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Hans von Bülow, 1855 [i]

In early June, 1851, Hans von Bülow arrived in Weimar to begin his studies with Liszt. [ii] At twenty, Baron Hans Guido von Bülow (1830-1894) was already a brilliant and accomplished musician and person of deep culture. Neither his precocious talent for music, nor his taste for the musical avant-garde were fully understood or appreciated by his family, however, and it would take all of Liszt’s tactful personal involvement and moral support, as well as his musical and professional mentorship, to pave the way for Bülow to become one of the 19th century’s greatest pianists and conductors. The von Bülows were a noble family that traced their heritage to the 12th century. Hans’s grandfather, Ernst Heinrich Adolf von Bülow, was a major in Napoleon’s army (Saxony fought on the side of the French). His father, (Carl) Eduard von Bülow, was a writer. Beginning in 1828, Eduard had published numerous works, including stories and novellas, and an abundant array of translations and editions of standard authors. His knowledge of French, English and Italian literature was immense. Eduard von Bülow was a friend and colleague of the canonic Romantic writer Ludwig Tieck, with whom he edited Novalis’s works. In 1851, at the time that Hans made his way to Weimar, he published Tieck’s Die Sommernacht. Ein dramatisches Fragment.

Hans’s mother, Franziska Elisabeth Stoll von Bülow, also came from old nobility. She grew up in the house of her sister Henriette, who was twelve years older, and married to Leipzig Geheimkammerrat, Stadthauptmann Christian Gottlob Frege, one of the patricians of Leipzig society. [1] Franziska was musically gifted, and thoroughly au fait with the excellences of gesellige Bildung. The Frege houshold was a center of Leipzig geselligkeit, and through their acquaintances Franziska and Henriette learned to converse, not only in French and Italian, but in Russian and Polish as well. Goethe and Herder were among the Frege’s guests; the Mendelssohns, Schumanns and Niels Gade were close family friends.

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The Frege house
Katharinenstraße 11, Leipzig

            Von Bülow’s parents did not have a happy marriage. Eduard lacked a steady job, and his income was sporadic and insufficient for family needs. His liberal romantic views and irregular habits did not sit well with his conservative wife. The couple divorced in 1849, when Hans was nineteen. Shortly thereafter, Eduard married Countess Louise Bülow von Dennewitz, a woman of means, and he started a second family with her in Switzerland.

Hans grew up in Dresden, a sickly, nervous child, who suffered from numerous life-threatening brain inflammations. It was after his recovery from the fifth such inflammation that his musical talent first began to show itself. His mother took him to a local ‘cellist named Hänsel, from whom he received his first instruction in music. He began piano lessons shortly thereafter. The precocious child entertained himself during his illnesses by deciphering scores in bed. From his second decade, he often heard such luminaries as Felix Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann. Clara would occasionally accompany his cousin’s wife, Livia Frege, a well-known singer and an intimate friend of the Mendelssohns and Schumanns. The family’s relations with Tieck, with Dresden’s Theaterintendant von Lüttichau, and with Dresden Concertmaster Karl Lipinski (who lived in the same building as the Bülows) helped to make Hans an avid theatergoer and opera lover. At the age of 12, already a knowledgeable and perceptive critic, he witnessed the premiere of Wagner’s Rienzi, performed by Joseph Tichatschek and Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient. By his own account, that triumphant performance made him a “Wagnerianer.” For the rest of his life, Wagner would remain his musical idol, despite the appalling treatment he would eventually receive at Wagner’s hands.

It was about this time that the Bülows became acquainted with Liszt, though the story that the young boy was roused from his sleep, at Liszt’s insistence, to hear the master play is doubtless apocryphal. Hans’s musical interests quickly became consuming. At age fourteen, he went to live in Leipzig, where he was able to study music theory with Hauptmann and piano with Louis Plaidy, both of the Leipzig Conservatory. In 1845-1846, he studied piano with Friedrich Wieck, the father and teacher of Clara Schumann. Wieck was a strict and pedantic teacher, toward whom Bülow remained cool, despite the oft-cited flattering letter he wrote to his former teacher some years later: “I have never forgotten. . . what I owe you, most honored master. You were the one who first taught my ear to hear, who impressed upon my hand rules and regulations, logical order; led my talent upward out of the twilight of the unconscious to the bright light of consciousness…”[iv] He was later to be embarrassed by this letter, which had been written in response to a note that Wieck had scribbled after a concert: “Highly honored master, My esteem for you, Master of Masters, for the present in writing — in person later this month in Berlin…” By the time this exchange occurred in 1863, Bülow’s relations with Clara, Joachim and Brahms had become strained, and, taking Wieck’s note for irony, he responded with wary and unwarranted politeness. A more reserved and honest comment is contained in Bülow’s letter to Wieck from 1846: “I have more and more insight into the excellence of your teaching, and try to follow your instructions.”

