Terrific Biography of Hans von Bülow


  To many Wagnerians, Hans von Bülow is Cosima’s nervous husband.  He’s the highly-strung fellow with the pointy beard, the one who transcribed Tristan while the composer schtupped his wife. Bülow, the one who straggled behind Wagner and Cosima in the cartoon.  Bülow, who agreed to lie to Ludwig about Cosima’s illegitimate daughter Isolde’s parentage.  Bülow, the factotum; Bülow, the cuckold.

            Thanks to Alan Walker’s new book, we can release this wonderful musician from the pigeonhole to which ignorance had condemned him.  Hans von Bülow was one of the great musicians of the 19th century, and his career as a virtuoso pianist, a conductor, an editor, a teacher, and an avid supporter of “new music” surpasses his contemporaries.

            Bülow was born of a genteel aristocratic family, and his desire to pursue music professionally met with paternal disapproval.  As a 20-year old law student he attended the premiere of Lohengrin, conducted by Liszt in 1850.  He travelled to Weimar the next year to become Liszt’s pupil, and for three years succeeded in gaining Liszt’s admiration, trust and affection.  He also began to write criticism, a practice that sometimes brought the young man unwanted notoriety but that he continued throughout his life.  His first concert tours in 1853 brought him national attention and he quickly became a virtuoso of high regard, championing the music of his mentor Liszt and other proponents of the “new German music,” notably Wagner.  In 1857 he premiered Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and, during his years in Berlin, launched a notable career as a symphony conductor.

            Bülow’s musical intellect was astonishing.  He played and conducted even premiere performances from memory, and at the keyboard he accurately sight-read orchestral scores of twenty staves or more.  Walker concludes that “by the early 1860s Bülow had become the undisputed leader of the musical avant-garde in Berlin,” regularly playing the works of Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner and Schumann as well as other younger contemporaries.  When Liszt’s two illegitimate daughters were summoned to Berlin, they stayed in the household where Bülow himself was living, and in 1855 he fell in love with, and married, one of them – Cosima – and had two daughters.

            Bülow and Wagner had corresponded ever since Bülow was a law student and, when King Ludwig presented Wagner the opportunity to mount Tristan in Munich, Wagner of course turned to Bülow to conduct and transcribe this incomprehensible score.  Walker states that Wagner needed Bülow at this time more than Bülow needed him, and that would appear to be the case.  But when Bülow and his wife left Berlin to assist Wagner in Munich in 1864, he did not realize that Wagner and Cosima had sworn their love for each other the year before.  He soon learned.  Wagner’s Munich housekeeper testified in 1914 that, soon after their arrival, Bülow noted Cosima entering Wagner’s bedroom and, when he tried to gain access a while later, found the door locked against him.  His passionate response suggests that he knew of the lovers’ affair early on, but continued to serve Wagner and to share his own wife.  In any event Bulow was a man of music first and foremost; the birth of Cosima’s third daughter Isolde took place while Bülow was conducting the orchestra rehearsal for Tristan.  Bülow also rehearsed and conducted the wildly successful Munich premiere of Meistersinger three years later.

            The flight to Triebschen, the lies to Ludwig, the birth of more children to his wife by his friend, and Bülow’s final grant of divorce in 1870 – these sad scandals are well-known.  Bülow then launched a back-breaking series of concert performances around Europe, the UK and even America, in an effort to earn enough money to support his children.  It was a matter of honor for him that Wagner not be required to take care of them financially.  And this Bülow did.  He also refused Cosima’s request that his two daughters be adopted by Wager.  They were his children, after all.

Though a tireless advocate for Wagner’s art, and a critical factor in the successes of both Tristan and Meistersinger, Bülow was not invited to attend either the 1876 Ring or the 1882 Parsifal.  The only time he visited Bayreuth was to perform a recital for the benefit of the Festival’s Deficit Fund – and even that visit was timed so that neither Richard nor Cosima was in town.  In all, Bülow raised over 40,000 thalers for Bayreuth, nearly one-third of its deficit from the 1876 festival.  Wagner never acknowledged him, and Bülow did not want acknowledgement.  He did it for German art.

            Bülow then exceeded even his own triumphs.  In 1880 he was appointed conductor of the Meiningen Orchestra, whose performances of the Beethoven symphonies Bülow insisted be performed by memory.  “Better the score in your head than your head in the score,” he insisted.  The Meiningen’s tours raised the bar for orchestras around Europe, and championed such new composers as Brahms and Dvořák.  His master classes were renowned.  He moved to Hamburg and gave astonishing performances at the opera house.  Finally he accepted a post back in Berlin and, to hear Walker relate the tale, single-handedly created the Berlin Philharmonic from a small-time band to the great orchestra it became.  In the meantime he deeply influenced, and gave invaluable assistance to, Bruno Walter, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and other leaders of the next generation. 

His editions of the Beethoven Sonatas and symphonies were definitive.  He offered marathon five-day recitals in which he played all of Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas in chronological order, by way of teaching audiences the development of German music through the maturity of this great composer.  His enthusiasm for the work of Johannes Brahms was almost without bounds.  He coined the phrase “The Three B’s: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms,” and with characteristic social awkwardness accepted a dedication from Dvořák of that composer’s Symphony no. 5 on the ground that, after Brahms, he was the second “most divinely gifts composer of the present time.”  Bülow’s second wife Marie finally gave him the emotional support that he deserved, in his final years, and his death in 1894 was the occasion for encomia from every quarter.

            Walker’s book has some odd quirks, including several errors or lacunae.  Reference is made to Wotan’s bidding farewell to his daughter at the end of Act I of Walküre.  The Meiningen years are portrayed as the story of an orchestra when the Duke was actually far more influential in touring the Meiningen theatre, an enterprise that is dismissed by Walker as a mere hobby of his wife.  The style of the book is reminiscent of an older time, with frequent self-referential passages such as “…as we noted a few pages back…” or “…the reader will learn more of this episode later in the story.”

            But Walker, a preeminent musicologist and author of the definitive biography of Liszt, can only be thanked for allowing us this intimate, entertaining and compelling portrait of a very great musician, who had the misfortune to be betrayed by his young wife and trusted friend.   Walker notes that the von Bülow coat of arms bears the motto, Alle Bülow’n ehrlich (“All the Bülows are Honorable”).  And so was this one, even though the same cannot be said for the two in whom he placed his greatest trust.

Hans von Bülow: A Life and Times by Alan Walker.  Oxford University Press, 2010.  510 pp.

Reprinted with permission from Wagner Notes, Vol. 34, No. 1 (February 2011), published bimonthly by the Wagner Society of New York, Inc. (www.wagnersocietyny.org)

1 Comment

  • This book is indeed awesome. It was one of my sources for one Bülow’s biography I wrote for my website and even if English isn’t my mother tongue, I really enjoyed the reading!

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