Hans von Bülow was one of the 19th-century’s foremost musicians. As a teenager, he became a piano pupil of Liszt, who said that Bülow was “one of the greatest musical phenomena he had encountered.” Bülow’s most lasting musical contribution, however, was as a conductor; he insisted on the highest performance standards and was the first to conduct from memory. Bülow supported the music of Liszt and Wagner, as well as that of both Brahms and Tchaikovsky. He gave the premiere of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 with his own Meiningen orchestra in 1885, and played the piano for the U.S. premiere of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in Boston in 1875, a stormy affair marred by jeers, heckling and insults.
From 1878 to 1880 Bülow was Hofkapellmeister in Hanover, but was forced to leave after fighting with a tenor singing the “Knight of the Swan” role in Lohengrin (von Bülow had called him the “Knight of the Swine”). In 1880 he moved to Meiningen where he took the equivalent post, and where he built the orchestra into one of the finest in Germany; among his other demands, he insisted all the musicians learn to play their parts from memory. Bülow premiered many of the 19th century’s most important works, such as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Bülow was a powerful advocate of Liszt and his music and never wavered in his devotion to him.
Although hardly remembered as a composer, Bülow wrote many demanding piano pieces. The Fünf Gedichte von Richard Pohl, Op. 15 are unknown, however, even though they are excellent examples of the High Romantic style. Bülow set Pohl’s poems in 1861/2 while he was living and teaching in Berlin. Initially he set only the two, as the manuscript title page indicates; the remaining three poems were set the next year; the set of five were later published by C.F. Kahnt of Leipzig in 1867.
Richard Pohl was another of Liszt’s devotees, a tireless champion of the New German School in general and of Liszt’s music in particular. He was an unabashed apologist for Liszt and wrote prolifically for most of the 19th century’s most important musical periodicals. Pohl and Bülow were part of Liszt's inner circle and each undoubtedly became acquainted with the other’s genius during those years. Pohl was born in Leipzig. He studied physical sciences and philosophy before taking up writing and music criticism; he also acquired some early musical training.
While in Leipzig, Pohl became friends with Robert Schumann. Later, after a brief stint teaching at Graz, he moved to Dresden; there he worked on the Neue Musikzeitung between 1852 and 1854. During this period he became involved in the "War of the Romantics," the vitriolic controversy between the relatively conservative branch of the Romantic movement, represented by Brahms, Mendelssohn and others, and the progressive "Music of the Future" trend exemplified by the music of Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz and especially by the music dramas of Richard Wagner.
Pohl’s texts typify the Romantic aesthetic: the Artist as outsider; a preoccupation with nature; intensely self-conscious; a tendency towards melancholy; a fascination with and a romanticized view of death—all imbued with deeply felt (occasionally maudlin) emotional expression. Attuned to Pohl’s textual accents and use of heightened language, Bülow interchanges duple and triple meters to great effect at a time when composers were conservative in their use of meter even as he stretching tonality to its limits.
Pohl was solidly on the side of Wagner. The much more famous critic, Eduard Hanslick, championed Brahms from his post in Vienna as the critic for the prestigious Neue freie Presse. In 1854 Pohl moved to Weimar, where he became an editor at the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. He wrote invective-laden articles under the pseudonym "Hoplit" (from the Greek term hoplite, the foot-soldier of ancient Greece) in support of Liszt and Wagner, and critical of music of the more conservative Romantic composers. Both Liszt and Wagner thanked him for his support; still, Wagner in particular cooled to Pohl in later years, especially after Pohl's assertion that Wagner borrowed his chromatic harmonies in Tristan und Isolde directly from Liszt.
First page of Bülow's manuscript for the Fünf Gedichte. [Source: Staatsarchiv Leipzig]
Richard Wagner in the circle of friends and admirers before the premiere of Tristan in Munich, 1865. From left to right: Friedrich Uhl, Richard Pohl, H. v. Rosti, A. de Gasperini (behind), August Röckel (in front), Hans von Bülow (behind), Wagner (in front), Adolf Jensen (center), Dr. Gille, Franz Müller, Felix Draeseke, Alexander Ritter, Leopold Damrosch, Heinrich Porges, and Michael Moszonyi. [Source: ©akg-images / WHA / World History Archive, used with permission.]