Hans Rott — a symphonic stepping stone

Despite his many hardships, the Viennese composer’s work was a crucial bridge from the Romantic to the Modern.
Hans Rott
Portrait of Hans Rott (1858-1884). Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo
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No man is an island, and all that. But when you listen to the music of Gustav Mahler, he seems like a man apart. With cowbells jangling and alphorns calling, his symphonies are instantly recognisable. Surely, however, a figure whose centre was Vienna, the musical capital of the world, couldn’t have existed in isolation. Mahler’s songs, after all, pick up narratives from Schubert, while his symphonies riff on structures and motifs from Beethoven and other totemic forebears. But there is another, rather more minor figure lurking in the wings of this Viennese pantheon: Hans Rott (1858–84). To discover Rott’s works, created during a tragically short life, is to find an intriguing staging post in this story of Austro-German music.

Unlike the Bohemian-born Mahler, Rott was Viennese from the get-go. His birthplace was Braunhirschengrund, a small hamlet of homes, inns and vineyards on the western edge of the city, which would soon be subsumed into the imperial capital’s rapidly expanding outer suburbs. Today, the district is known as Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus and borders the platforms and sidings of Vienna’s Westbahnhof, making it impossible to imagine Rott’s bucolic childhood and the evocative Schrammelmusik emanating from the nearby taverns.

The composer was raised by his character actor father, Carl Matthias, who appeared as Dr Blind in the first performances of Johann Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus in 1874, while Rott’s mother, Maria Rosalia Lutz, was a dancer and great beauty. Unmarried at Rott’s birth, which was still controversial in a predominantly Catholic society, their 1863 wedding legitimised both Hans and his half-brother Karl, the result of Maria’s affair with Archduke Wilhelm Franz. But if this early childhood seems colourful enough, it was nothing compared to what followed.

Rott’s parents ensured that Hans was educated privately, before attending the Gymnasium and, from there, a local trade school. While solid beginnings would soon give way to more poetic ends, Rott’s artistic ambitions were threatened by family tragedy. His mother died in 1872, aged just 32, while his father was severely injured on stage in 1875, the year Rott entered the Vienna Conservatory, and died the following year. Orphaned, barely an adult, he was forced to find a job, though he eventually returned to the Conservatory to study alongside the likes of Mahler and Hugo Wolf.

Filled with such mercurial talents, the institution lived up to its hothouse name, with Wolf particularly infamous for his temperament and resistance to authority. The handsome Czech-born violinist and composer Rudolf Krzyzanowski was equally headstrong and formed an intoxicating circle with Mahler and Rott. Of the trio, Mahler was convinced that the introverted Rott was the greatest talent, despite a fondness for drink and cigarettes, which gave him a hoarse if soft voice, complete with a heavy Viennese accent. Rott only became loud, according to Krzyzanowski’s brother, ‘when playing the organ or in his compositions.’ 

As a young man, he excelled as an organist and played regularly at Vienna’s Piaristen Church. The salary there may have been appalling, but Rott enjoyed free bed and board. And with very few monks around, he was able to entertain friends, staying up late into the night to discuss their fervours and fascinations, principally the music of Wagner. Rott attended the very first Bayreuth Festival in 1876.

Rott slowly emerged as a composer in his own right, thanks to his teacher, the Austrian symphonist Anton Bruckner, another avid worshipper at the Bayreuth shrine and a leading organist, as well as Franz Krenn, whose pupils numbered Leoš Janáček, Mahler and Alexander Zemlinsky. Learning with them both, Rott’s student works included a string symphony and overtures to Hamlet and Julius Caesar, alongside songs, rarely written down, and choral works, both sacred and profane. Gradually, as his output increased, Rott abandoned the organ loft in the hope of working more intensively on his own music. And in 1878, he took that plunge, having achieved the highest grade for his Prelude to an Orchestral Suite, which allowed him to submit work for that year’s composition competition.

Within just three weeks, Rott had completed the first movement of a symphony. A curtain raiser of stirring intent, it expands like a Wagnerian prelude, achieving dazzling, full-orchestral peaks. The jury, however, was unimpressed, with Bruckner the only vocal support in the room: ‘Don’t laugh, gentlemen,’ he insisted, ‘you will hear great things from this man!’ Despite winning no prize and failing to gain his diploma, Rott thankfully took his old teacher’s words to heart and continued writing. 

While the first movement of the symphony had revealed kinship with Wagner through the prism of Bruckner’s piety, what followed looked more to the future. The rich chorale of its second movement shows a path to the finale of Mahler’s Third, while the scherzo reveals other significant tropes now firmly associated with Rott’s student friend. Marked ‘fresh and lively,’ its triple-time form predicts the Ländlers and waltzes that were to become Mahler’s stock-in-trade, even if Rott’s dances were indebted to the Schrammelmusik of his childhood. Like Mahler’s later scherzos, however, this is not an entirely happy shindig. Rhythmic and harmonic tensions summon significant clouds, before the trio anticipates Mahler’s spatial theatrics and his evocations of the natural world. Finally, the scherzo returns to threaten the haven with yet more aggressive music. 

