Wednesday, December 02, 2009


A life and Times

Alan Walker
Pp 510, many illustrations price £30

What a man, what a musician, what a life! And what an enthralling book, finely researched! Strange that this is the first life of was such an interesting, chequered existence.

Once Bülow was asked if he knew Richard Wagner. He replied: “Oui, madame, il est le mari de ma femme.” Not only was that true – she was Cosima Wagner – but Bürlow suffered her to produce three girl children fathered by Wagner while he was still legally her husband.

Hans von Bülow (1830 – 1894) was one of the great pianists of his time, greatly admired by Liszt, but also the first star conductor. He had a photographic memory; he was the first to specialize in the piano works of Beethoven (he used to play the last five sonatas in a programme, including that Everest of sonatas, the Hammerclavier.) He raised the Meiningen Orcherstra to be Germany’s finest ensemble, encouraged not only to stet while they played but also to play from memory, even a corker like the Grosse Fuge.

He also possessed a witty, devastating tongue which he used too frequently, often damaging his persona more than his victims. He was intimate with Liszt (in a non-fathering way, with Cosima’s non-mothering way). Walker’s book reads like some fascinating, couplex 19th century novel, a tangled web of liaisons dangérous uses that is utterly enthralling, a “couldn’t put it down volume”.

von Bülow was so generous, forgiving Cosima, continuing to love her, although he had neglected her, so that she fell in the arms of Wagner. He provided money for the 3 children, paid for the legal costs of their divorce and raised huge sums of money for Bayreuth. Eventually he continued to proclaim Wagner the composer whilst excoriating Wagner the man. (like most of us) His capacity for work almost beggars belief. He helped young people and also his fellow composers. (He premiered Tchaikovsky’s famous Piano Concerto when others had refused to perform it.)

His health was bad, fainting fits; he was continually at spas and health centres. Yet he soldiered on, playing and conducting despite bad pianos, bad halls, tiring journeys. He gave over a hundred recitals all over North America, hating performing, yet doggedly raising money (for Wagner’s children).

It seems that Alan Walker has left no stone unturned. Travels, programmes, emotional troughs, good analysis of Bürlow’s compositions and style of piano playing.

As you might gather from the above, this book is highly recommended.

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