Hans von Bülow once arrived in a small German town to give a piano recital. He was informed by the somewhat nervous organizers that the local music critic could usually be counted on to give a good review, pro- vided that the artist first agreed to take a modestly priced lesson from him. Bülow pondered this unusual situation for a moment, and then replied, ‘He charges such low fees he could almost be described as incor- ruptible’. On another occasion Bülow got back to his London hotel after dark. As he was climbing the dimly lit staircase, he collided with a stranger hurrying in the opposite direction. ‘Donkey!’ exclaimed the man angrily. Bülow raised his hat politely, and replied, ‘Hans von Bülow’!
Volumes could be filled with the wit and wisdom of Hans von Bülow, and the biography that follows teems with examples. His banter was woven into the very weft and weave of his complex personality. He had, moreover, the enviable gift of instant retort. A gentleman eager to be seen in his company once observed Bülow taking a morning stroll. He overtook the great musician, but was unsure of how to introduce himself. Finally he thought of something to say. ‘I’ll bet you don’t remember who I am.’ ‘You just won your bet’, replied Bülow, and walked on. Equally withering were Bülow’s observations on the follies of everyday life. Having heard that an eligible young bachelor wanted to improve his social station through marriage, he observed, ‘It will never work. The young lady wants to do the same thing’.
On orchestral players Bülow could be particularly hard, especially if he felt that they were incompetent. He once berated a trombone player who was failing to deliver the right kind of sound, and told him that his tone resembled roast beef gravy running through a sewer. In Italy, during a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Bülow found himself confronted by a timpanist who simply could not master the intricate rhythms of the Scherzo. There comes a moment in this dynamic movement when the timpanist must break through with force, hammering out the basic rhythm of the main theme. Bülow strove with might and main to pound the pattern into the poor man’s head, but to no avail. Suddenly the solution occurred to him. Timp-a-ni! Timp-a-ni! Timp-a-ni! he kept yelling. A smile of comprehension slowly dawned on the player’s face, as he caught the rhythm of the one word with which he was familiar, and in no time at all he was playing the passage in the correct manner.
Bülow could also be severe on fledgling composers, particularly if he suspected that they wanted him to endorse their music. During a visit to Boston, in the spring of 1889, a local composer of modest talent sent Bülow one of his compositions and was bold enough to request an opinion. The piece was titled ‘O Lord, hear my prayer!’ Bülow glanced briefly at the manuscript and wrote beneath the title, ‘He may, if you stop sinning like this!’
A more famous case was that of Friedrich Nietzsche who, in the summer of 1872, was indiscreet enough to send Bülow an ambitious orchestral composition of his own—a ‘Manfred Meditation’—for the conductor’s critical appraisal. It was one of the philosopher’s major blunders. He had witnessed Bülow conduct Tristan at the Munich Royal Opera House a few weeks earlier, and by way of thanking him for ‘the loftiest artistic experience of my life’ he had sent Bülow a copy of his newly published ‘The Birth of Tragedy’. When he heard that Bülow was sufficiently impressed with the book to carry it with him everywhere, he was emboldened to send him his ‘Manfred Meditation’, doubtless hoping that the famous conductor would favour him with the usual assortment of platitudes that professionals are sometimes apt to offer distinguished amateurs. If Nietzsche thought to secure some fine phrases from Bülow, proffered by virtue of who he was, rather than by virtue of what the music itself was worth, he was sadly mistaken. Bülow looked at the ‘Manfred Meditation’ and knew that he must do his duty. He told Nietzsche that his score was ‘the most unedifying, the most anti-musical thing that I have come across for a long time in the way of notes put on paper.’ Several times, Bülow went on, he had to ask himself if it were not some awful joke. Having inserted the blade, Bülow now twisted the hilt and used Nietzsche’s own philosophical precepts against him. ‘Of the Apollonian element I have not been able to discover the smallest trace; and as for the Dionysian, I must say frankly that I have been reminded less of this than of the “day after” a bacchanal.’ In brief, Nietzsche’s score had produced in Bülow a hangover.
Schadenfreude, too, was never far from the surface, for like most of us Bülow found occasional joy in the misfortune of others. Two of his orchestral players, named Schulz and Schmidt, were slowly driving him to distraction because of their evident inability to understand what he required of them. One morning he got to the rehearsal only to be met with the sad news that Schmidt had died during the night. ‘And Schulz?’ he inquired.
Alan Walker, Hans von Bülow: A Life and Times, Oxford, 2010, pp. 3-5