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Hans von Bulow: A Life for Music.

Hans von Billow: A Life for Music. By Kenneth Birkin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. [xviii, 715 p. ISBN 9781107005860. $150.] Illustrations, appendix, bibliography, index.

It is probably sale to say that no musician the nineteenth century had more decisive impact on the direction of German music than Hans on Billow. As a teenager and law student, he crossed paths with Robert and Clara Schumann, came to know and quickly idolize Richard Wagner during the turbulent late 1840s, became Franz Liszt's star pupil and outspoken defender of "Zukunfismusik," promoted the orchestral works of Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss, and furthered Gustav Mahler's conducting and -- by extension -- composing careers at a decisive moment in the young musician's artistic development. In doing so, he revolutionized the concert-going experience as conductor and pianist. Yet, scholarship on Billow has been overwhelmingly underwhelming. Indeed, only in the last decade have his life and works been examined with the necessary critical care: first by Frithjof Haas, Hans von Billow: Leben and Wirken (Wilhelmshaven: F. Noetzel, 2002); and more recently by Alan Walker in Hans von Billow: A Life and Times (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010; reviewed by James L. Zychowicz in Notes 67, no. 2 [December 2010]: 333-35). These two authors sought to present Billow as a creative musician who composed, arranged, performed, taught, and criticized -- in other words, as someone no different than, say, Liszt or Camille Saint-Saans.

While acknowledging the various aspects of Billow's artistry, Kenneth Birkin argues in his Hans von Billow: A Life for Music that "it is as a self-styled 'reproductive' artist that he made his greatest impact" (p. ix). This position significantly colors Birkin's presentation. The first two chapters, which cover Billow's upbringing and first years in law school, lead inexorably to chapter 3, "Decision Time: Weimar, Zurich (1850--1851)" and chapter 4, "Weimar Apprenticeship (1851-1853)," in which the twentyyear-old takes oaths of servitude to Wagner and Liszt. On the latter, Birkin wryly notes that "the emotional bond formed in those months in Switzerland was, in the fullness of time, to prove hostage to fortune" (p. 45). Indeed, in the following five chapters, which cover the next decade of Billow's career in Austria-Hungary, Chocieszewice, and Berlin, Bulow repeatedly manages to change. his fortunes for the better, only to undermine them at the next turn. To he sure, Bulow's commitment to (good) music above all is commendable, but one cannot help but wonder whether he could have achieved his artistic aims earlier in his career had he but been a better "team player."

Coming in the middle of Birkin's narrative, chapter 10 chronicles Bulow's tenure in Munich from 1864 to 1869, a period made famous by his conducting the premieres of Tristan and Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, and made infamous thanks to his wife -- Liszt's daughter -- Cosima. Birkin devotes most of the chapter to Billow's extraordinarily productive concert activities: more than 230 appearances that include music by the usual suspects (J. S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Liszt, and Wagner), but also by Charles-Valentin Alkan, Josef Rheinberger, and Anton Rubinstein, to name but a few. While Birkin dutifully covers Cosima's affair, he spends little time rationalizing it. But Billow's chief reason for denying the liaison may rest in his success at. Munich. As he informed Karl Bechstein, "I am musical overlord of a city which will soon, artistically. eclipse Berlin, Vienna and Leipzig! Yes, indeed that's exactly the goal I'm aiming at" (p. 171). This and similar statements amply justify Birkin's subtitle.

The remaining chapters follow the Munich model: promise followed by failure. Birkin notes a "recklessness which became more pronounced as Billow rose, during the 1880s and 1890s, to veritable guru status on the German musical scene" (p. 222), and, indeed, Billow's actions in Hanover (chap. 16), Meiningen (chap. 17), and Hamburg, Bremen, and Berlin (chaps. 18-21) prevented as much as promoted the realization of his artistic goals. On top of that, artistically productive but financially ruinous tours of England (chap. 12) and America (chaps. 13 and 19) weighed heavily on him.

