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The Greatest Symphonist Who Never Was

John Rowland

Posted on September 15, 2019 16:15

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The issue of plagiarism surrounds Gustav Mahler and the greatest symphonist who never was.

Ever heard of Hans Rott? Most probably haven't, including this observer.

Hans Rott

source: Mahler Foundation

Rott "was an Austrian composer and organist" whose short life was from 1858 to 1884 -- ending at age 25. Largely obscure until the 1980s, Rott's influence gained notoriety with the efforts of musicologist Paul Banks, a Mahler scholar from England. In writing his 1989 PhD dissertation on Mahler's early years, Banks was "spurred on by a quote [praise] of Mahler's" about Rott. Banks then managed to locate Rott's "principal surviving work" in the Austrian National Library archives: the Symphony in E major.

In considering the short life of Hans Rott, one is reminded of an earlier Romantic period figure whose biography contained some striking parallels: orphaned at an early age; lifelong money worries; unkind reviewers; tuberculosis leading to an early death, also at age 25. Modern literary critics have noted that no other British poet, had they died at this young age, would have produced the artistic masterpieces -- nor demonstrated the unique genius -- of John Keats. 

But Rott's entire Symphony had never been heard until it was premiered in 1989 by Gerhard Samuel, directing the Cincinnati Philharmonic Orchestra. When performed, the similarities "between some of its sections and portions of Mahler's first two symphonies" were clearly more than mere coincidence; Mahler had taken "a couple of very distinct bars of music and grafted them into his own." Incriminatingly, Rott's symphony had predated Mahler's first composition -- by some 4 years.

In consequence, Jens F. Laurson calls Rott "the greatest symphonist who never was."

What the Mahler Foundation euphemistically terms Mahler's "references to Rott's work," Conductor Paavo Järvi calls pure plagiarism: "Literally, I think, that it is a historic crime . . . that Mahler, who never acknowledged any influence of Rott [on his own compositions explicitly] . . . took literal quotes from the symphony and placed it in different parts of his. What this is, really, is a historic case of plagiarism. If Mahler lived today, he would be sued for plagiarism."

John Rowland

Posted on September 15, 2019 16:15

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