It was in 1846 that Bülow heard Wagner conduct an unforgettable performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, and made up his mind to meet his idol. Their first meeting occurred on July 29, while Wagner was vacationing. Wagner wrote in Hans’s Stammbuch:

If within you there smolders a genuine, pure warmth for art,
then surely the beautiful flame will be kindled for you;
but it is knowledge that nurtures and purifies
this warmth into a powerful blaze. [v]

            In 1846, Bülow and his mother moved to Stuttgart, where Hans began a friendship with the young composer Joseph Joachim Raff, who was at that time working on his opera Alfred, and supporting himself by writing music criticism. On January 1, 1848, Bülow gave his first public concert, performing Raff’s fantasy on themes from Friedrich Wilhelm Kücken’s (1810-1882) opera Der Prätendent. Violinist and composer Bernhard Molique (1802-1869), another of Bülow’s acquaintances, observed: “Even then, as a grammar-school boy, Hans von Bülow had an extremely intelligent appearance and lively features: a dark-complexioned face, fine, impeccable manners, chivalrous and noble in the fullest sense of the word. He often made music with my older sister Karoline; when he spoke with my father and explained to him this or that about music, one could read in his face his rapid comprehension, lightning-quick understanding and varying feelings. . . . When Bülow sat at the piano, one observed that a young master commanded the instrument. His fiery, noble delivery, his powerful and yet so wonderfully delicate and finely nuanced piano playing was, for my sister especially, a joy. He, for whom his mother planned a diplomatic career, was actually already a musician with his entire soul.” [vi]

Bülow spent the turbulent years of 1848-1849 as a university student in Leipzig, living with his Aunt and Uncle Frege. There, the eighteen-year-old was forced to endure his family’s pronounced disdain for both the music and the politics of his hero, Wagner. In the conservative atmosphere of Leipzig patrician society he developed a disgust for “the stubbornness and laziness toward the new, which people do not immediately understand and therefore despise.” [vii] When Tannhäuser was given in Dresden, he wrote to his mother: “I was seized by a strong feeling of bliss and pain. What would I have given to have been there! I would have walked there. . . I thank you, God, that I am not like. . . the Pharisees; that I am capable of grasping the full sacredness and holiness of the music that brings this work before the inner eye, and to understand the mission of the apostle Wagner. Therefore, I do not despise Wagner’s enemies when I am seized by a personal prejudice against them, but I pity them, that they are incapable of raising themselves out of the dust!” [viii] Despise or pity, he chafed against the restrictions of his home environment, and longed for the much-vaunted freedom of a proper university student.

Bülow would eventually become one of Liszt’s most beloved students. He married Liszt’s daughter, Cosima. Alexander Siloti would later write:

The name of Bülow is irresistibly linked with that of Tausig in my memory. These two were Liszt’s most beloved pupils. When he spoke of them his face became so radiant, and his voice so charged with emotion, that one felt at once the depth and power of his love for them. There were only two portraits standing on Liszt’s writing-table, one of the Gräfin Wittgenstein and one of Bülow; from these two he has never parted, even when travelling. He invariably spoke of Bülow as ‘dear Hans.’ Once while I was there Bülow came to Weimar. . . and Liszt was all excitement and happiness at the thought of seeing his ‘dear Hans’ fully three days before he arrived. He used to say that Bülow’s noble, chivalrous character should be a model for all artists. Liszt’s Danse Macabre was dedicated to Bülow with these words: ‘To the high-souled herald of our Art.’ (dem hochherzigen Progonen unserer Kunst). I cannot read the title ‘high-souled’ without emotion. In these two words there lies such boundless esteem for the artist and the man, and in uttering them Liszt raised Bülow nearer to his own inaccessible height. [ix]