On the whole, Birkin convincingly presents Billow in his ancillary, "reproductive" role: premiering Liszt's Sonata in B minor and Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto as pianist and 'Wagner's music dramas and Johannes Brahms's revised First Symphony as conductor; establishing the Berlin Gesellschaft. der Musikfreunde and the far more famous Meiningen Orchestra; the all-Beethoven recitals and historical concerts. Just as prominent. are some less well-known foci, including his promotion of chamber music (p. 1.85 n. 17), his devotion to Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Mozart (p. 198), and -- most astonishingly -- the sheer number of concerts he appeared in during his forty-five-year career.

Birkin's book holds a monopoly on this final item. Of the seven-hundred-fifteen numbered pages. Birkin devotes over 300 t.pp. 387-6991 to "Billow's Performance Chronology." which lists the date, location. And program of every concert in which Billow performed as either pianist or conductor. (Billow's sporadic performances as orchestral musician such as his participation in two concerts at Ballenstadt in the summer of 1852, diseussed on p. 59 -- are not listed.) A welcome and commendable undertaking. the index nevertheless sports some curious inconsistencies: Billow's performances or his edition of Handel's Chaconne in F major. HWV-485, is marked with a double asterisk, but his performances of Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903, which Billow edited in a similar manner and published in 1863. are given no special referential treatment. (The significance of these works for Bulow's performance pedagogical orientations is dealt with in Hans-Joachim limichsen. Muslimlische Interpretation: Hans von Bulow [Stungart: Franz Steiner. 1999].) Operas also receive a distinctive marking, but Bulow's preference for what are (now) canonic works -- Fromenthal Halevy and Luigi Cherubini motwithstanding -- make such designation unnecessary. Similarly. chamber music is singled out with the degree symbol. btu this, too. is superfluous, since the last names of the performers are always given after the work title. Unfortunatety. the chronology is 1101 indexed, meaning that a reader interested in Billow's performances of, say. Friedrich Flotow or P. E. Bath can expect to spend significant time leafing through pages.

Although rich in information. Birkin's narrative is marred by a number of problems. particularly in the first hall of the book. Even allowing for an accidentally omitted word. sentences like "The richest and most prominent citizens -- the cognoscenti -- now the season had ended had withdrawn to their country seats, the less discriminating looked for entertainment rather than education" (p. 73) are almost incomprehensible. While several factual errors exist Gewandhaus coneerts began in 1781, not 1785 as stated on p. 8: Wolfram Huschke's Musik im klassischen und nackklassischen Weimar, 1756-1861 [Weimar: Bohlau] was published in 1982, 1882). many more materialize via implieation. such as the rounding of the Allgemeine deutsche Musik Verein: p. 122 gives I 859, whereas p. 133 suggests 1862. The problem is compounded by a footnote on the same page, which implies I 86 I general, explanatory footnotes add little to the text, never going beyond a one-or two-line description of the person or institution under consideration, and references to unpublished material art' haphazard. For example. footnote 1 on page 18. "To Runde: 12 Noy. I 848: gives no information as to the whereabouts of this letter. (On the other hand. see p. 96 n. 29, p. 99 n. 39, and p. 166 n. 58 for different bibliographic handling.) Elsewhere, the text is simply redundant. Birkin characterizes Billow in June 1876 as "a shadow of his former self," while in the same paragraph he quotes Billow as saving. "I'm a shadow of my formner self" (p. 217). In short, the text lacks the specificity and rigor that the demanding Billow would have expected of his biographer.

Despite these deficiencies, however, there is much to recommend in I Ions von Billow: A Life for Music: its detached treatment of its subject. its breadth, awl its extraordinary performance chronology. Ultimately, Birkin's biography demonstrates that despite constant struggle, a life for music could lead to a life well lived.

JONATHAN KREGOR University of Cincinnati
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Author:Kregor, Jonathan
Publication:Notes
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 22, 2012
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