A flawed perspective? Mahler and Rott

The Bridgewater Hall- Mahler in Manchester

Mahler in Manchester

“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.

For a different but clever perspective, read here.

Previous Vftp posts on Mahler and Rott

Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 3, a scherzo on a poem

Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 3, a lost friend

“Mahler’s Sym. No. 0″ (Rott Symphony in E)

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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 www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

11 comments on “A flawed perspective? Mahler and Rott”

  1. Peter

    Well said Ken!

    Why are people so suprised to find composers (and the very best have always done it) borrowing from one another and referencing each other’s works. Total originality would be incomprehensible, and where the lingua franca ends and a personal fingerprint begins is notoriously difficult to define.

    Some musical ideas have a common currency at a given time and this can produce several manifestations. We might find that the ultimate source of some of Rott’s ideas were in folk music and popular melodies of the day. So they were fair game for Mahler to adapt for his own use.

    There are striking similiarities between Schonberg’s first Chamber Symphony and the 1st mvt of Mahler’s 7th,but nobody finds this questionable. It is not clear who may have influenced whom here, but the probability is that ideas were being explored and discussed at the many small house parties which Schoenberg attended at the Mahlers. But it is hardly plagiarism that these links exist. It is part of the tapestry of the musical culture of the day. We can imagine Rott and Mahler as students inhabiting their own world of musical ideas, playing each other their scores, perhaps discussing what the symphony could one day become.

    Plagiarism is really only applicable where a composer claims originality and does not acknowledge his source. As I understand it, Mahler made it clear that he was influenced by Rott and that he admired the work in question. It is also clear that Mahler gave these musical passages completely new contexts and made them very much his own. He didn’t take Rott’s manuscript, scribble out Rott’s name and insert his own.

    Without Mahler’s advocacy, it is doubtful that Rott would ever have been rediscovered or taken seriously. If the quotations were not in Mahler, I doubt many conductors would think the work more than a mild curiosity, and the public would have little reason to buy a recording. So Rott has done well from Mahler’s borrowings.

    Lastly – if Mahler was slightly less than candid about the degree of his borrowings, this may have been because he was fearful of a critical backlash. His shout outs usually held only private significance. But Rott might have been listening in heaven, you might say, and he would have been smiling to think that, after all, his music was being heard by a wide public and in a context that made it truly shine.

    Gustav shouts out warmly to Hans, and Hans shouts back with real gratitude! Any other view is making an argument where is there isn’t one.

  2. Erik K

    First off, thanks for the shouts out…Paavo Jarvi had my head spinning like I was on one of those Maury Povich “Who’s the father?” episodes.

    Great write-up here, as usual, Ken. Of particular note, for me, was this: “Would those glimpses of Mahler in the Rott be so compelling if there were no Mahler in which we already knew them?”

    End of discussion.

    Mahler’s creative voice allowed for the survival of whatever of Rott’s we can glean. I consider it no small miracle that the Rott Symphony has taken off in the way that it has; it is illuminating in many ways, and it’s always nice to have good music out there.

    As an aside, I read a Stravinsky quote the other day that had me in tears, literally, which I’m sure everyone here already knows, but I didn’t so just laugh with me: “Why is it that whenever I hear a piece of music I don’t like, it’s by Villa-Lobos?” Classic Igor.

    Thanks again for making me seem legitimate!

  3. Donald

    Bravo, Ken! Great stuff!

    Mahler is famously drenched in death, including Rott’s death. We never see
    death; we die in hospitals and nursing homes. Women no longer die like flies in childbirth. Mahler himself might have lived decades longer if he’d had antibiotics. Mahler admired Rott, and must have thought “There, but for the grace of God…” How dare we question the motives of a great artist who lived virtually on another planet.

    Donald C

  4. Mark Laporta

    How much of this discussion of quotation actually misguided? In our era, when musical style is permanently fragmented and originality in the narrowest sense is an obsession, I doubt we’re in a position to understand how much that seems like quotation now is merely a manifestation of a common language. However much Beethoven may have quoted from Bach on a higher level—not least his exquisite standards for contrapuntal integrity and motivic unity—I’m afraid any attempt to link Beethoven’s last sonatas to this Bach aria are really quite fanciful.

