Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Pianist, Conductor, Composer, and a Cuckold for the Ages

Hans Guido von Bülow (1830-1894), circa 1875
Hans Guido von Bülow (1830-1894), circa 1875

We mark the birth on January 8, 1830 – 196 years ago today – of the German pianist, conductor, composer, and cuckold, Hans Guido von Bülow.  Born in the Saxon capital of Dresden, he died in a hotel in Cairo, Egypt, on February 12, 1894, at the age of 64. 

Poor Hans von Bülow.  He was one of the top pianists and conductors of his time.  His career was closely associated with some of the greatest composers of all time, including Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.  Famous for his devastating wit and ability to turn a phrase, it was Bülow who coined the alliterative trio of “Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.” Sadly, for all of his many accomplishments and deserved renown, he remains best known today (in no small measure because of scandal-mongering sensationalists like myself) as one of the great cuckolds of all time, right up there with myself (cuckolded by my college girlfriend Maureen Makler and an Israeli guy named Avi Luzon); Eddie Fisher (cuckolded by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), and Henry VIII (cuckolded, or so we are told, by Ann Boleyn and a wide assortment of various courtiers and hangers-on). 

Bummer all the way around, Hans, just bummer.

(Listen: to make up for this gracelessly scandalous post and to give Herr von Bülow some of the respect he is due, tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will feature Alan Walker’s superb biography of the man’s life, a life that should not be defined solely by the betrayal of his wife, Cosima Liszt von Bülow, and his erstwhile “friend,” Richard Wagner!)

Hans von Bülow (1830-1894)

Bülow circa 1850, at the age of 20
Bülow circa 1850, at the age of 20

He was born into the noble “House of Bülow,” an ancient German/Danish family whose members have, over the centuries, been entitled Freiherr (meaning Baron); Graf (meaning Count); and even Fürst (meaning Prince).

Growing up in Dresden, Bülow began formal piano lessons at the age of nine and quickly established himself as a major prodigy.  In 1844, at the age of 14, he and his mother moved to Leipzig, where he enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory, founded just a year before by Felix Mendelssohn.  It was there that Hans studied with the highly regarded pedant Louis Plaidy. In 1845, at the of 15, Bülow took his piano lessons with Friedrich Wieck.  (Wieck was the father of Clara Wieck-Schumann, eventual father-in-law of Robert Schumann, and the piano teacher who ruined Robert Schumann’s right hand!)  

Hans von Bülow was as intellectually precocious as he was musically precocious.  Unfortunately, the physical package that contained these gifts was . . . wanting.  Writes Alan Walker:

“As a child von Bülow was a weakling.  According to his mother he succumbed to ‘brain fever’ five times and was continually in the care of doctors.  [For our information, ‘Brain Fever’ is defined as ‘an acute nervous breakdown and/or temporary insanity, due to extreme emotional distress.’] Bülow was ravaged by headaches, which struck him down whenever the problems of life overwhelmed him.  He also became self-conscious about his personal appearance; his short stature, high forehead, and slightly bulging eyes caused him embarrassment. Eventually, he learned to protect himself from the imagined hostility of the world by his trenchant use of language, which became the scourge of his enemies and the despair of his friends.”

Hans von Bülow in his adulthood; there is no mistaking him for George Clooney
Hans von Bülow in his adulthood; there is no mistaking him for George Clooney

In a story that has become as cliché as a movie character setting fire to a building and walking away in slow motion, Hans’ parents (that would be the novelist Karl Eduard von Bülow and Franziska Elisabeth Stoll von Berneck) demanded that he forego a career in music and instead, study law.  In 1848, at the age of 18, Hans was packed off to the Leipzig University Law School.  In 1849, he transferred to the University of Berlin. While on his way to Berlin, Bülow stopped in Weimar to visit the great Franz Liszt, who he had met when he was a child back in Dresden and with whom he’d corresponded, on and off, for years.  

The visit changed Hans von Bülow’s life. Liszt and Bülow began what became their life-long mutual admiration society.  Among other things, Bülow heard Franz Liszt conduct the premiere of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin there in Weimar and for Bülow, that was that. His nascent “career” as a lawyer evaporated like a puddle in Death Valley.

With Liszt’s encouragement, Bülow visited and introduced himself to Richard Wagner (1813-1883), who was living, at the time, in Zurich, Switzerland.  Then – with Wagner’s encouragement – Hans served as an apprentice conductor in a number of theaters there in Zurich, getting his first taste of the seductive power of the baton. Finally, in June 1851, von Bülow returned to Weimar, where he became Liszt’s first great piano student. 

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) in 1847
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) in 1847

According to Liszt and Bülow’s biographer Alan Walker:

“Liszt’s admiration for the talents of his young pupil was unbounded, and he came to regard him as his true heir in piano playing.”

As Liszt’s “heir,” in 1857 Hans von Bülow received from his master two great gifts: the fruits of Liszt’s artistry and that of his loins.  On January 27, 1857, Bülow was tasked with giving the premiere performance – in Berlin – of what is arguably Liszt’s greatest solo piano work: his Piano Sonata in B minor.  As for Liszt’s loins, on August 18, 1857, Franz Liszt gave Hans von Bülow the hand of his second child – his daughter Cosima – in marriage.  For both Hans and Cosima, it was to be a marriage from hell.  …

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