Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 3, a lost friend

The Bridgewater Hall- Mahler in Manchester

Mahler in Manchester

Shortly after I posted my most recent Mahler essay, I had a comment from Mahlerian and sometime Vftp contributor, Mitch Friedfeld, who suggested I might have overlooked something-

There’s another instance of a Mahler-Brahms shout-out — I like that lingo, Ken! — but one with which Mahler was perhaps not eager even to hint at. Why did Mahler eliminate the Blumine movement from the predecessor of his Symphony No. 1? One of the speakers at a recent Colorado MahlerFest maintained that possibly the main reason was the trumpet solo’s striking resemblance to the main theme of Brahms 1: the very theme you link to above, where you talk about the opening of Mahler 3. According to the speaker, Mahler may have excised Blumine because the obvious similarity to the Brahms would have made him appear derivative, even plagiaristic. The music is at least similar, it must be admitted.

At first, I was quite sceptical about the possibility of Mahler being somehow intimidated into removing a movement from his first symphony from fear of accusations of plagiarism. The mere fact that he so blatantly references Beethoven 4 with the first notes seems to be proof positive that he would not fear any reprisals from a possible thematic similarity to Brahms 1.

Then, however, it occurred to me that perhaps he was reminded of the misfortune of his friend, Hans Rott, who included a prominent shout-out to Brahms 1 in the Finale of his Symphony in E Major. There is  speculation that Rott had hoped that Brahms, who Rott showed the work to, might be flattered by the reference, but Brahms dismissed the piece entirely, saying he lacked any talent and should abandon music as a career. Mahler strongly disagreed-

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.

(Hans Rott)

However, Rott never recovered from the humiliation at Brahms hands, nor from syphillis. In October 1880, he had a nervous breakdown on a train- threatening the other passengers and claiming that Brahms had packed the train with dynamite. He died in an asylum, almost a forgotten man. The symphony was not performed until 1989, when my teacher, Gerhard Samuel, agreed to lead it with the Cincinnati Philharmonia at the International Mahler Festival that year.

As I thought more about it, the real interesting question was not whether or not Mahler had been intimidated into excising Blumine because of fear of recrimination from Brahms and his supporters (Brahms was still a powerful figure in Vienna in the 1880’s), but whether the shout-out which opens Mahler’s Third Symphony is, in some way, a shout out to Rott. Could Mahler be using this theme to explore the path Rott had been meant to follow- radical, experimental and revolutionary?

I pulled my Rott score off the shelf (yes, I have one!) and the more I looked and the more I thought about it, the connection seemed obvious. It makes even more sense of the critical aspect of the connection to Brahms- not only is Mahler possibly suggesting that there were revolutionary paths in the symphony revealed by Beethoven in the 9th that Brahms had attempted to hide or ignore, he might also be suggesting that Rott had already started down that road.

As it happens, that’s not the only possible Rott reference in the piece- Rott’s presence is felt again in the Finale of Mahler 3. I asked my friend, Peter Davison, artistic consultant for The Bridgewater Hall and the author of Gustav Mahler- Wrestling with Angels what he made of this. Am I crazy? Perhaps not-

Dear Ken,

Discussion of Rott persuaded me to fetch out my CD of the symphony with your old mates performing. (It is excellent for a student band!) I also dug into Franklin’s book on Mahler’s 3rd symphony. Rott had been literally rejected by Brahms, after he had been approached by Rott with the symphony to sound him out over the Beethoven prize. When Rott went mad, he was arrested on a train brandishing a revolver saying that Brahms had put dynamite on board. Add to this that Mahler also failed to win the Beethoven prize which had Brahms on its jury, and Brahms rapidly becomes the symbol of all that is conservative, destructive and officious in musical life. Mahler may even have held Brahms in some way responsible for Rott’s insanity – although syphilis is a more likely explanation.

Suddenly the homage to Rott, the wounded talent thwarted by the establishment makes a lot of sense. Mahler must have felt (as Schonberg was also to feel) that the muse could not speak in the claustrophobic atmosphere of bourgeois appearances and academic formalism represented by Brahms. Rott’s paranoid fantasies about Brahms as he went mad must have rubbed it in for Mahler. So the memory of Rott’s descent into insanity in Mahler’s student days must have resurfaced in the Third Symphony, and he decided to take some kind of revenge upon Brahms who had died around the time the third was being written. It must have felt like the settling of an old score. How funny that my image of sticking a firework under Brahms echoes Rott’s paranoid delusion that Brahms had put dynamite on the train.

But Rott had not despised Brahms’ music and you can hear passages that are Brahmsian in the symphony – so Brahms’ lack of enthusiasm must have felt doubly hurtful. So this is not merely a clash of musical differences, but really a personal grudge. Perhaps Brahms simply was defensive against any young talent which might dislodge him from pre-eminence, and this mean-spiritedness is what annoyed Mahler. The decision to parody Brahms in his Third symphony and to fulfil the lost potential of Rott then makes a lot of sense. And Mahler does this with a Nietzschean blast of southern air which blows away the cobwebs and the professorial pedantry, and elevates the lost talent to great heights, because finally it can do so unopposed.

