Something Rotten in the state of Mahler

Something Rotten in the state of Mahler


norman lebrecht

September 01, 2014

Ever since it surfaced in the 1980s, Hans Rott’s symphony in E has been a headache for Mahler scholars.

Rott was a classmate and, briefly, a roommate of Gustav Mahler’s in Vienna in the late 1870s. In 1880, aged 22, he wrote a symphony. Months later he was confined to a mental asylum with various symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. He died in 1884, aged 25.

hans rott


Rott’s symphony, first recorded by Gerhard Samuel in Cincinnati in 1989, contains two explicit themes and several musical gestures that are familiar from Mahler’s second symphony. The question is, did Mahler steal from his mad, dead friend?

A new recording of Rott’s symphony has just been released, the best yet. It is my Album of the Week on

So did Mahler steal from Rott? And if he did….? Click here for more.


  • David Boxwell says:

    The third movement is the most startlingly proto-Mahlerian. Horn calls introduce a catchy landler. Conductors can really “pull Mahler” out of it, if they so choose. But the entire work, in sum, is a sprawling, barley coherent mess. Das Klagende Lied, exactly contempraneous with Rott’s symphony, is the real deal.

  • steve says:

    ….and about 2 and a half minutes into the finale you can hear the 1st Nightmusic from the 7th symphony in embryonic form. These borrowings are a virtue as what Mahler does with the material is extraordinary. Having said that, the Rott Symphony is interesting in its own right though I remember excessive use of the triangle!

  • John Borstlap says:

    Interestingly, in these times all kinds of ‘verschollen’ works from pre-modern times are dug-up, answering a need for new works around the central traditional repertoire, and related to it in their fundamental aesthetic principles. It appears that there has been written more music of interest in the past than the usual repertoire would make one to assume.

    Also interesting in this context is the ‘digging-out’ of ‘entartete’ music from the twenties and thirties written in Germany and Austria, with some striking jewels (like the cello concerto of Ernst Toch, put on CD by the Kammersymphonie Berlin). Interesting also that this need for new musical experiences does not stretch itself out to postwar modernism.

    • I wish that some of this forgotten Romantic period music could get programmed.

      Is one reason that it is not is that it’s more cost effective to keep performing music the musicians already know and don’t have to learn anew?

      • John Borstlap says:

        Indeed. Unfamiliar music requires more rehearsel time than familiar pieces and will thus weigh heavier on an orchestra’s budget. Imagine an unknown 10th Beethoven symphony would be unearthed, or a Brahms 5, or a Debussy La Mer nr 2. Getting the notes right is one part of the trajectory but getting the music really speak and breath, would cost another number of rehearsels, also if the orchestra is top notch.

      • Martin Haub says:

        I have had the great privilege of playing in an orchestra whose original mission was to play unheard, forgotten music. We’ve played Arnell, Gal, Raff, Stenhammer, Atterberg, and many, many more. We’ve played lesser known music from well-known composers. It’s not that it’s any harder to play unfamiliar music, the problem is that too many conductors are lazy! They don’t want to be bothered to learn something outside the standard repertoire knowing that they will likely never do it again. And audiences are the worst: they’d rather sit and hear the Brahms 1st for the 100th time rather than give Atterberg a try.

        • Martin Malmgren says:

          Terrific to hear about an orchestra taking such an initiative, knowing how difficult it can be to attract attention. I have a tendency of programming more little-known works than mainstream pieces in my recitals, and of course the opinions vary – I only program works I feel strongly about, yet, some people always like to remark how they preferred the mainstream stuff in my programs. Recently, a reviewer thought it brave of me to perform so many little-known works, yet ended the review by writing something along the lines of ‘next time I would be happy to hear him perform Beethoven, Rachmaninoff or Scriabin!’

  • Andrey Boreyko says:

    Yes, that’s 100% true…. Unfortunately… Especially the second part: even if some conductors are not lazy- they have huge problems to schedule such music.
    You are lucky man- in which country is your orchestra?

  • Martin Haub says:

    The orchestra is Musica Nova ( based in the Phoenix, AZ, area. The director, Warren Cohen is/was the brains running it. A fine musician, composer, conductor with real passion for exploring the fringes of the repertoire. Unfortunately, he as moved to New York, and the orchestra doesn’t do nearly as many concerts or as much off beat music as it used to. The only really obscure thing on the schedule this year is the Schrecker Chamber Symphony.

    • Martin Haub says:

      And may I also say that your recording of the works of Franz Schmidt are absolutely tops! Ever since that came out I was hoping you’d get a chance to do the symphonies. And the Shostakovich 4th is utterly brilliant – likely the best ever.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    No, Mahler didn’t “steal” anything from Rott. They lived at the same time in the same place, breathed the same musical air. Who knows, maybe the ideas in Rott’s symphony were something Mahler came up with first, or, more likely, something both heard somewhere else at the same time. They are pretty generic anyway and what counts is what each made out of them.

    Like so many other composers, Mahler derived a lot of ideas and material from previous and contemporary music anyway – that’s called “cultural references”. There is a fabulous book by the musicologist Constantin Floros called “Mahler und die Symphonik des 19. Jahrhunderts in neuer Deutung” which traces many of these influences, shows where Mahler quoted from where, where he made specific musical references, and what the “meaning” of those references is.

  • DLowe says:

    Worth noting that the BBC SO are performing it in November, alongside some Mahler Liede, if I remember correctly.

  • Andrey says:

    Thank you, Martin. I hope you enjoy also other my recordings: Silvestrov, Paert, another Shostakovitch symphonies.

  • Ian Moore says:

    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.”

  • peter Smith says:

    I also hear a fair bit of Bruckner, Wacker Siegfried Idyll and in the finale Brahms 1. No composer is an island unaffected by what is around him, composing in a vacuum starved of the musical air around him or her. Yes, there are obvious snippets foreshadowing ideas in Mahler 1, 2,5 and 7. The praise and attention Mahler drew to Rott demonstrate what high esteem he had for him. If Mahler was afraid of plagiarism charges he could have left Rott unsung and forgotten in his grave. I suspect some of Rott’s ideas entered Mahler’s psyche and the motives are a kind of tribute to a fellow genius who tragically died so young denying the world the chance to hear the blossoming of his talents.

  • Claes Lundqvist says:


    It might be of interest to you to know that a novel about Hans Rott is to be released at the end of February 2019.


  • Edgar Self says:

    In an earlier post above Ian Moore quotes verbatim Mahler’s own words, which carry great weight, about this Symphony in E aby his friend cnd classmate Hans Rott. There are startling resemblances to Mahler’s tone-world in Rott’s symphony.

    there are by now half a dozen recordings of Rott’s symphony,although the first on Hyperion by Gerhard Samuel and the Cincinnati Philharmonic, a conservatory orchestra, seems to me still to be the best. I was glad to help get it premiered loccally by Lawrence Rapchak and the Northbrook Symphony Orchestra in the Chicago area a few seasons back.

    Gerhard Samuel quietly removed 500 bar of triangle from his performing version. It is a touching, moving, impressive symphony, perhaps a little over-long like some of Mahler’s own, but absorbing to anyone interested in Mahler.

    A german translation of the Swedish-language original novel about Hans Rott,mentioned by Claes Lundqvist, is available in German on Kindle.