In his day Hans von Bülow, who conducted the premiere of Tristan and was known as a brilliant Beethoven and Brahms interpreter, embodied the modern type of conductor: eccentric in his gestures, uncompromising, analytical in his musical work, expressive in his musical results. Not outwardly attractive but possessed of a consummate elegance – he always conducted wearing white kid gloves – he had a compelling, magical charisma. His lordly attitudes and extravagancies were known – and forgiven, because he was one thing above all: an orchestral educator to the nth degree.
Beyond uninspired mediocrity
Bülow had already made a first-class orchestra out of the provincial Meiningen court orchestra. Now he hoisted the Berlin Philharmonic, to whom he attested a great artistic intelligence, out of their “uninspired mediocrity” (Allgemeine Musikzeitung) and established standards that formed the basis for the orchestra’s later international fame. Despite his severity and his unrelenting passion for rehearsing, the Philharmoniker felt deeply attached to him as a person. Their collaboration lasted five years, before Bülow, who had suffered from nervous disorders since his childhood, retired from the concert business for health reasons. He died on 12 February 1894.
Intermezzo with Richard Strauss
His departure left a grievous void in Berlin’s musical life. The concert agent Hermann Wolff tried in vain to engage great conductors like Hans Richter and Felix Mottl; finally, he handed over the musical direction of his subscription concerts to the young Richard Strauss, one of Bülow’s pupils. Strauss, still at the beginning of his career and hoping to succeed Bülow, was not able to attract the Berlin audience into the Philharmonie with his progressive programmes. And Hermann Wolff soon had his eye on another conductor: Arthur Nikisch.