“The Founder of the New Symphony as I understand it”
Gustav Mahler on Hans Rott
Let’s face it- we conductors will do just about anything to sell a record or promote a concert. And there is nothing that attracts more media attention than a good controversy.
Witness this week’s latest tempest surrounding Paavo Jarvi’s comment (listen here) that Mahler’s incorporation of material from Rott’s Symphony in E Major marked “a historic crime… a historic case of plagiarism, today Mahler would be sued for plagiarism” (Thanks to Jens F Laurson @ IonArts for getting the conversation started)
There are many primers on Rott and Mahler available if this s ubject is new to you. Try this, this or this.
Was Mahler a plagiarist who refused to perform Rott’s Symphony in order to hide his guilt? If you think for a second that Mahler was somehow hiding his debt to Rott, please re-read the quote at the top of this essay….
In my opinion, no, and, for all I admire Paavo, I think he’s got this one completely wrong (I can’t believe he intended to be taken literally in any case), as do a fair number of Rott’s over-zealous fans.
Mahler’s music is saturated with references to the music of other composers, including Brahms, Beethoven, Lehar, Bach, Wagner and many more. The fact that he did not specifically mention the quotes from Rott is not unusual or important for him- he never did so with any of the hundreds and hundreds of references and shout-outs throughout his works. On the other hand, he was far from apologetic about these connections to music of the past– as Peter Davison pointed out last week, he often used programming to underline these connections. I can’t imagine any musician or music lover missing the obvious connection between Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture and the Finale of the 7th Symphony, but Mahler still made the point of programming the Wagner as a warm up for the 7th.
Quotation and reference is one of the most powerful tools composers have to give their music context, depth and complexities of meaning. In enables them to place the music in a far richer setting, and for Mahler, a composer who thrived on contradiction, paradox and complexity, this was perhaps his most useful tool. Even much of his own material has its roots in recognized musics- all those marches, chorales, dances and nature sounds. Mahler works in archetypes- he would rather we all start with a shared set of assumptions about a musical idea before he then turns it on its head.
But isn’t it just a little naughty of him to borrow so much from Rott, who he had every reason to think was lost to history? Well, think of Beethoven, who saturated much of his music with quotations from an ancient composer whose music had scarcely been performed since his death? When Beethoven quotes Bach’s Passion Chorale in the Pastoral Symphony, or repeatedly references “Es ist volbracht” (“It is Finished”) in the late piano sonatas, he had no reason to think those works would someday be well known. The Passions hadn’t been performed in decades and were assumed to be relics of history.
But did Mahler somehow simply take up Rott’s path- is the Rott Symphony the blueprint for Mahler’s life’s work? I think not. As Mr de la Grange pointed out to me via email back in February when we first began Rott discussions here, Mahler’s firs major work, Das Klagende Lied, was finished at more or less the same time as the Rott Symphony and is a far more polished and complete piece of music. And it is echt Mahler.
As I tried to explain earlier in this series, I think Rott himself became a powerful symbol for Mahler- the fallen brother in arms, the hopeless idealist who couldn’t deal with the hard edges of a cynical musical establishment, the musical sibling Mahler outlived. Rott, and therefore Rott’s music, becomes a symbol of hope and fragility, of idealism and victimization, of aspiration and of guilt. When Mahler evokes the memory of Rott, he is talking about redemption and about his own attempt heal the wounds of the past. So, yes, Mahler’s incorporation of themes from Rott is consistent with his quotes, references and shout outs from other composers, but Rott was clearly a special case. When Mahler refers to Rott, he is not merely borrowing musical material, he is referencing a rather complex mythology he constructed around the memory of his friend.
In this sense, Rott became one of Mahler’s most important archetypes- he also probably became a character somewhat removed from flesh and blood school chum Mahler was friendly with but not especially close to. Other such archetypes include “the hero” who he invents in the 1st Symphony, kills off before the start of the 2nd then really punishes before re-killing him off in the 6th. There is “the fallen child,” who plays so important a role in the songs, obviously Kindertotenlieder, but also in Das irdische Leben. Parsifal keeps showing up, as do his co-stars in Wagner’s last opera. Nobody calls that plagiarism. The eternal beloved, ie Alma (whose musical image was, to say the least, rather more idealized than her real self, like Rott) is also a recurring character.
Readers might also be interested in a recent piece I did on the Mozart Requiem, which dug up some of the many quotations and references in that piece just as a point of comparison. It might be a shock to find out just how much of one’s favorite bits of Mozart are closely modeled or quoted from Handel.
I count myself very lucky to have learned the Rott and to have even conducted it a little bit. Well performed, I have experienced it to be strangely and deeply moving to listen to, both on its musical merits and because it documents a very poignant human story- a brilliantly gifted young man who didn’t have quite the strength and tenacity to survive and flourish as a creative artist. However, Rott was still a very incomplete musician when he wrote the Symphony. He hadn’t yet come close to mastering a lot of important skills, much of it is awkward musically, poorly orchestrated, unidiomatic and some of it is just rather perfunctory and boring because Rott hasn’t yet learned to make the most of his material, or to make due with no material at all. Yes there are flashes of something special, but Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied (and his 1st Symphony) are infinitely more accomplished pieces than the Rott (much as I love it and would love to do it again). Yes, Mahler had more time, but he was already farther along technically on every level than Rott when they were both writing.
Mahler would surely have appreciated the irony of the fact that he would be accused of stealing his whole act from a composer he himself mythologized. Would those glimpses of Mahler in the Rott be so compelling if there were no Mahler in which we already knew them? I doubt it very much.
Previous Vftp posts on Mahler and Rott