That strange dissonance from the Rott slow movt which appears in Mahler’s finale, followed by the heavenly trumpet tune now takes on new meaning; an apotheosis of Rott, an exorcising of his ghost, a triumph over the sceptics and conservatives. The allusions to Parsifal at the end of Mahler’s adagio suggest the purging of a wound – the death of the old King. Brahms after all had been damaged by his early sexual experiences so that he became a misogynist, who had to idealise women from afar, so he was a kind of Amfortas figure. In Mahler’s world, Rott was the Parsifal who was going to redeem the symphony, but was thwarted by Brahms (although in reality like Brahms he succumbed to a sexual wound and died of venereal disease). Here Brahms takes on the role of Klingsor.

It’s a rich vein of possibilities and makes the Third seem a personal work resolving a very personal sense of grief and grievance. Not quite as it first appears.


The point of all of this exploration and speculation is not to pinpoint the “right” way to hear Mahler 3, or any other piece. Instead, the value is in discovering more and more of the layers of meaning in the music. Mahler was the composer of paradox and contradiction- who else could write a salute to Brahms which proves to be a condemnation? Who else could write a symphony about nature and love full of subtexts of friendship, rivalry, even revenge. The more we examine Mahler’s music, the more truth we find in his claim that the symphony must embrace everything.


I suppose that after the last two blog posts, one could ask if I’ve strayed from my mission- isn’t this supposed to be “a performer’s perspective” not a musicological exploration? Should I stick to telling readers what bits are conducted in 2 versus 4, or what it is like to rehearse a Mahler symphony?

Well, I guess, for me, this is what being a performer is all about- looking for all the levels of meaning in the music you perform and then transmitting that understanding to your colleagues and the audience.  Last summer, a friend forwarded a description of me from someone who plays in one of my orchestras. He said some nice things about my conducting, and said that I was “also something of a musicologist.” Yikes! Neither qualified nor interested! But, I know what he was referring to (this whole blog?)

The fact is, when I talk to really elite colleagues, I’m struck but how much all of them are “something of a musicologist.” What separates a real maestro from a talent is not just their sense of pitch and rhythm or their stick technique, but their understanding of the works they conduct. What really makes a performance isn’t how you wave a stick, or how your hair bounces about (but I would say that, wouldn’t I?) or your fee, but how deeply you understand, on every technical and spiritual level, what the music is saying- it’s about empathy, knowledge, honesty and respect for the music and the listener.

Still, next week, we’ll lighten the lifting, I promise!

Mahler in Manchester continues on February 12, 2010 at The Bridgewater Hall. The BBC Philharmonc and Vassily Sinaisky perform Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 in D minor and the premiere of Cerha’s “Like a Tragicomedy.”

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

12 comments on “Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 3, a lost friend”

  1. Peter

    Two sources which no doubt Rott shared with Mahler would include Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and the Siegfried Idyll. Both seem to influence melodic shape and formal process in Rott, and they were surely influential upon Mahler also. No wonder Brahms did not like it – because both Wagner pieces evolve their own kind of ambiguous episodic form that has a dream-like narrative and pay only passing reference to conventional sonata or ternary forms. What Mahler says about Rott suggests he was very interested in his disruption of formal symmetry.

    But the thematic references come thick and fast don’t they? The end of the scherzo with the augmented fifth chord is the end of the seventh symphony. There is the cadence in the first movement that leaves a chord hanging – just like the finale of the seventh. That passage in the slow movement that is so like no.3 is a minor ninth chord that resolves onto a 6/4 over a dominant pedal. Mahler borrowed it all. Huge chunks in the scherzo more than hint at the scherzi in Mahler 1, 2 and 5. The resurrection motif is in there too. In the finale we have a bit of the fiirst of Kindertotenlieder, the intro from the first Nachtmusik from No.7. There’s the bird passage from the finale of No.2, the lamenting passage from the Adagio of No.4, the dies Irae from the finale of No.2 makes an appearance and other themese from that movement. The Brahms tune picks up in the middle – and it suddenly refers to the Nachtmusik no.2. The fugal passages could easily come out of the finale of the seventh or possibly the fifth. Final bars of the work with those discreet high horns is found in the scherzo of No.3 making the transition from the posthorn solo back to the Ablosung im Sommer.

    Extraordinarily inventive this Rott, and Mahler treated him as well of ideas.


  2. Erik K

    I will never listen to Mahler 3 the same way again. I’m a sucker for cold-hearted revenge stories, and the thread of redemption of the lost potential of a friend resonates with me.

    Just when you think you have it figured out…

  3. Kenneth Woods

    We’ve fixed the missing hyperlink for the audio sample of the finale of Mahler 3, which comes straight out of the slow movement of the Rott. See above!