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Hans von Bülow

Upon his arrival in Weimar, Bülow stayed at a Gasthof in town, until, encouraged by his friend Raff (by then working as Liszt’s assistant), he took up lodgings in the Altenburg. “There, on the third floor of the adjoining building, I have four beautiful rooms at my disposal,” he wrote to his father, “I make do, however, with two — actually only with one — in which a grand piano that is adequate for practicing stands next to my bed.”[xi] There he practiced eight to ten hours a day, with a break at mid-day for a walk and lunch at the Hotel Erbprinz (“one must do that, for in Weimar one must be seen in respectable society, and meet with musicians, singers, etc.”), and another walk into town for dinner at 9. “At 10:30 I am mostly back home,” he wrote, “and I improvise on the piano in the moonlight or cloudy sky — it makes no difference. Since there is only one copy of the house key, it is necessary for me to climb over a broken-down wall to get into the courtyard, and then to scramble through a sash window that can be opened from the outside in order to get into the house.” [xii] It was Liszt’s intention to groom him for a virtuoso career, and he did his best to seek acceptance into “the school of the école de Weimar” as Liszt had expressed it in both German and French. “I have for now relinquished my autonomy, and allow myself to be ‘Weimarized;’ of course I still retain enough of my ‘ego’ to be able to judge the results of the experiments that I allow to be conducted on my person.” [xiii]

Princess Caroline’s illness had kept Liszt was away from Weimar for most of the year, and by the end of summer his return was eagerly awaited. Bülow occupied himself at the piano, and, guided by Raff, made his first attempts at “that which until today had seemed almost to be a thing of complete impossibility, namely to write a proper piece for piano.” No one could help him better than Raff, he wrote, “who in his piano compositions has heard and grasped all the characteristic effects and tricks that Liszt has invented, and made very practical use of them. . . ” [xiv]

Bülow had first met Joachim at the Frege house in Leipzig in June of 1845. [xv] Now, little more than a week after his arrival, he joined Joachim and Bernhard Cossmann [2] for a private performance, on Liszt’s good piano, of an “intractably difficult” trio by Raff (“that even Liszt had had to take exceptional pains over”). [3] “I have never had two such exceptional partners in my life,” Bülow wrote. [xvi] “Joachim, who earlier in Leipzig had always behaved somewhat distantly toward me, here treats me quite pleasantly— in short, it does me a lot of good, finally to be among my peers, who, insofar as I deserve it, also value me. I can’t tell you how this eternal realization that I am undervalued has embittered and ultimately enervated me.” [xvii] Four days later, Bülow wrote to his mother: “I have found a congenial friend in Concertmaster Joachim.” [xviii]

In August, when heat made the noon walk oppressive, Joachim and Bülow studied Spanish. “The country and nation interest me,” Bülow wrote, “and I shall probably soon also have an opportunity to go there; furthermore, the language seems easy to me, and I want to continue to cultivate my facility in languages. After Spanish we want to learn Italian; we give ourselves at most a quarter-year for each.” [xix] Bülow, Raff and Joachim became constant companions. In the evening, the three friends would go for a walk to work up an appetite for dinner. For Bülow, language study, meals and walks provided the only diversion from his composing and practicing. “Other than Raff and Joachim, with whom I often make music, I have no companionship at all.” [xx]

[1] Frege was the godfather of Otto von Bismarck.

[2] Bernhard Cossmann (1822-1910) was a great German-Jewish violoncellist. Mendelssohn brought Cossmann to the Leipzig Gewandhaus in the year of his death (1847). Beginning in August 1850, Cossmann was principal in the Weimar orchestra under Liszt, and Joachim’s frequent chamber music partner.

[3] Among the auditors were writer and women’s rights activist Fanny Lewald (1811-1889) and her future husband, writer and critic Adolf Stahr (1805-1876).

[i] In vol. II of Briefe.

[ii] Bülow/BRIEFE I, p. 329.

[iii] Reimann/BÜLOW, p. 44.

[iv] Bülow/BRIEFE I, p. 554.

[v] Reimann/BÜLOW, p. 127.

[vi] Reimann/BÜLOW, pp. 139-140.

[vii] Reimann/BÜLOW, p. 172.

[viii] Bülow/BRIEFE I, p. 123.

[ix] Siloti/LISZT, pp. 67-68.

[x] From Reimann/BÜLOW

[xi] Bülow/BRIEFE I, p. 329.

[xii] Bülow/BRIEFE I, p. 332.

[xiii] Bülow/BRIEFE I, p. 331.

[xiv] Bülow/BRIEFE I, p. 350.

[xv] Reimann/BÜLOW, p. 120.

[xvi] Bülow/BRIEFE I, p. 330.

[xvii] Bülow/BRIEFE I, p. 333.

[xviii] Bülow/BRIEFE I, p. 338.

[xix] Bülow/BRIEFE I, p. 351.

[xx] Bülow/BRIEFE I, p. 351-352.