Completing the symphony in 1880, Rott chose the noble last movement of Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony as his model. As if mirroring his homage to Wagner and Bruckner at the work’s opening, this was doubtless intended to appease Vienna’s reigning symphonic king. Sadly, the gamble failed, with Rott predicting such a result in the bleakest of terms, given that he also drafted his will at the same time, aged twenty-two. Having scraped together the entrance fee for the esteemed Beethoven Prize, Rott then submitted his finished symphony, simultaneously applying for a scholarship from the Ministry of Culture and Education. 

Brahms oversaw both juries. Although no official report of his response remains, one commentator said the great composer felt there may have been ‘very beautiful material’ in Rott’s work, but ‘there is also much that is trivial,’ even encouraging him to give up composing altogether. It was a terrible blow, exacerbated by a subsequent visit to the conductor Hans Richter, who refused to mount a performance. Like Bruckner before him, and Mahler after him, Rott had felt the aloof chill of Vienna’s musical establishment, particularly crushing for a man born and raised in the city.

With all hope of acceptance vanishing, Rott went to the Westbahnhof to board a train to Alsace and a new post as music director and choir master in Mulhouse. He never reached the destination. On the journey, Rott suffered a complete mental breakdown. When he saw a fellow traveller attempting to light a cigar, he pulled out a pistol, claiming that none other than Brahms had filled the train with dynamite. He was immediately put into psychiatric care at Vienna’s General Hospital, before a suicide attempt in early 1881 led to his transferral to the Lower Austria State Asylum.

It was with a goodly dose of Viennese black humour that, shortly after he was moved to the asylum, Rott was told he had been awarded the Ministry scholarship — a grant made with Brahms’s specific approval. Sadly, Rott was so addled that he remained indifferent to the news and would never leave the Lazarettgasse asylum, just a stone’s throw from the Piaristen Church where he had played the organ. On 25 June 1884, Rott died of tuberculosis. Brahms and Bruckner were both present at the funeral, although his plot in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof was later recycled for another family’s remains. Today, a plaque marks the spot. 

For Mahler, Rott’s death was a source of profound upset. He had witnessed too many of his Viennese friends, as well as members of his own family, capitulating to depression and worse, all indicative of the nervosity of a fin de siècle that would fuel the theories of Freud. Wolf, too, would later lose his mind, blaming Mahler’s lack of acceptance of his opera Der Corregidor, before dying in the same asylum as Rott. But if Mahler had appeared to turn his back on Wolf, he did think of paying homage to his other Conservatory friend. In 1890, Mahler borrowed the score of Rott’s symphony from the late composer’s fiancée, Louise Löhr, and returned to it again in 1900, with a plan to perform the work with the Vienna Philharmonic. While no such premiere materialised, Mahler confessed to his confidante Nathalie Bauer-Lechner at the time that something ‘immeasurable’ had been lost with Rott. ‘His First Symphony, written when he was a young man of twenty, already soars to such heights of genius that it makes him – without exaggeration – the founder of the New Symphony as I understand it. It is true that he has not yet fully realised his aims here. It is like someone taking a run for the longest possible throw and not quite hitting the mark. But I know what he is driving at. His innermost nature is so much akin to mine that he and I are like two fruits from the same tree, produced by the same soil, nourished by the same air. We would have had an infinite amount in common.’

This was a generous appraisal came after Mahler had completed three symphonies and embarked on his Fourth. But it was not until the late 1980s, when Paul Banks rediscovered the manuscript of Rott’s symphony in the Austrian National Library that others could assess the work for itself, both its own right and alongside the music of Rott’s contemporaries. 

Rott’s work is a manifest part of that extraordinary shift from the Romantic to the modern. Surviving his friend and working into the twentieth century, Mahler would go on to chart an even more dizzying breadth of narratives in his response to the ‘New Symphony.’ Mahler’s works speak of his own rich knowledge of literature and the theatre, an enduring love of Wagner, his idolisation of Beethoven before him and a unique ability to summon the landscape of Central Europe, from his Jewish roots in the Czech lands to the high pastures of the Austrian Alps. Consequently, there are many more voices in Mahler’s music, all sublimated to create works that are greater than the sum of their parts. But alongside the Klezmer bands, the children’s choirs, and the cowbells is a small but perpetual memorial to Hans Rott, the man who completed his prophetic symphony almost a decade before Mahler revealed his First to a similarly hostile world. 

Gavin Plumley

Gavin Plumley is a cultural historian. He appears frequently on BBC Radio 3 and 4, as well as writing for newspapers, magazines and opera and concert programmes worldwide. Gavin’s first book, A Home for All Seasons, is published by Atlantic Books.

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