  4. Mike Bosworth

    I would like to point out that Hans Rott never had syphilis. This is an unfortuate legend perpetuated about the ill-fated composer that has absolutely no basis in fact. His many surviving letters indicate the onset of mental instability at least a year prior to the train incident in October of 1880. Rott’s medical records from his four years of hospitalisation have survived and, aside from his disturbed mental state, his main ailment was tuberculosis, which was what eventually killed him.

  5. Peter

    @Mike Bosworth
    I’m grateful for Mike’s correction. The myth of Rott’s syphilis may have been perpetuated because several of Mahler’s other student friends (Wolf included) did contract and die from venereal disease. If Rott did not, then it reinforces his role in Mahler’s imagination as the thwarted genius and a true victim of the world around him.

    It also is a very Mahlerian conjunction that Rott’s father was a famous comic actor who had to abandon his career – the fusion of comedy and tragedy also makes me think of that painting by the artist Richard Gerstl – he who had an affair with schoenberg’s wife and committed suicide. It dates from 1908 and is called Self-Potrait Laughing; a penetrating and cynical portrayal of laughter. It is desperate, even nihilistic.

    The idea of the Third as being, at one level, an expression of grief for Rott and his eventual apotheosis explain the elegiac tone of the final Adagio and its moments of torment. Mahler intended the movement to express compassion for the suffering of all creation in it struggle for transcendence – and the memory of Rott and his Mahler’s brother Ernst could well have been important emblems of that suffering in Mahler’s mind.

    Such a veiw allows us to trace a consistent line of thought in Mahler that connects the Third with the Kindertotenlieder and also Das Lied von der Erde. In Das Lied we have the same painful separation from a close male friend, grief at the suffering of man and all of creation and, at the end, some kind of gentle apotheosis. Both Das Lied and the Third have six movements. Both open with a horn call heralding Dionysian abandon; both have flower movements; both end with a long, slow movement.

    Going back to Rott, it is easy to demonise Brahms in this story as Klingsor preventing Parsifal (Rott) from redeeming the symphony, but that’s only part of the story. With Mahler, the question of meaning is rarely answered by looking at historical facts, but rather what these people, events and ideas meant to him as symbols of his inner struggle. Rott is then the wounded unfulfilled genius in Mahler, while Brahms becomes the pedantic professor in himself. These forces battle inside Mahler as the striggle between his free lyric voice and his ambition to inherit the symphonic mantle of Beethoven and Brahms. Generally the lyric voice wins through. We should rescue Brahms from a caricature as victimiser, as no doubt Rott is caricatured by Mahler as the simple victim.

    It’s a rich vein for possible interpretations of Mahler’s work, revealing the unity and consistency of his musical and psychological world across his whole career. Often the diversity and volatility of his musical imagination suggests otherwise.


  6. Kenneth Woods

    I had an interesting email exchange with a leading Mahler scholar who is saving his thoughts on Rott for his next book. However, I thought it might be interesting to post an edited version of my last response to him, as it speaks to Peter’s comment and to Mahler’s emotional connection to Rott-

    “Actually, I don’t think we disagree much, if at all, about Rott. I think the famous quote from Mahler pretty well sums it up- that Rott seemed to be the first to understand the new symphony on an intuitive level, but he did not achieve his aims.

    He couldn’t have- he simply wasn’t a finished composer at that point (his limitations are right there to see), and it is likely that he was already starting to deteriorate mentally when he wrote it. My teacher, Gerhard Samuel (who conducted that concert you were at!) ended up cutting a huge amount of the triangle part because he felt it was a relic of Rott’s mental illness. When he did the piece again in 1998-9, he also cut some of that very academic sounding contrapuntal material you describe (don’t tell Paul Banks!).

    If I had to play psycho-analyst, I might guess that Mahler filed Rott away as another of his lost siblings- a brother in arms who never got to do what he was meant to, only, in this case, Rott could have been his partner in art in a way that Richard Strauss never was.

    Would Rott have developed the technique of a Mahler or Strauss? Hard to say- as you mention, Das Klagende Lied is already a masterpiece, although not quite on the level of the First Symphony. Then again, Mozart didn’t quite hit his stride until his mid-20’s in spite of his precocious youth. Still, there are amazing things in the Rott that obviously resonated with Mahler, and things that are already somewhere between Bruckner (agreed, the biggest influence) and Mahler himself.

    Still, don’t count me as someone who thinks Mahler never conducted it because he didn’t want people to find out how much he’d cribbed from Rott- far from it. I’m sure Mahler just felt that, beautiful ideas aside, the piece doesn’t work as a whole and that performing it would not do Rott’s reputation much good.”

  7. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium » Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 3, a scherzo on a poem

  8. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium » A flawed perspective? Mahler and Rott

  9. Pingback: Mahler’s third: An epilogue | Fugue for Thought

  10. Bert

    It’s an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem, and in the end it can be more fruitful to look back to understand where someone aims.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *