Over on his The Rest is Noise blog, Alex Ross seems to have taken a great interest in “Hans von Bülow's fascinatingly cruel 1872 letter to [Friedrich] Nietzsche.” Nietzsche had sent a copy of his own effort to compose music, “Manfred-Meditation” to Bülow; and Bülow lit into him mercilessly. Ross used his blog post to put up his own “rough translation” of the entire letter. It is pretty intense stuff. Without taking sides (since I have never heard any of Nietzsche’s music or examined any of his scores) I wanted to throw my own hat into this ring by picking out two particular sentences:
If you really have a passionate urge to express yourself in musical language, it is indispensable that you acquire the rudiments of this language: giddily fantasizing on a remembered gluttony of Wagnerian sounds is no basis of production. Wagner’s most unheard-of audacities are rooted in the drama and justified by the text (in purely instrumental pieces he prudently abstains from similar monstrosities) and can always be recognized as grammatically correct, down to the tiniest details of notation; if an educated connoisseur like Herr Dr. Hanslick is incapable of grasping that much, then it is evident that one can only really appreciate Wagner if one is “musicien et demi.”
That reference to Eduard Hanslick immediately reminded me of a famous silhouette by Otto Böhler depicting Hanslick reading the riot act to Richard Wagner over the latter’s inadequacies as a composer. (I have provided a hyperlink because apparently the source is not available for reproduction.) The music that triggered this browbeating was the score for Lohengrin; but, as we all know, Wagner had the last laugh when he depicted Hanslick as Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (whose premiere Bülow had conducted in 1868).
Did Bülow not realize that he was following exactly the same path as Hanslick/Beckmesser when confronted with a music that he could not immediately grasp? What would Wagner have said about his letter? Would he have tried to set him straight with a bit of Hans Sachs’ sensibilities? Would he have anticipated a remark attributed to Gustav Mahler after he and his wife had been exposed to some of the “new music” of Arnold Schoenberg (“You must understand, Alma, the young are always right”)? Perhaps the best way to read Bülow’s letter is in the context of one of the sentences found in his Wikipedia entry:
Notoriously tactless, Bülow alienated many musicians with whom he worked.
We can sympathize with him for his all-too-human frailties, but only if we give equal sympathy to the victims of those frailties!