Oct. 10: Mahler's Roommate

By James David Jacobs

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You may have noticed that we're playing a lot of Mahler this weekend on 99.5. I hope you heard the live Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of the Symphony No. 2 last night, and later on today, you'll have the chance to hear the remarkable Kiri Te Kanawa with the BSO in the Symphony No. 4.  Then, on Sunday Concert, Pierre Boulez leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Symphony No. 7.

So in light of all that, on Sunday Brunch, I wanted to add a sort of footnote to this mini-festival by playing the Symphony in E major by Hans Rott. Rott was two years older than Mahler; the two of them attended the Vienna Conservatory at the same time and briefly roomed together. Rott was the son of two actors; his mother died when he was two and his father died when he was eighteen, leaving him financially destitute. Fortunately, he was accepted to the Conservatory on full scholarship.

Bruckner was Rott's organ teacher and thought very highly of him, but that high opinion of Rott was not shared by the rest of the faculty. Rott wrote this symphony at the ages of 20-21, when he was still a student; in 1878 he submitted the first movement of the work to the school's yearly composition competition, where the work was roundly derided. In 1880 he sought out advice from Brahms, who told Rott in no uncertain terms that he had no talent for music. It's probably understandable that the experience of one of history's greatest composers passing this kind of judgement was beyond traumatic for Rott, and it may have even played a role in his mental breakdown later that year.  While on a train, he pulled a revolver on a fellow passenger who was trying to light a cigar, telling him that Brahms had filled the train with dynamite and the passenger's match would set it off. He was soon committed to a mental institution, and after a few unhappy years died of tuberculosis at the age of 26.

Mahler actually thought very highly of his onetime roommate and his symphony: "It is completely impossible to estimate what music has lost in him.  His Symphony soars to such heights of genius that it makes him - without exaggeration - the Founder of the New Symphony as I understand it. It is true that he has not fully realized his aims here. It is like someone taking a run for the longest possible throw and not quite hitting the mark. But I know what he was driving at. 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."  You might detect that similarity between the two artists upon hearing Rott's symphony, in which there are pre-echoes of several Mahler works.  (Some critics have even accused Mahler of plagiarism, like conductor Paavo Järvi.)

I, however, prefer to think that Mahler's echoes of Rott were a conscious tribute to his friend who had such a tragically short life; one could even make the argument that Rott is the hero of Mahler's work, and the subject of his funeral marches. Today at 10:00 we'll hear the symphony by the musicians who gave the world premiere of this work (in 1989!): The University of Cincinnati's superb Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Gerhard Samuel.

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