- Hans von Bülow: A Life and Times
As familiar as the name of Hans von Bülow may be for nineteenth-century music culture, his legacy has not yet been served by a full-length biography offering a rounded assessment of his life and work. Hardly a neglected figure, Bülow (consistent with Walker's usage, this review refers to the book's subject as Bülow, not von Bülow) was an influential conductor, especially because of his role in leading the premieres of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. In this regard Bülow is the subject of excellent encyclopedia articles, including those by John Warrack in the first edition of The New Grove and Christopher Fifield in the second (and in Grove Music Online). His career has also been covered in various collected volumes on conductors, from Harold C. Schonberg's venerable The Great Conductors (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967) through Raymond Holden's recent The Virtuoso Conductors: The Central European Tradition from Wagner to Karajan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). More-mover, Walker himself has devoted portions of his three-volume study, Franz Liszt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983–1996) to Bülow, since those two musicians interacted at various points in their careers, an interaction culminating in Bülow's marriage to Liszt's daughter Cosima, who later left the conductor for Richard Wagner. For these and other reasons, a case may be made for a biography of Bülow, whose important contributions to musical life influenced generations of solo performers and conductors.
In approaching his subject, Alan Walker engages his readers from the start, enumerating the various ways in which Bülow is known to modern audiences. For some this takes the form of various bons mots and aphorisms, which betray a clever and sometimes cynical perspective on music and, more often, performers. The section of Walker's prologue entitled "From Alpha to Omega" contains a selection of these aphorisms, which Walker does not merely trot out, but puts into context, and in doing so also gives a sense of what he will cover in the subsequent chapters of the book. He incorporates some of those sayings of Bülow's in the text, and by invoking them, he illustrates various points. This is particularly effective when Walker discusses the principles of conducting that Bülow would evolve in the latter part of his career, during his tenure in Meiningen, when he was served as the gray eminence who would attract some of the finest musicians of the day. In this context, the witticisms fit well into the biographer's image of his subject.
After this thoughtful introduction, Walker proceeds to write a traditional biography which benefits from his fine sense of balance. The remainder of the prologue is devoted to Bülow's family background, and sets the stage for the opening chapters in which Walker outlines the early years, the time when Bülow began his training in music and his accomplishments as a pianist. Walker deftly shows how the passing of Bülow's father left a gap at a crucial time in the young musician's development. Yet this [End Page 333] loss would soon be filled by Bülow's own pursuit of musical training and would eventually earn the attention of Franz Liszt, with whom he studied for a time. The details Walker puts forth in his presentation of the early part of Bülow's life help to establish a context for understanding the ways in which these two musicians would work together over the years in careers that, to some degree, run parallel in their accomplishments as conductors and concert pianists. (Walker provides a catalog of his compositions and arrangements in appendix 2.)
The way in which Walker brings out this aspect of Bülow's life is indicative of the command of detail evident throughout this biography: he masterfully draws...