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8.223421 - BULOW: Piano Transcriptions

Hans van Bülow (1830-1894)

Hans van Bülow (1830-1894)

Piano Transcriptions


Hans von Bülow was born in the city of Dresden in 1830 and died in Cairo in 1894 several days after arrival there; he had hoped to improve his failing health in the warm climate of Egypt. Two women played especially significant roles in Bülow's life. He married liszt's daughter Cosima in 1857; she left him in 1869 for his idol Richard Wagner; a divorce followed. He married the actress Marie Schanzer in 1882. (Yes, it resembles a modern-day soap opera!) Cosima's published diaries and the correspondence of Hans edited by Marie, as well as the letters of Wagner, will illuminate this tangled web for those who care or need to wade through thousands of pages of text.


As pianist, Bülow's tours throughout Europe, Russia and the USA established him as one of the greatest pianists of his time, rivaled (at least in the press) only by Anton Rubinstein. Their respective series of historical recitals that surveyed a large scope of the repertoire are now viewed as legendary. As conductor, Bülow promulgated and introduced a great deal of "new" music - especially that of Liszt and Wagner, with whom he had close relationships - and showed him as master of the baton. As composer, the story differs. His hefty list of works includes orchestral, vocal, and instrumental music. While these were performed in Bülow's day, none remain in the repertoire, and until now, recordings of Bülow works were limited to only a couple of pieces on piano rolls and later on long-playing records.


Sometimes the persona and performance style of musicians of the past solidify into misimpressions that are handed down from generation to generation. Hans von Bülow falls into this category. His unsmiling photographs, coupled with a reputation for studiousness, has perpetuated an image of dry personality and academic performance practice - this, despite English pianist Edward Dannreuther's testimony to Bülow's "warm spontaneity" at the keyboard and in spite of Bülow's own writings. His voluminous, posthumously published correspondence demonstrates a wide knowledge of the arts, languages, social graces, and politics; of compassion and prejudice; and reveals characteristics not generally associated with him - charm and wit. We should not be surprised, then, to find these human elements in his music.


Christoph Willibald Gluck's (1714-1787) three-act opera, Iphigénie en Aulide, the composer's first opera for Paris and one of a total of 46 in that genre, was first performed in the French capital in 1774. It is based on Du Roullet's tragedy, after Racine, and is seldom performed nowadays. Wagner, in 1846-47, audaciously prepared a highly altered performing edition in which the orchestration is changed and some of the recitatives and most of the original dance music is cut, except for a Menuetto and a March (Nos. III and VI in Bülow's Tanzweisen (dance airs)). German taste in opera has always differed from the French, and we readily recall the requirement for an added ballet sequence for the 1861 Paris première of Wagner's Tannhäuser. Despite Wagner's defrenchification of Iphigénie, Bülow (who wrote the piano-vocal score for it), thought Wagner's effort "worthy of the highest esteem" and that he "left the work uninjured, owing to his reverence for the great master." Curiously, it is these very dances that Wagner turned his back on that are rescued in Bülow's Tanzweisen. (Bülow, by the way, also published three analogous piano suites based on Gluck's operas Orpheus, Alceste and Armide.)


Gluck - in Bülow's hands - is tasteful, straightforward and quite faithful to the original. While some octave doublings and a few changes in phrasing occur, no swollen distortions disfigure these enchanting pieces. Their titles vary in Bülow from both the early and present editions of the opera. These dances appear primarily in Acts I and II; Bülow's suite follows that sequence fairly closely. Except in transcriptions by Brahms, Saint-Saëns, and Sgambati, Gluck's music seldom appears on programmes for the piano. This makes the Tanzweisen especially welcome.


Opus 2, the Arabesques on Verdi's Opera Rigoletto, first appeared in print in 1852, a period during which Bülow was also working on some songs, a Romeo and Juliet Overture, and a big piano trio. While it lacks the high drama and flashy pyrotechnics of Liszt's famous virtuoso piece on Rigoletto, it has a more graceful charm than the Liszt and is closer in spirit to the delicacy of the touching original aria, Caro nome, on which it is based. Also from 1852 is the Reve Fantastique, Op. 7, for which the composer received the grand sum of 4 Louis d'or three years later. Well laid out like a ballad and fairly ambitious in scope, it holds the interest by alternating gracefully declamatory, nocturnelike, and passionate sections. Varying figurations and two cadenzas enhance the romantic vision.


