Rachmaninov’s obscenely popular Piano Concerto No. 2 begins with an ending. So is Symphony in E of Hans Rott, an obscure composer whose triumph came before his career even began. The youthfully glorious symphony was finished in 1880. On 17 September of the same year, the 22-year-old young man visited Brahms to show his work. Probably out of displeasure over the fact that Rott was a student of Anton Bruckner, Brahms told him that he had no talent whatsoever and should give up music. Within a month, Rott went insane while on a train, claiming Brahms had filled the train with dynamite. He was sent to a mental hospital next year and died of tuberculosis three years later at the age of 25.
Youthful failure also underlies Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, but it proceeded it instead of following it. The music came after the 28-year-old composer had his consultation sessions with the psychiatrist Nikolai Dahl, a student of Jean-Martin Charcot, to have his depression brought on by the critical failure of Symphony No. 1 overcome. The brooding resolution appeared in the beginning of the music is no incident – in fact, Rachmaninov wrote the first movement last.
Inner resolve, it is said, is what the young Hans Rott lacks. But this doesn’t change the fact that his Symphony in E is a sublime piece of music. Kant’s concept of the sublime, I’ve heard, is an exuberant sense of narrow escape from death – or failure. In Rott’s case, it is rather a narrow escape from success and life, a brilliantly sunny morning before the eternal darkness. The chronology is reversed, but the transcendence to the other shore is the same. The inner resolve is never lacking: it lives in the music, disregarding personal histories.
The sublime and the inner resolve appear when one is crossing from the muddy daily life to transcendence, and back. Failure in the crossing, in the case of Rott, or near failure, in the case of Rachmaninov, footnote the beauty of this process of individual histories – they subsequently become part of lore, part of myth. So is success, as in the case of Yuja Wang’s dress.
The young pianist, whose transparent and absolutely aristocratic performance of Rachmaninov’s easily muddy Piano Concerto No. 2 with the graceful accompaniment of Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Claudio Abbado, appears to be indifferent to audience and critics. From the audience seat last year in her sweeping performance of Rachmaninov 3, it seemed me that she was playing only for herself – her returning to the stage for standing ovation was extremely reluctant. But this is only the appearances, as her often flashy dresses and high heels, her lively responses in interviews, and her consistent tweets (in one deleted entry she angrily responded to a negative music critic’s “inability to perceive”) show: she is listening to the muddy public.
But she agrees with Michael Tilson Thomas’ assessment of her: “You don’t need the public. The public needs you.”
They need each other and that’s when Yuja Wang succeeds, as Mr. Thomas said of her artistry: She will play as a soloist but also as an accompanist when important things are happening in the orchestra. That is an unusual quality for a card-carrying virtuoso.”
Rachmaninov is yet to completely recovered from the reputation of being vulgar and populist: Alex Ross’ superb 2010 book on 20th-century music The Rest is Noise doesn’t even mention his name.
Hans Rott’s Symphony in E remains obscure, although the fire of the music enlightened Gustav Mahler who in his youthful Symphony No. 1 “Titan” paid tribute to his friend by incorporating Rott’s theme.
Mahler famously said that “a symphony must include the whole world”. This titanism is called by Paul Henry Lang as “hysterical” and “often mars his best efforts”. Lang, however, praises the external impression of Mahler’s gigantism could create: it “has something grandiose about it”, only this great impression could not be separated from “performing apparatus” – which is not available by listening to music recording alone. Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 needs a great organ, several choirs of children, men and women, an oversized orchestra with multiple solo instruments, along with bells, mandolins, etc.
Yuja Wang was genuinely surprised by her on-stage mini-skirt caused in Los Angeles: Why are they paying so much attention to what I wear? And why do they have rules about what classical musicians should be wearing?
But she is determined: “. I’m just being myself. When I’m 40, I’m not going to wear a short dress, so I might as well do it now!”