Life-Affirming Symphony from Unknown Hans Rott Overshadows Rest of Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schubert, Mahler and Hans Rott: Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra /  Marc Minkowski (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 28.11.2014. (JPr)

Schubert, Symphony No 4 in C minor, Tragic
Mahler, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Hans Rott, Symphony No 1

Mahler said to his sometime diarist, Natalie Bauer-Lechner about how Hans Rott 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 this new time which was breaking out for music.’

You pay your money and take your choice; the view – possibly of the majority – is that by studying with Bruckner and being as influenced by Wagner as a  roommate at the Vienna Conservatory, Mahler, was, there is no way their music could not sound similar. Or, like the conductor, Paavo Järvi, the similarity between Mahler’s much later compositions and Rott’s Symphony in E major suggests that in the twenty-first century Mahler would have been sued for plagiarism. I tend to agree with Maestro Järvi! This was my first live hearing of a work that Mahler obviously knew well but never conducted and, of course, Rott’s sad life was too short and, unlike me, he never got to hear it played by an orchestra. Rott began his only symphony when he was only twenty and he died of tuberculosis in an insane asylum at 26 in 1884. The music was a delightful discovery that I was pleased to hear and wish there had been more in the Barbican Hall sharing my experience – listening on the radio or to any of the other recordings is not the same thing!

However, the accusation of ‘plagiarism’ is not only of Mahler from Rott but of Rott, himself, from Bruckner, Brahms and Wagner. However, perhaps someone can tell me whether Mahler had Rott’s score in his possession – I believe he must have and turned to it in times of ‘composer’s block’ for inspiration. So in Rott’s exhilarating 55 minutes he encapsulates the virtues of four other composers without some of the longueurs their music can exhibit. The treatment of the brass often has a Bruckner-like spirituality; from Wagner we especially hear some Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Parsifal … with Rott’s finale – not only being modelled on Brahms’s First Symphony – but ending with some final bars of Götterdämmerung.

The third movement, marked ‘Brisk and lively’ has more than a hint of Mahler’s later ‘stock-in-trade’ sinister danses macabres Ländler that originate in Mahler’s own First Symphony. Rott had already been dead for five years when this was premièred in 1889. Apart from Mahler 1, Rott ‘inspires’ almost all Mahler’s remaining completed symphonies including the Ninth as I was sure I heard a hint of the ‘Abide with Me’ opening to its Fourth Movement (also marked ‘Sehr langsam’ as Rott’s Second Movement is) and there may also be a discordant shriek heard, which we are now more familiar with from completions of Mahler’s Tenth!

I cannot find anywhere a genuine open-minded analysis of Rott’s Symphony in E and all of Mahler’s subsequent music, it would need a musicologist willing to ‘hear’ the music and not just read the scores. Naturally, the case against Mahler cannot be proven definitively but the evidence is compelling. What is not in doubt is that hearing this music for the first time it had all become definitely engrossing and hugely enjoyable by the time Marc Minkowski – who clearly has much affection for this work – and the splendid BBC Symphony Orchestra reached the joyous, life-affirming, E major conclusion.

For me hearing Hans Rott’s music at last overshadowed the rest of this concert. In hindsight, Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen was an intriguing comparison to all the Mahlerian ‘quotations’ we later heard but I could not understand why the concert opened with Schubert. He wrote his first six symphonies before his 21st birthday and we heard the Fourth that was completed in 1816 when he was 19, yet was only premièred in 1849 more than two decades after Schubert’s death. He gave it the title ‘Tragic’ long after it was completed but it has little of the pathos that would seem to suggest. If the possible connection for all the music in this concert was one of ‘influences’ then Schubert was building on the symphonic models of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven especially in the slow introduction that gave the ‘Tragic’ to what otherwise should be a sunny – almost Mendelssohnian – symphony. I felt Marc Minkowski was not as interested in this Schubert as in the rest of what the BBC Symphony Orchestra were playing and it all sounded rather flat, with the rhythms much too heavy-footed.

The inspiration for Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen was his doomed love affair in Kassell with a soprano in the opera company he was working for, Johanna Richter. In fact research reveals that the very young Gustav had a favourite Czech song ‘Let the knapsack rock’ which included the lines:

A wanderer,

A wayfarer,

Went from Hungary to Moravia

and there, in the first inn,

danced as if on water.

He danced like a madman

and his knapsack rocked with him.

whether it rocks or not,

the devil won’t take it away.

It is clear that the young Gustav saw plenty of these dancing journeymen (with their knapsacks) among those drinking to excess in his father’s inn. So his ‘Songs of a Wayfaring Lad’ were also ‘inspired’ by an intense childhood experience.

The mezzo-soprano, Katarina Karnéus, replaced a previously advertised soloist and is very experienced. I am certain everything sounded fine to anybody listening on their radios but I was disappointed. There was no doubting her emotional engagement with the songs – and her vehement ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ (I have a glowing knife) genuinely scared me – but her voice had a slight vibrato and her lower register lacked richness and dark colours. Katarina Karnéus was at her best during her final lines of ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ (My love’s two blue eyes), the last of these ‘Wayfaring’ songs. Singing ‘Love and sorrow, the world and dreams!’ – as the lover gives up on life – she brought such a hush to the audience (not that difficult considering how few were present) that everyone was fearful of intruding on such genuine sadness with something so mundane as applause. Mark Minkowski’s interest in this Mahler was self-evident and he drew from his exemplary BBC Symphony Orchestra accompaniment that was intimate, expressively refined and impeccably balanced.

Finally, when will something be done about the unnecessarily highbrow programme notes often just rehashed time and again by the BBC? I know I am in danger of become a bore on this but what would another ordinary member of the audience without a music degree – like me – make of Anthony Burton’s description of the Schubert Fourth Symphony Andante: ‘Like the Beethoven it is in A flat major and in 2/4 time, and has an A-B-A-B-A form, with an accompanying rhythmic figure – triplets in Beethoven, semiquavers in Schubert – being carried over from the second B section into the last reprise of A’ etc. etc.? Remember the programmes are not given away and people have to pay for the ‘privilege’ of reading this nonsense!

Jim Pritchard


For more about the BBC SO’s forthcoming concerts visit


For more about music on BBC Radio 3 visit