Nicky Gluch introduces Hans Rott

Growing up in Australia, a land bereft of castles, to read Hans Christian Andersen’s collected tales was to step into a world of pure fantasy. I marvelled at his imagining of princes and princesses, of snow and frozen rivers, not quite understanding that, in Europe, reality was closer than it appeared. Sitting cross-legged in the school library, leather-bound book in my lap, I poured over the tales, finding them far more moral than, but never quite as cheerful as, those of Disney. No, these stories were dark, the characters cruel; happy endings were found in heaven, not on earth.

It was only by reading Dickens, Andersen’s contemporary, that I came to appreciate that the authors were not conjurers but mirrors, creatively reflecting their societies to entertain and comfort the children of the day. Fiction is often at its most alluring when it flickers with truth. Enter, then, Hans Rott, born when Dickens was 46 and Andersen 53. His mother was a teenage actress, his father a 50-something married man. At the age of four, he was legitimised, paving the way for a musical education, but by 18 he was an orphan. He needed a fairy godmother; alone, he was ill prepared to face the world.

The teenage Rott was impressionable; a student of Bruckner’s, he became a fine organist, but musically, Wagner was king. In 1876, he attended the first Bayreuth festival, and his early compositions were apparently so heavily Wagnerian that, to quote Jens F. Laurson, he was asked to ‘tone it down’. But that wasn’t the main thorn in his side. Every fairy tale needs a villain, and to Rott, this was Brahms. In 1880, Rott sought a government stipend: as part of the application, he showed his newly finished Symphony in E to Johannes, desperately hoping for a warm appraisal. Alas, Brahms ridiculed the work, going so far as to accuse Rott of plagiarism (unhelped by Rott having quoted Brahms’ own first symphony).

His criticism took form, haunting Rott so much that he became convinced that the older composer had a plot against him – cunningly lacing a train with dynamite, no less!

Had it only been true, authors would have called it inspiration. Had Rott more mystique, he might have become a figure of 19th century folklore. But alas, in that era, delusion was a death sentence and Rott was committed to a mental hospital. By 1883, recovery was ruled out, and a year later he had succumbed to the time’s other great affliction – tuberculosis. Dickens would have nodded in recognition.

And so Rott’s earthly life came to an end. But what of the heavenly solace, the promised turn of fates? Well, in the 1980s, musicologist Paul Banks found the score to Rott’s symphony and, blowing off the dust, brought it back to life. In 1989, the work received its premiere performance – and what did the audience hear? Musicologically, we could say a bit of Wagner, a bit of Mahler, and a whole lot of youthful ebullience. But sentimentally, I would argue that one hears Andersen’s world. There are galloping horses and snowy forests. There are castles, and battles, and dances and duels. It’s a fairy tale in sound, romantic and grand, in which the ever-ringing triangle could be oh so many things – sleigh bells, perhaps, or the tinkling of a fairy’s wings.