Is Gustav Mahler the ‘Ice, Ice Baby’ to Hans Rott’s ‘Under Pressure’?

Paavo Jarvi, the reigning Prince of Turtlenecks, has recently been in the process of performing and recording the Hans Rott Symphony in E major, a work that has generated mild interest in the past, but has picked up steam in recent years.

Jarvi, though, is kicking it into overdrive…based on these fairly strong accusations against none other than Gustav Mahler.

I listened to the Rott Symphony again today because of all this ruckus (the premiere recording with the great Gerhard Samuel and the CCM gang)…

There are a few small details here and there that certainly caught my ear as being familiar from Mahler. For example, there is a spot in the first movement of Rott that sounds very similar to the spot in the finale of Mahler 7 after the first section ends and the woodwinds are holding that chord as a transition into the next section of the movement…

And yes, the first two bars of Rott’s Scherzo and the Scherzo from Mahler 2 are essentially identical, though not in orchestration…

And I, for one, feel like I can hear the whole “they’re inhabiting the same sound world” thing…

But you know who else inhabited roughly the same sound world? Terence Trent D’Arby and Michael Jackson.

Bill Parcells once said, “you are what your record says you are.”  Dandy Don Meredith once said, “if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, wouldn’t it be a Merry Christmas?”  My composition teacher in high school once said, “plagiarize, don’t hide your eyes.”  They were all right.  All we can go on is what we know.  And what we know is that Mahler made his legacy, Rott did not.  Was it his fault?  Who knows?  But even IF you wish to think like Maestro Jarvi and think that Mahler owes a posthumous apology to Rott, you have to first acknowledge that whatever material you may think was lifted by Mahler was handled with the skill of one of the greatest composers who ever walked the Earth, not one of the all-time musical question marks whose style, as we know it, is a raw, jumbled mix that shows great, but completely unfulfilled, promise.

In all seriousness, plagiarism is a serious allegation to levy.

Phil & Paavo

Phil Collins & Paavo Jarvi

For example, if I were to say that Paavo Jarvi seems to have plagiarized Phil Collins’ entire fashion aesthetic in an attempt to look like a more alcoholic but also more cultured version of the famed singer of “In the Air Tonight,” I would risk being criticized heavily for making such disparaging remarks about one of the 15 most famous currently living Estonians in the world.

So I won’t.  I’ll simply re-post in its entirety a thing I had written a while back about Hans Rott and the potential he took to his grave, and assume Paavo Jarvi was high as shit on peyote when he made those comments.

Len & Hans

Len Bias & Hans Rott

There is something in the mindset of most of us that leads us to fill in the blanks in another person based on our perceptions.  If someone is smart, but also shy and reserved, we tend to associate them with words like “standoffish” or “snobby,” even though for all we know they could be the patron saint of cool.  If someone has a lot of tattoos and piercings and wears “Misfits” T-shirts, we think of them as “alternative” and “unique” even though there may be more people that look like them than there are people wearing jeans and a polo.

And these assignations of character and talent and personality run wild when we get our hands on someone who dies early, especially if the circumstances take on a certain sense of tragedy.

Recently, my friend Ken Woods has been writing about the Mahler symphonies as the official blog of the Mahler in Manchester series across the pond.  In the course of these posts (which have been informative and interesting on a level I can’t even begin to describe), the subject of Mahler’s friend and fellow composer Hans Rott has come to the fore, with some fascinating insights and revelations.

The case of Hans Rott is a sad one, filled with fragile confidence, depression, mental breakdown, and handguns.  A promising student at the Vienna Conservatory who received acclaim both from his one-time roommate Mahler and his organ instructor Bruckner, Rott submitted a movement of his Symphony in E major for a composition competition, and later offered the completed manuscript to Hans Richter and Brahms, resulting in Brahms telling him he should give up music (musicologists maintain that Brahms was clearly the Simon of the panel, or that Simon is the Brahms of American Idol).

Fast forward a few months, and Rott is pulling guns on a train, claiming that Brahms loaded the cars with dynamite.  Rott was committed to a sanitarium, and eventually died of tuberculosis at the age of 25.  Mahler said of Rott:

[he is] 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.

Listen to Rott’s Symphony, and you will indeed hear many elements to be found in Mahler, as well as hints of Bruckner, Brahms, and Wagner (not a bad group to coalesce into your sound).

