Hans von Bülow
(b. Dresden, 8 January 1830; d. Cairo, 12 February 1894)
Nirvana, symphonic prologue to Lord Byron's Cain, op. 20 (1854)


In 1849 the young Hans von Bülow, then a student of law in Berlin, paid a short visit to Liszt in Weimar. It was a portentous move in every respect: it marked almost a final breech with his parents, neither of whom wanted to see the talented boy take up the musician's profession; and Liszt, who had kept his eye on Bülow since the age of twelve, now became convinced that the boy was the natural heir to his musical and pianistic legacy. He dispatched the young man to Zurich with a letter of recommendation to Richard Wagner, who accepted him almost as a member of his own household. After a year spent learning composition from Wagner and mastering the conductor's trade in Zurich and St. Gallen (1850-51), Bülow returned to Weimar and to Liszt, who promptly groomed him to become the foremost pianist and conductor of his day.

The stage was now set for one of the most brilliant yet ill-starred careers of the nineteenth century. Before dying of a nervous disorder in Cairo in 1894, Bülow had become the foremost Beethoven interpreter of his age, the head of what was then thought to be the best orchestra in Europe, the Meiningen Court Orchestra (he trained his musicians to play from memory and, at times, while standing), the conductor of the premières of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, and one of the few musicians who championed both the New German School and the Brahms camp (his revealing correspondence with Brahms has been published). Yet tragically he is best remembered as the century's most celebrated cuckold when his wife Cosima, Liszt's daughter, betrayed him for years and abandoned him in the most ignominious of circumstances for Richard Wagner. "His living hell," writes the Liszt biographer Alan Walker, "had been brought about by the very people he loved most on this earth."

But of Bülow's numerous distinctions, many earned in the teeth of adversity, one seemed to elude him: the laurels of a great composer. When he arrived in Weimar as Liszt's protégé in June 1851, Liszt had just presented the first fruits of his project to create the new genre of the symphonic poem. It was in this heady atmosphere of innovation and discovery that Bülow tried his hand at composing a magnum opus for orchestra. Like Liszt, he sought inspiration in sources outside music itself, and found it, like so many other composers of the century, in the writings of Lord Byron. Cain, a Mystery, though not one of the English poet's better-known creations, is a thoroughly mature product of his later years (1821). The "mystery" in this case betokens Byron's attempt to recreate, in modern guise, the morality or "mystery" plays of the Middle Ages, when stories from the Bible were retold on stage for edifying and cautionary purposes. In this case the result turned out to be a "closet drama" in iambic pentameter in which Cain is presented as the quintessential homme revolte, refusing to accept the straitjacketed sanctimoniousness of the newly emerged world into which he was born and, after committing the unpardonable crime of fratricide, striking out to found a brave new world of his own. It was a life story much akin to Byron's own, with many direct blows at established religion, and it earned the epithet of blasphemy from its earliest days. For a young man who had just parted ways with his own family and joined a small coterie intent on revolutionizing the music of the century, Cain was nothing less than a parable with immediate personal relevance.

Bülow threw himself into the new work with all the intensity and burning conviction of youth; it was quite clear that he meant it to be, not just a piece of music, but a statement of principle. The finished score, entitled Nirvana (a vaguely Schopenhauerian and distinctly non-Christian reference), was shown to Wagner, who was immediately impressed by the boldness of the harmonic language and may well have incorporated some its ideas in the Tristan Prelude. Wagner responded in a letter of October 1854 that is remarkable not only for its use of the intimate second-person form of address, but for the caution with which he distributes praise only to relativize it at the same time:
            "Your powers of invention struck me at once: your gift for them is unmistakably strong ... The thematic structure, in its formal design and execution, is grand, plainspoken and, especially in the fantasy [i.e. Nirvana], novel, for it proceeds entirely from the object itself."
Wagner admired the mood of the piece and its the consummate technical workmanship. "I can thus do no other than to accord mastery to you, so much so that I believe you can do anything you wish." Then, in a remarkable turn, he gently but firmly criticized Bülow's approach to harmonic acerbities:
            "Look, Hans, I have gone through the same things myself, namely in my very first years as a composer [...] But back then I could not do anything right, and I would not have been capable of writing an exemplary piece of such solidity and mastery as your fantasy [...] You see, there is something frigid [...] about having other people, as indeed actually happens, pay attention only to such abnormalities in our message and take them as a source of amusement, as though our cause did not exist. You see how little value I attach to such things, and that I believe my objections to your music involve, not the essential, but only the peripheral. So accept my judgment as one entirely favorable to you. I cannot recall having been struck so deeply in my emotions by a new piece of music, despite a want of knowledge, than I have by your fantasy."
Bülow, in this amalgam of praise and censure, heard only the latter, and he turned to Liszt for a second opinion. Liszt's response deftly blends a certain paternalistic benevolence and the far-sightedness of a man who, though still relatively young, had a lifetime of experience behind him:
"Here you reveal a remarkable gift for the art of orchestral coloration. You have supped richly at the table of your great forebears, Wagner and Berlioz, without succumbing to slavish imitation or to plagiarism - for what you have created belongs to you as your very own[...]. Yet you must learn to practice patience and to wait and to submit to this task with the necessary sang-froid in order to bring forth the wonderful gift you bear within you."

"Lack of knowledge," "learn to practice patience": these were not the words that the supremely gifted young Bülow wanted to hear. In the years that followed, Liszt brought forth his twelve symphonic poems, Wagner his Tristan und Isolde, Berlioz Les Troyens. Bülow, however, withheld Nirvana from public view. Only in 1866 did he consent to have it published in full score by Heinze in Leipzig, calling it a "symphonic picture for large orchestra" and dedicating it to his friend Carl Ritter, an early comrade-in-arms in the New German School. In later life he reviewed this outpouring of youthful precocity and compositional ardor and prepared a revised version, which was duly published in full score, parts, and an arrangement for piano four-hands with a new title: Nirvana, Orchestral Fantasy in the Form of an Overture (Munich: Aibl, 1881). The aged Liszt championed the work of his former protégé, recommending it to conductors in lieu of his own music and playing it himself in his last appearance as a conductor, in Weimar, on 25 May 1884. Bülow himself conducted it in February 1886 at the invitation of the young Richard Strauss. More than three decades later Strauss still recalled its impact on him: "Nirvana von Bülow, that beautiful and still unappreciated work [...] that I myself rehearsed especially for his performance" (1919). From the inventor of the symphonic poem to its last important representative, Nirvana had come full circle.

Bradford Robinson, 2005