The two dances on this disc (first published in 1860) could not be more different from each other. The Valse de "L'lngénu", Op. 18 is from a set of three Valses caractéristiques. While its title implies a sort of artless sophistication, the piece itself is by no means naïve - as it winds its way through several keys, we are disarmed by phrases that often begin on an unexpected beat. Sounding utterly French, it could pass for one of Godard's or Saint-Saëns's bons morceaux for piano. Even more vivid is the Tarantella, Op. 19, a wild virtuoso piece that conjures up the image of a spider-bitten victim dancing furiously to expel the venom. This piece is replete with many dangers for the pianist, not the least of which are the many rapid, wide hand skips that seem like additional nips of the insect; its unrelenting, non-stop demands extend over many pages and through several key modulations and leave little chance for the performer to catch his breath. In fact, Bülow's dance is both more demanding and harmonically varied than Chopin's youthful Tarantella of 1841. (Oddly, in Bülow's highly personal and rather eccentric edition of Chopin's works we find his transposition of the Tarantella to the key of B major.)


The arrangement of the Quintet from Act III of Wagner's opera, Die Meistersinger, is Bülow's most creative of his three settings of sections from this opera (the others are based on the Overture and the Versammlung der Meistersingerzunft). The opera's characters (Sachs, Eva, Walther, Magdalene, and David) pour out their emotions at length during this highly significant part of the proceedings. This scene, though, is not only too long to be reworked as a viable piano transcription of the whole but it also lacks convenient section ends. Bülow cleverly overcomes these problems by freely compressing, extending, and interweaving the themes, resulting in a compact, composite piece - "Paraphrase" is exactly the right term. In it we encounter the semblance of Sachs "Die, selige 'Morgenstraum'..." (Blessed dream of morning), which soon melts into Eva's "Selig, wie die Sonne meines Glückes lacht" (Blessed as the sun of my happiness smiles on me) [Bülow confessed to Wagner that he transposed it from G-flat to G major to make it "playable"], which leads to Eva's "Einer Weise, mild und hehr..." (A song, gentle and noble) (the "Prize Song" motif), as all five voices join together. Much of the sublime ecstasy of the original is retained, a testament to the extraordinary skill of the transcriber.


© 1992 Donald Garvelmann


Further Reading and Listening


Primary writings in German concerning Bülow include a monograph by La Mara (Leipzig, 1911/21), a biography by Richard Graf Du Moulin-Eckart (Munich, 1921), Marie von Bülow's 8-volume edition of the Briefe und Schriften (Leipzig, 1896-1908), and Moulin-Eckart's edition of the Neue Briefe (Munich, 1927). Additional material is so extensive that the reader is referred to volume 2 of Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart for its generous listing. Translations of some of the correspondence into English include Constance Bache's edition of The Early Correspondence... (New York, 1897; reprinted 1972) and Hannah Waller's Letters... (New York, 1931; reprinted 1972 with additional notes by Scott Goddard).


Two compact disc recordings of Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide have appeared to date. One under Kurt Eichhorn's conductorship dates from 1972 and is labeled on the outside "Complete recording in German." but only when the packaging is opened do we discover that this is actually Wagner's truncation of the opera. The second and more recent recording (1990), under John Eliot Gardiner's direction, is in French and close to Gluck's original, since this conductor had access to the recent attempts by both Jeremy Hayes and Marius Flothuis to establish a definitive text for a 200-year-old opera that posed many questions. This performance includes only three of the dance numbers, however. To be able to hear almost all of them, we must turn to this recording of Bülow's Tanzweisen.


Daniel Blumenthal


From prize-winning performances at the Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians Competition, the Geneva International Competition, the Busoni International Competition and the competitions in Leeds and in Sydney, the American pianist Daniel Blumenthal has continued with a career that has taken him to four continents as a soloist and recitalist, in the former capacity with major orchestras in Europe and America. His extensive recordings include both solo performances and chamber music. For Marco Polo, he has recorded works by Felicien David, von Bülow, Debussy, Robert Fuchs and Bargiel.

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