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Biographies of Hans von Bülow are like the number 24 bus: you can wait for ages, and then two come along at once; there was Alan Walker’s Hans von Bülow. A Life and Times, reviewed in CM last year (24 April 2010), and now Kenneth Birkin’s version. I have found it extremely instructive to read and compare both, not least for the very different ways in which the subject has been treated – indeed, how revealingly personal a biographer’s view of his/her subject can be.

The man with the misfortune of being regarded by most merely as the most famous cuckold in musical history deserves these attempts to put him back centre-stage, where he certainly belonged during his lifetime. Golf, cats and Hitler are allegedly top surefire bestseller subjects, but Wagner surely runs a close fourth (not least for his connection with number 3) and his grotesque shadow has left Bûlow in historical darkness for far too long. Bülow was in his early thirties when his shaky marriage to Cosima ended, and his brilliant career as pianist and conductor was already well under way.

Birkin’s biography is more a chronicle of Bülow’s activities, practically on a day-to-day basis, but I often went to Walker’s, more a narrative, to find out what ‘really’ happened. The last third of Birkin’s book is taken up with an almost complete chronology of Bülow’s performances, from his early forays as a teenager, to his death in 1894. Useful, no doubt, but this book has many peculiar flaws, compounded by disgracefully sloppy editing. Why are Munich and Weimar referred to as ‘Isarstadt’ and ‘Ilmstadt’? How many readers will know (or care) what rivers they are situated on? Not only that, but Florence is referred to as the ‘Arnostadt’, making the text sound like a bad translation. and opera titles are given mainly in German – but not always, and bizarrely, we find Dvořák’s ‘Mein Heim Overture’! There is frequent repetition of facts – another sign of careless editing. We find Josef Joachim on one page, Joseph Joachim on another. Etcetera. Not good enough, especially for a book costing £90.

DELLA COULING Read the full review on Agora Classica

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