    It’s one thing to realize that Beethoven had Bach’s music in the back of his mind, but you can’t ignore how much he transformed Bach’s paradigms and made them his own. As for Mozart and Handel, you’re simply referring to the diction of grandeur that dominated the period. The Requiem, by definition, was intended to be a traditional piece. Mozart wasn’t quoting Handel, rather speaking the same ritualized vocabulary—precisely because in the context of a requiem, a text based on “eternal verities,” originality was beside the point.

    I don’t see how it’s any different with Mahler. We’re just closer to the sources. The fact is that Rott, like Mahter, was of the generation of Wagner addicts, musicians who had learned every note of the Wagner operas by the time they were in their early 20s. If Mahler resembles Rott it’s only because they drank from the same stream.

    Not that this minimizes Rott’s accomplishments. And let’s be clear, no more than 3 people in any generation can compose a work with Rott’s “flaws.” If Mahler had the modesty to recognize that Rott created a new synthesis of Wagner and the symphonic tradition (something Wagner himself failed to do), that’s only to Mahler’s credit. But surely, by the time of the Seventh Symphony, Mahler had proven himself to be far more than an adept arranger of other people’s music.

    Ultimately, you have to go back to Mahler’s definition of the symphony as “a world” that should contain the high, the low, the comic, the tragic, etc. In this context, his quotations remind me of Antonio Gaudi’s plaster casts in the Sagrada Familia (http://bit.ly/zAt9uT) or Ives’ use of melodic scraps from Protestant hymns. Mahler’s quotations are commentary, editorializing, philosophizing—anything by “stealing.”

  5. Kenneth Woods

    @Mark Laporta

    Thanks very much for the comment. Re-reading your comment, I’m not sure where the line is on what we agree on, what we disagree on, and what are really just semantic differences. Anyway, all very interesting points you make. I most certainly agree with your last sentence, and the comparison with Ives is apt (you may want to read: http://kennethwoods.net/blog1/2009/05/01/ives-and-mahler-kindred-spirits-and-spirituality/)

    Whether you call something a quote, a reference or a shout out, it’s a fundamental tool of composers, and it’s well documented to be something that Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler all freely admitted to doing. If you look at the Handelian models Mozart used in the Requiem, it’s not just that there are stylistic similarities, but near exact melodic modelling. The Bach quotes in the late Beethoven Sonatas are very well documented and recognized by most Beethoven scholars. If you listen to Andras Schiff’s excellent podcast lectures about the Beethoven sonatas (available on the Guardian website http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2006/dec/13/schiffonbeethovenpartseven?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487) he mentions a number of these references, including the quotation of “Es ist volbracht.”

    Understanding and recognizing how composers use quotation and reference to place their ideas and works in a larger historical context should only increase our admiration for their achievements. It’s quite the opposite of stealing- this kind of dialogue gives new works more layers of meaning and keeps ancient ones more relevant.

    Thanks for writing


  6. Philip Czaplowski

    I have to say that the first time I heard the Rott symphony I was astonished. It seems to contain so many Mahler “fingerprints”. It also owes a huge debt to Bruckner and Wagner obviously. Maybe Mahler and Rott took their influences in an apparently similar direction? whatever the answer, it is definitely somewhat spooky to listen to Rott and then think of the music of Mahler…

  7. Ian Moore

    There is no doubt that Mahler was strongly influenced by Hans Rott. Not only in terms of the superficial – like the ‘bird calls’ of the Second Symphony but also the entire sound world. He admired the idea that you could create a ‘universe’ in a symphony. He saw Hans as a flawed genius(alongside Bruchner) who was taking the symphony to the ‘next level’ of creativity. He said of Hans after his death that he was;
    …”a musician of genius … who died unrecognised 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.”


  8. Jerry

    I have just reviewed Paavo Järvi’s recording of Hans Rott’s Symphony No. 1. Someone had urged me to hear it, so I obtained the CD. I would say, from hearing that work, that Rott’s compositional technic was pretty solid but that, alas, he simply lacked good ideas. In some cases, he just offended good taste. At any rate, the youthful composer’s symphony is tiresome and undistinguished so far as its melodic material and shaping of Rott’s impoverished material is concerned. I really cannot imagine how there can be such a brouhaha about music of such little worth. There is so much fine music unplayed and unrecorded, or insufficiently exposed to the public. Why bother with gauche Rott when Max Bruch’s exceedingly fine symphonies languish for the attention that they so amply merit?

  9. Bert

    Hans Rott’s symphony may not be a first-rate composition, but It’s a first-class second-rate composition, and it only takes some tender love and dare to understand where he ultimatily aims.

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