Hans von Bulow, a Giant in 19th Century Music

Hans von Bulow(Photo: Unknown)
Hans von Bulow(Photo: Unknown)

Remember Claus von Bulow? If you came of age in the early 80s like me you may remember this European born socialite accused of poisoning his wife. Claus made a big point several times of claiming a family relationship with a nineteenth century figure, Hans von Bulow.

Claus has a footnote in the history books for all the wrong reasons. Hans
von Bulow, on the other hand, was a giant in 19th century music and his career and legacy deserve to be better known. Alan Walker‘s new book, Hans von Bulow, A Life and Times, goes a long way toward restoring its subject to prominence.

von Bulow’s Talent Was Immense

Hans von Bulow (1830-1894) was a German born pianist and conductor. His gifts at the keyboard were considered for a time second only to Franz Liszt’s and he soon surpassed the older man who was a time his father in law.

Hans was the first pianist to play the complete keyboard works of Beethoven in multi-evening marathon concerts, throughout Europe and the New World (they loved him in Boston and New York). It was to Bulow that Wagner entrusted the premiere of Tristan und Isolde, and Bulow used his influence to promote Wagner’s music in good times and bad.

Personal Complications

Bad times? Here’s where it gets complicated. Bulow married Cosima Falvigny Liszt, Franz’s daughter by his mistress, the Countess Marie d’Agoult. Cosima and Hans were happy for a time, and two daughters, Daniela and Blandine were born of this marriage.

Before very long Cosima herself met Richard Wagner – and she had two more children, Isolde and Siegfried – by Wagner while married to Bulow. Got it?

The prime mover of Wagner’s music – which was not universally admired in the 1860s – lost his wife and children to the composer of Tristan and  Die Meistersinger. For that alone was Bulow discussed in the history books. His astonishing gifts in music were ignored in favor of his messy private life.

von Bulow’s Influence

Bulow had a photographic memory and was afraid of no score ever set before him on the keyboard or conductor’s podium. He admired Liszt and Berlioz (and Wagner), each of whom needed his influence.

He held important conducting posts in Meiningen, Vienna and Berlin and made regular appearances with the New York Philharmonic in that orchestra’s earliest days. Bulow was known for the diamond-like perfection of his music making.

Liszt was considered more emotional, where even his mistakes were art. Bulow seldom made mistakes. His piano recital programs included Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Liszt, Scarlatti and Mozart. He did a lot to further the popularity of the Brahms symphonies (that composer was not always grateful) and thought little of conducting the Beethoven Ninth twice in one day.

Tantalizingly, some of Bulow’s piano recitals in the States were recorded by Thomas Edison on wax cylinders in 1890, as was a New York performance of the Eroica. Bulow writes of these recordings as ‘miracles’ but they’ve never been found.

Alan Walker includes notes from a series of masterclasses given by Bulow for young pianists and conductors:

  • In the beginning was rhythm
  • There are no easy pieces, they are all difficult
  • The bar line is only for the eye, not the ear. In playing, as in reading a poem, scanning must be subordinated to the declamation
  • The Well-Tempered Clavier is the Old Testament, the Beethoven sonatas are the New Testament. We must believe in both
  • With Beethoven one must place one’s technique in the shadows, not bring it into the light

Bulow made a speech from the podium admiring of Bismarck that got him into hot water, but this was a public figure who always spoke his mind. He had a lofty level of perfection and it can’t have been easy to have made music with him – but if you succeeded, oh my, it must have been wonderful.

Alan Walker writes with complete authority on matters musical and has an unflinching eye toward a fickle public, personal peccadilloes and a wayward press. Not only is this book important to ‘square the picture’ of the life and career of an astonishingly gifted artist, it is an entertaining and enjoyable read.

Walker’s accounts of Bulow’s performances of music by Beethoven and Brahms had me reaching for CDs I hadn’t touched in a while.

Bulow did re-marry, but this was an early two-career marriage, and the couple often lived apart; she had an act at the court theater at Meiningen.

von Bulow’s Dramatic Ending

Hans von Bulow’s death was no less dramatic than his life.  He traveled to Egypt in 1894 in search of a cure for the neuralgia and aches and pains plaguing him and he died not far from the banks of the Nile.

The young Mahler conducted Bulow’s Memorial Concert, in Hamburg-Bulow’s home, which, for many years, was the scene of plenty of his triumphs. Mahler and Richard Strauss were both encouraged by Bulow, though of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the old conductor reportedly shook his head and said, “If this this is music, then I have never understood music.”

Cosima, God love her, outlived her own son and practically everybody else, dying in her 90s in 1930. But that’s another story….