Five years ago, my Dr. Bob Prescribes post for January 15, 2019 recommended Alan Walker’s epic (25 years in the research and writing!), three-volume biography of Franz Liszt.
In that post, I mentioned – that our Maine Coon cat Teddy (who, sadly, kicked the Kibble on December 24, 2022) – was often paid the highest compliment any cat can receive: that he acted like a dog.
(To my mind, it speaks poorly of cats if the nicest thing one can say about a good one is that it behaves like another species altogether.)
The point was to observe that likewise, the nicest thing anyone can say about a work of non-fiction is that it reads like a novel. That’s because non-fiction – written histories in particular – are all-too-often catalogs of names, dates, and events; information-rich but tedious, often poorly written tomes that can induce slumber in even the most hardened insomniacs.
Novels tell stories, stories written by professional writers.
So when we say a work of non-fiction reads like a novel, we’re saying, one, that the information contained therein has been woven into a compelling narrative and two, that the author who wrote the narrative writes like a pro.
Which brings us to the musicologist, biographer, historian, and pianist Alan Walker.
Walker’s Liszt trilogy as well as the subject of this post, Hans von Bülow: A Life and Times (and for that matter, his Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times, which was ten years in the making) are not just biographies but true histories. That’s because Walker manages to weave together the life and times of his subjects into compelling narratives, narratives not incidentally populated with some of the most fascinating, out-sized characters who ever lived.
Alan Walker is a British-Canadian musicologist and pianist. His academic credentials are about as impeccable as they get: he holds degrees from the Guildhall School of Music (in London); the Royal College of Music (also in London); and a Bachelor of Music degree and a Doctor of Music degree from the University of Durham. He has taught at the Guildhall School of Music; the University of London; and the City University of London. From 1961 to 1971 Walker was a producer for the BBC Radio Music Division. In 1971, he returned to what he called his “great love” – teaching – at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He lives today in Ancaster, Ontario, a suburb of Hamilton some 45 miles northwest of Niagara Falls (. . . slowly I turn . . .).
As a prize-winning pianist himself, Walker – as a scholar – has always been drawn to nineteenth century pianist-composers: Liszt, Chopin, and Robert Schumann. When he was asked about the genesis of his Liszt biography he responded:
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“I had always been immensely attracted to Liszt’s magnetic personality, and in my childhood I was drawn to the legend of his piano playing as to few other topics. They say that in every biography is an autobiography trying to get out. The idea would be diverting if it were not so sobering. I have come to believe that the best biographies choose their biographers, not vice versa. The lucky biographers write their work not because they have a choice but because they have no choice at all.”