Heaven & Hell

By Thomson, Andrew | Musical Times, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Heaven & Hell


Thomson, Andrew, Musical Times


Heaven & hell Hans von Billow: a life for music Kenneth Birkin Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 201 1); xvii, 715PP; £90, $150. ISBN 978 I 10700 586 O.

BIOGRAPHIES of performers don't always make for rewarding reading, yet in Hans von Billow: a life for music, a lengthy and massively detailed study rich in incident and characters, Kenneth Birkin has taken on a truly challenging subject, one also very recently tackled by Alan Walker (see Chris Walton's review in MT, Summer 2010). For Bülow was one of the true elite who collaborated closely with the leading 19th-century composers on their own level to realise their masterworks in the most difficult and hostile conditions and establish them before the public. Preeminent as both conductor and pianist, with superlative talent and a firstclass mind open to philosophical ideas, as well as being a minor composer in his own right, he achieved the distinction of giving the challenging first performances of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, Liszt's Piano Sonata in B minor and Faust symphony, and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto in Bb minor. A restless and driven man prone to violent reactions and changes of direction, his was a dedicated career of ceaseless musical activity throughout the second half of his century up to his death. In fact, a traumatic recurring rhythm of life was soon to be established: a period of intensive operatic and orchestral conducting assignments would invariably result in physical and nervous collapse, after which new reserves of energy and renewal were to be found in undertaking equally exhausting piano recital tours in Europe, Russia, Britain and America, themselves ending in breakdown and utter dejection. Then, somehow, he would recover and return to conducting - and so the syndrome continued. Birkin provides a vivid account of the well known central defining episode - Billow's selfsacrificing devotion to Richard Wagner and the subjugation of his early career to the requirements of the Master, culminating in the heaven and hell of Tristans premiere in Munich in 1865, whose artistic triumph was tragically overshadowed by the most acrimonious attacks on the part of the local establishment and the shameful open secret of his wife Cosima's adulterous relationship with Wagner himself. Thereafter, he would become his own man and spread his wings, gradually transferring his allegiance to Brahms, whose music he championed in his later years. However, the constant factor from the beginning to the end of his artistic life remained Beethoven, of whose works he was acclaimed as the leading interpreter of his age.

For all his performing genius, human relationships with family members and colleagues presented constant problems for the highly authoritarian and irascible Bülow throughout his life. The cause of this must surely begin with his own troubled formative years. Certainly his incompatible parents - his father weak though companionable, his mother strong, rigid and disapproving - provided an unstable family background and an atmosphere of permanent nervous tension which must have seriously affected his early psychological development. Moreover, as conventionally educated members of the minor aristocracy, they were seriously alarmed by their son's increasing involvement in the revolutionary intellectual life of 1840s Dresden and the spell cast over him by the charismatic Wagner, then director of opera in the city. Thus every possible obstacle was placed in the way of Bülow's overwhelming desire to become a professional musician, for all the precocious pianistic talent he was already displaying. After a lengthy war of attrition, the first real test of his forceful intransigent character, his parents' determined resistance was sufficiently worn down for him to abandon his law studies in Berlin and rush off to Weimar to assist Liszt in the epoch-making 1850 premiere of Lohengrin in the absence of Wagner, now exiled in Switzerland. …

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