“So Near to My Inmost Self…”

I taught Mahler today in my 19th-century harmony class. I never teach Mahler without teaching Hans Rott. Rott (1858-1884) was a fellow student of Mahler’s at Vienna Conservatory, and for a time Mahler’s roommate. Rott went mad and died at the age of 25, after completing a symphony that sounds remarkably like Mahler. Rott wrote his symphony in 1878-1880; Mahler’s First Symphony dates from 1884-1888. If you heard the scherzo of Rott’s symphony without identification, you would swear it was some unknown Mahler work: it is identical in style, orchestration, and melody to the scherzos of Mahler’s First and Third Symphonies. The long introduction to Rott’s final movement has much in common with the finale of Mahler’s Second. Mahler inherited the manuscript of Rott’s symphony after his friend died. Mahler later called Rott 

a musician of genius … who died unrecognized and in want on the very threshold of his career. … It is completely impossible to estimate what music has lost in him. His First Symphony soars to such heights of genius that it makes him – without exaggeration – the founder of the New Symphony as I understand 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.

This is the great classical music movie waiting to be made. Two friends, Hans and Gustav (surely Hans and Gustav will be the name of the movie), enter Vienna Conservatory together. One is brilliant but insecure, the other ruthlessly ambitious. Both are obsessed with finding some fusion of the styles of Wagner and Brahms, thus bringing one of the great feuds in the history of music to a felicitous close. One of the friends writes a wonderful symphony, nearly achieving their common aim. It is attacked and dismissed by the conservative Conservatory faculty; only the socially inept Anton Bruckner (played by John Malkovich) expresses sympathy for it. The friend takes his work to the great Johannes Brahms (played by a bearded Jason Robards if he were still alive), who tells him it is worthless, and that he should give up composing. The friend goes mad, becoming totally paranoid, convinced that Brahms is trying to kill him by dynamiting a train he rides on. The friend dies in an asylum, still composing but destroying his sketches, convinced they are no good. Mahler keeps the manuscript, studies it, and starts composing the symphonies his college friend didn’t live to write. From the marvelous insights of his tragic friend he guiltily creates an incredible new universe of music. It could be the great classical-music movie of all time, rivaled only by Farinelli, the wonderful Gerard Corbiau film about the 18th-century castrato with Handel as its deliciously Machiavellian villain. 


  1. says

    Perhaps Jeroen Krabbé could play the part of Brahms (he does Handel so convincingly in Farinelli, and he as the advantage of being alive). Malkovich would make a great Bruckner, but who would play Mahler?
    Thanks for the introduction to Rott.
    KG replies: Krabbé would make an evil Brahms, but I was too lazy to look up his name. Seems a little too penetrating for Brahms, but I would have never pictured him as Handel either, and he’s magnificent. I’m not up on current young actors, so I can’t even venture a Rott or Mahler.

  2. mclaren says

    Movies never present exciting music or literature or art well, since films center around fast-moving visually arresting suspenseful activities. And creating exciting music (or literature, or art) mainly involves sitting at a table and scribbling, then erasing, and scribbling some more. If you’re especially adventurous as a composer, you might sit around clicking a mouse to create musical manuscripts with a notation program. I can just imagine the cliffhanger Saturday morning serial version of composing on film: NEXT WEEK — WILL SHE CLICK ON THE E-FLAT???? DON’T MISS THE NEXT EXCITING CHAPTER, `THE THREAT OF THE ALTERED DOMINANT CHORD!’
    Many of us find ideas tremendously exciting…but you can’t create a compelling film about that kind of stuff. Erasmus and Mersenne had tremendously exciting lives, but on film, they’d mostly sit around writing letters.
    Presumably this explains why YouTube videos exlaining and discussing music haven’t appeared. YouTube excels when it shows waterskiing chipmunks or dogs on skateboards, not when presenting exciting ideas and discussing vividly memorable music.

  3. Stanley Moon says

    “but you can’t create a compelling film about that kind of stuff”
    Try Straub’s Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach.

  4. Alan Olshan says

    I’m thinking Jake Gyllenhaal or Jonathan Rhys Meyers for Gustav. Just promise me it won’t be Ashton Kutcher, Tobey McGuire or Ben Stiller. Nicole Kidman for Alma. Robin Williams for Sigmund Freud? No? How about Woody Allen?
    KG replies: I promise, no Ben Stiller. He looks vaguely like Mahler, but that eternal crooked smile would be entirely wrong. Woody Allen for Freud, however unbelievable, would be a cultural statement all by itself. And I have to admit, I HAAAAAATE Nicole Kidman. I find her the most average-looking, blank, and therefore uninteresting famous actress in the history of film. Is Winona Ryder too old?

  5. says

    Write the screenplay, Kyle, and pitch it! You never know…I always wonder how many other great composers are (were) out there, undiscovered for one reason or another. I was unaware of Rott until this post.
    This will be of less interest to you from the standpoint of the music itself: but for years I have wished somebody would make a biopic on the life of Louis Moreau Gottschalk. He’s aging and getting a little self-referential now, but for a long time I wanted Johnny Depp in the title role. The monster pianist hailed as “king of pianists” by Chopin and others in Europe, touring “on the road” in America of the early-mid-19th-century when that phrase really meant something, playing for gold prospectors in saloons in the Wild West, the Civil War erupting all around him, lots of sex, you name it…I always thought it would be a great movie.
    KG replies: My prose style is all geared for analysis, never for fiction or drama. My ear for dialogue is non-existent. I can hardly make small talk myself. But Gottschalk would be a wonderful film subject, and would greatly interest me musically, and on every other level. What a life! What a fascinating historical position! Johnny Depp would be an inspired choice.

  6. says

    Mclaren–I think you’re underestimating hollywood’s ability to create imaginary computer interfaces that look great on screen but would be utterly impractical in real life. The Hollywood version of Finale would be managed on a 5×7 foot transparent touch-screen with all sorts of objects that you move around with different hand movements, very quickly. It would be just like the computers in CSI Miami or Minority Report. The composer would of course often be composing on a tight deadline with the client in the room watching and giving feedback, so that the composer could spout all sorts of technical jargon while pulling his masterpiece together. Excitement! Drama!

  7. says

    Haha, that’s great! And director Ken Russell returns to directing with his finale, “Rott.”
    Similar to your plot line, but a few “injections” of tiny untruths to make it even more dramatic, Ken starts the film with the two boys,Hans and Gustav, rooming together at the conservatoire. The pair(played as secretly gay)have a brief love affair, but unfortunate for Rott, Gustav is using him to study his works and steal his brilliant ideas. Gustav dumps Rott and shortly after poisons Rott’s wine with a lethal dose of arsenic. Gustav writes a fake suicide note and by sheer accident uncovers a hiding spot underneath the floor board where Rott had hidden hundreds of works. You know what happens nx. Of all Ken Russell’s composer “bio” films I prefer The Music Lovers, but Lisztomania was hilarious.