But something happened between the words of Mahler and more recent goings on; Rott has attained a kind of mythical cult status as the great lost symphonist of musical history.  The Symphony in E major has morphed from a rescued work of art to a clarion call of “what if?!” from the great beyond.  It is receiving more and more performances worldwide, and with it comes the effusive and hyperbolic praise along the lines of “this is Mahler BEFORE Mahler!”

But, wait.  Rott’s Symphony, the precocious announcement of something POTENTIALLY great, is still the deeply flawed work of a 20-year-old finding his voice.  It is filled with all sorts of promise.

That promise was unfulfilled.  So in place of this unfulfilled promise, we have attempted to fulfill it with an inflated sense of Rott’s legacy.  A singular student work of substantial impact has created a mythological creative output that doesn’t actually exist.

Ask any NBA fan, and especially any Boston Celtics fan, about Len Bias, and you would swear that he was one of the greatest players of his generation.  The Tale of Len Bias regales us with stories of his hypothetical exploits: the answer to Michael Jordan, the player to extend Larry Bird’s career, the keeper of the Celtics dynasty, and on and on and on.  Where is my hyperbole cup?  Wherever it is, it runneth over.

Bias died of a cocaine overdose just two days after being drafted by the Celtics.  He had completed a captivating collegiate career at the University of Maryland, and was POISED for NBA stardom.

That stardom fizzled in a powdery white minute.  So we filled in the stardom for him.  He became one of his generations’ greatest players having played in exactly zero professional games.

Why do we feel compelled to complete these false legacies?  Why can’t we simply accept these figures for what they were?  Rott’s Symphony is a startling debut effort, and worthy of being lauded on its own merit.  Bias was one of the great amateur basketball players of his or any other generation.  What’s wrong with that?

Furthermore, what about history gives us any reason to think that these prodigies that were taken in tragedy would have revolutionized anything?

Imagine if Michael Jackson had died in 1991, just weeks before the release of Dangerous.  Based on his career to that point, with the Jackson 5 and a string of albums from Off the Wall to Dangerous that sold a Biblical number of copies, he would have towered over every aspect of modern life.  What happened?  He lived another 18 years, probably molested some kids, acted like a coked out Peter Pan, and somehow made the transition from having one of the great Jheri Curls of the early 1980’s to being whiter than Jerry Seinfeld.

Look at Whitney Houston, who went from being my generation’s answer to Aretha Franklin to being my generation’s answer to the question, “who got high with Bobby Brown for 15 years?”  Look at Macaulay Culkin, who went from starring in Home Alone to literally being home alone because nobody gives a shit about him.  Look at the fat kid from Stand By Me, who I think might still be on TV somewhere, but would have been best served as only being the awesome fat ass from Stand By Me.  Look at Emilio Estevez.  Can you?  Where the fuck is Emilio Estevez?

There is nothing to suggest that history would be any kinder to those taken at an early age.  But we press on, secure in the knowledge that Heath Ledger would have been one of our finest actors, that Tupac would have been the unquestioned and undisputed king of hip hop, that Clifford Brown was the equal of Miles Davis, that Mozart would have done God knows what had he lived another 20 years.

What should be secure is their legacies in and of themselves, brief as they may be.  Heath Ledger was in two of the most acclaimed movies of all-time, and was an Academy Award winner.  Tupac left some incredible albums behind (and seems to keep leaving them behind with each passing year).  Clifford Brown’s short career was still filled with all manner of awards, and dozens of tributes have been made in his honor (including the beautiful I Remember Clifford).  What more could we possibly want out of Mozart, who already gave us some of the greatest works in history across a litany of styles and forms?

The Symphony in E major of Hans Rott will and should continue to receive interest, performance, and scholarship.  But I see no reason to abandon the context in which the work lies: as the profound declaration of a voice arrested by misfortune and heartbreak.

No more.  No less.


3 thoughts on “Is Gustav Mahler the ‘Ice, Ice Baby’ to Hans Rott’s ‘Under Pressure’?

  1. HA HA !!


    Love it!


  2. Nice post

  3. I love the Rott symphony dearly, but it is clearly filled with references to Brahms, Bruckner, and Wagner. I don’t find it particularly flawed, as I believe that the structure of a piece helps make the argment, but is not the argument itself. No amount of clever arrangement can make a mediocre musical argument into a masterpiece, but great themes and pwoer ful orchestration can rescue a piece that otherwise has structual challenges.

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