- The Washington Times - Friday, February 12, 2010

HANS VON BULOW: A LIFE AND TIMES

By Alan Walker

Oxford University Press, $39.95

510 pages, illustrated

REVIEWED BY PRISCILLA S. TAYLOR

This superb biography of virtuoso pianist and conductor Hans von Bulow does for the 19th-century music scene what Alex Ross’ “The Rest Is Noise” did for the 20th, leaving the reader awestruck at the author’s command of his research and skillful storytelling. No novelist could so convincingly conjure up the true-life drama of Richard Wagner, Hans von Bulow, Cosima Liszt Bulow Wagner, and mad King Ludwig II. Alan Walker, professor emeritus of music at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, is familiar with all the relationships, having previously published a three-volume biography of Franz Liszt. Moreover, the book is beautifully produced by Oxford University Press, a treat to read.

Mr. Walker begins, inevitably, with some famous Bulow epigrams (“In Art there are no trivial things”) but quickly moves on to show how Bulow “strode across the world of nineteenth-century music like a colossus … in at least six directions simultaneously. He was a renowned concert pianist; a virtuoso orchestral conductor; a respected (and sometimes feared) teacher; an influential editor of works by Bach, Mendelssohn, Chopin and above all of Beethoven, in the performance of whose music he had no rival; a scourge as a music critic …; and last, he was a composer whose music, while it is hardly played today, deserves a better fate than benign neglect.”

It’s easy to see why no biographer has tackled a full-scale biography of Bulow heretofore, but, remarkably, Mr. Walker manages to weave all these threads together into a story that will captivate the general reader while providing new insights for music professionals.

Bulow was born in Dresden, Germany, in 1830 to ill-matched parents who eventually divorced. The boy began his musical studies at age 9 following his convalescence from a serious illness, probably meningitis, during which he had found pleasure in memorizing scores by Bach and Beethoven. As Mr. Walker puts it, Bulow “had the ability to imprint on his memory whole pages of a musical score that he had seen but once, and reproduce them at the piano. … Even Toscanini’s well-known ability to recall orchestral scores in detail pales by comparison.”

In fact, Bulow became renowned for knowing orchestral scores better than the players and sometimes better than the composer: “He was once rehearsing an orchestral piece of Liszt‘s, in Liszt’s presence, when Liszt stopped him with the observation that a certain note should have been played piano. ‘No’, replied Bulow, ‘it is sforzando’. Liszt suggested that Bulow should look at the score, which was duly produced. It turned out that Bulow was right.”

The young Hans early fell under the spell of Liszt, who, with Wagner, appealed to the young man’s father to allow him to abandon the study of law for a musical career. Bulow soon embarked on a peripatetic career as a virtuoso pianist and conductor, often performing five or six concerts a week for a total of about 3,000 performances across Europe, Britain and America. He championed the works of then-avant-garde composers, including Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner and Schumann, and he became Brahms’ finest interpreter.

To further illustrate Bulow’s remarkable gifts, the author reports an incident in London when Bulow happened to meet a friend, to whom he mentioned that he was on his way to Brighton to play a concert. The friend said, “Of course you are going to play something of Sterndale Bennett’s” because it was the composer’s birthday. Bulow said he didn’t know any pieces by Bennett, whereupon they ducked into the publisher’s shop and rummaged through various items, from which Bulow selected “Three Musical Sketches.” He proceeded to learn them on his train journey and played them from memory at his concert that evening.

Bulow’s disastrous marriage to Cosima Liszt, which Liszt himself opposed, is covered in full. The author quotes an astonishing prenuptial letter from Bulow to Liszt in which Bulow acknowledged that he loved Cosima for her resemblance to her father and promised, “I would never hesitate to sacrifice my happiness to her, and release her were she ever to feel that she had made a mistake with regards to me.”

The young couple’s first mistake was to visit the quarreling Wagners en route to their honeymoon destination, and things went downhill from there.

Too soon, Bulow, as Liszt put it, was discovered to lack “the talent to be a husband.” He shut himself off from family woes and went on with his musical career. His wife, meanwhile, succumbed to Wagner’s spell and bore him child after child while Bulow insisted she was not adulterous. They finally agreed to divorce in 1869.

Over the years, Bulow’s health broke down; he suffered from a variety of ailments, including neuralgia and manic depression, as well as headaches from a tumor near the brain stem that was discovered late in life. The author dedicates his book to Bulow’s second wife, Marie Schanzer, the actress whom Bulow married in 1882, partly, the author says, to keep Wagner from becoming the stepfather of Bulow’s two daughters.

One of the charms of this book is that Mr. Walker sometimes pauses to philosophize, as in this passage: “Few are the [orchestral] players who actually enjoy their work, who draw from it that spiritual satisfaction that lured them to music in the first place. From childhood they labour to conquer the technical difficulties posed by their instruments, and eventually learn to express their artistic selves through them, only to discover that the thing they have come to treasure most - their musical individuality - is the one thing not required of an orchestral player… Few are the conductors who are able to convince the player* of the rightness of their view, and so inspire them that they draw the best from them. … One thinks of Furtwangler and of Beecham, of Bruno Walter and of Leopold Stokowski, but the list is painfully short. To this roll call we must add the name of Bulow, whose players in the Meiningen and Berlin Philharmonic orchestras came to identify so completely with his world of sound that they willingly played as one.”

Even the footnotes contain insights such as this elaboration on the “towering rage” Bulow demonstrated at a spa when his right hand developed muscular problems: “It was behaviour such as this that stoked rumours that Bulow was mentally unstable. With the benefit of hindsight, it could equally well be argued that his behaviour was perfectly normal. Consider the predicament in which he found himself. He was preparing for his great tour of America next season, and his piano practicing was adversely affected by serious problems with his right hand - eventually diagnosed as a mild stroke. His promise to Cosima to raise money for the upkeep of his children was now a millstone around his neck, and he faced the prospect of a financial disaster-in-the-making. Under the weight of such stress, who would not break a couple of chairs?”

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean, Va.

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