.  The scherzo's main theme is a clomping Ländler that rough-necks its way through the movement with a short, calm, simple trio section for contrast. Even this section is heavily peppered with references to the opening dance. The Ländler is given a fugato treatment, after which the tune breaks away from its fugal constraints and  hammers its way to the end of the movement.

IV.  Sehr langsam - Belebt - The final movement begins with bassoons and pizzicato double basses playing a slow introduction which is interrupted by a reference to the theme of the scherzo. The introduction starts again and builds into a chorale for the brass, a reference to material in the second movement. The music throws out pieces of a theme that gradually completes itself and grows into a tremendous section of power in the full orchestra. The strings then play a lyrical theme, the music builds once again until suddenly Rott uses a theme that resembles Brahms' 'big' tune of the finale of his 1st symphony. This theme has created controversy as to what Rott's motives were in using it. Was it to pay homage to Brahms, or was it to poke fun of him as Rott was a member of the Wagner camp? We'll never know for sure, but if Rott was trying to poke fun at Brahms (who was a notoriously cranky sort), why would he have shown the symphony to Brahms in hopes of winning his approval to aid in getting it performed? In any case, Brahms was not impressed by the inclusion of the sound-alike theme. Perhaps Brahms was offended at Rott's imitating the imitator, as the theme in question was the main theme of the finale of Brahm's 1st Symphony, which was a sound-alike of the 'Ode To Joy' theme of Beethoven's 9th.  The music then goes into elaborate restatements of the main theme, which like the theme of the scherzo, is given a fugato treatment. The theme is given new treatments in generally loud and complex music as it weaves in and out of different sections of the brass. A climax is reached, the theme is played in augmentation, the volume level decreases,  pieces of the theme are heard in the brass over arpeggiated violins. Another climax is reached in volume as the theme is given one last regal treatment in the brass. The theme that opens the symphony returns, reaches a long, loud climax. Then the music dies down and ends quietly with the brass playing long notes and the violins playing a Wagnerian figure in the background.  

Rott's Symphony In E Major shows signs of his compositional immaturity. There is a tendency for endings of movements to go on and on, and his excessive use of the triangle is like an author using too many exclamation points. A musician of Rott's talent probably would have  revised the work if he had lived long enough to hear it performed. But the symphony is what it is, and it is the only symphony for full orchestra the world will ever have from this extremely talented, tragic composer.  I like it tremendously, despite its short-comings.


  1. "A musician of Rott's talent probably would have revised the work if he had lived long enough to hear it performed."
    I think that would be a good idea, because by turning the tables the first movement becomes too small in comparisen with the finale, thus creating an unbalance that doesn't do the symphony much good. It almost seems as if Rott has got it all backwards, exept maybe for the last part of the finale. So in my opinion revising the the whole concept i.e. architecture of the symphony would have been the best option for improvement.

  2. Food for thought: start the symphony "Sehr langsam" (Prelude), t=33'42-37'20, and swap the middle movements.

  3. At first I thought the use of triangle was weird, but after a few listenings, I start to think it works well and isn't over-scored. Most composers have their "signature sound" so-to-speak. E.g. Bruckner likes to use a lone flute over a string+bass backdrop; Schnittke likes to use a harpsichord or electric guitar for timbral contrast. I think Rott's use of triangle is part of his signature style and gives the work some individuality.