The subject recently came up of the Symphony in E by Hans Rott. Rott died a horrible death as a schizophrenic in a mental hospital. Had he remained healthy, he would surely have been one of the most important composers of all time. Mahler called him the “inventor of the modern symphony as I understand it.”
Rott and Mahler were classmates in counterpoint studies with Bruckner. This lone symphony was written well before any of Mahler’s, but is full of themes which later appeared in several of Mahler’s major works. Rott wrote the piece to present to Brahms in hopes of winning a stipend, but Brahms actually accused him of a degree of plagerism (one of the main themes sounds a great deal like Brahms 1, but this was an homage to Brahms- the resemblance is too obvious for anyone to expect it to go un-noticed)
I would like to share my own modest experience with the piece.
When I was the assistant conductor in 1997 and 1998 at the Univ of Cincinnati, Gerhard Samuel, who gave the world premiere performance and recording several years earlier, decided to make the piece the cornerstone of his final tour and concerts as MD of the CCM Philharmonia. We did the piece on our fall concert and again on tour to Portugal the following March.
Based on my experience with the piece, I would say that it is a piece that will always have a mixed reputation for a number of reasons. First, for anyone encountering it for the first time, two aspects of the work are immediately obvious- first a thematic kinship with works by Mahler and Brahms, and second a certain weakness of compositional technique. In many places in the work there is a clumsiness of rhetoric than can be quite off- putting, and the way in which certain themes remind us so powerfully of other works can be quite distracting. Instead, listeners first experiencing the work seem to listen like scientists inspecting an odd, newly-discovered creature. Hearing a work with so many Mahler themes in it (especially one that predates the Mahler symphonies) is a bit like seeing a conductor with Simon Rattle’s hair on film in the 1960’s (everyone is copying it now). Your fascination with the freakishness of it all gets in the way of the music.
Once in rehearsal, another thing became clear about the piece- it is, without doubt, one of the most difficult works in the repertoire. Rott had far, far less experience with the orchestra than Mahler or Strauss, and his instrumental writing is much less idiomatic than either of them. In fact, I would say that the Rott was the one piece we did during my time at CCM that really posed huge technical challenges for the Philharmonia players. Gerhard finally re-distributed the horn parts from 4 players to 6 and from 3 trombones to 4 to try to mitigate the problems of fatigue. He also cut quite a bit from the triangle part, which he always thought seemed more like a symptom of Rott’s illness than an integral part of the composition. Gerhard very graciously let me take several rehearsals and lead some sectionals, and, though I enjoyed conducting the piece a lot (and learned an enormous amount studying it), it was hard work for everyone.
The first performance seemed to confirm the piece’s many doubters ideas. The orchestra struggled and the piece seemed long, cumbersome and awkward. Many asked Gerhard to pick another work for the tour.
Of course, any of you who know Gerhard already know that was not going to happen. Fast-forward several months, and we returned to the work again. Again rehearsals were tough and exhausting, and brass players in particular were notably tense and concerned. Still, those of us listening in the hall could hear a big difference from the fall. Gerhard also made one small cut of the pedal point section in the finale, something he was reluctant to do, but that he thought the piece really needed. It did tighten up a long and episodic movement.
The tour was a lot of fun, but full of drama. We were touring with two programs and the Rott program was only being done once, on the final concert. One of the quirks of this trip was a virulent outbreak of stomach flu, and we had to re-assign a number of parts. On the day of the concert, our bass trombonist was completely out of commission, so in desperation, the tuba player and second bone player split up the part. The addition of the tuba, although by no means historically authentic, completely solved the pitch problems in the brass section. With that extra cushion, the rest
of the section found a level of accuracy and tonal warmth that was remarkable.
The concert itself is one that stays with me even now, and I don’t think anyone there will ever forget it, especially the Rott. Well performed and understood by the players, the challenges and weaknesses of the work vanished. Rott’s vision, passion and spirit came through brilliantly and the audience response was like few I have ever seen. It was a fitting culmination of Gerhard’s 25 year association with CCM.
So, I would encourage all of you to get to know the work and to live with it. If you consider programming it, know that it is tremendously difficult and that you may need to do some tweaking of parts. I don’t think it is a great choice for a regular subscription week with a full time band, as it seems to need time to gell and for the players, especially the horn and oboe soloists, to find their place in the work.
In many ways the piece poses many of the same problems for the performer as the Mozart Requiem or Bartok Viola Concerto. Because of Rott’s tragedy, the piece is in many ways still incomplete- surely he would have made many changes on hearing an orchestra rehearse it. For the interpreter, this means that one is posed with a great number of questions that don’t come up in more finished works. The piece surely needs some help, but where does one draw the line? I think that one of the reasons Mahler never did it is that he couldn’t make it performable without really making it his own. Many of us, including Gerhard, are disposed to be strictly faithful to the score, so making any changes go against the grain. Surely adding tuba is not something Gerhard or I would have come up with except in an emergency, but the piece sounded a lot better with it. Does this mean I would do the piece with tuba next time, or is that going too far? Is my idea of what sounds good more valid that Rott’s intent? The more I live with the piece, the more I believe that Rott was one of the great visionaries, which makes me more reluctant to add to or change his music, even with the best of intentions, and yet it also does Rott a dis-service to not fix what he surely would have.
Incidently, the program for our Rott concerts was one I really liked-
Brucker- Symphonic Prelude
Mahler- Wayfarer Songs
Rott- Symphony in E