There’s an old joke with a hundred different iterations, but the gist of it is as follows:
This man goes into a bar in a small town. He gets himself a drink and sits down in the corner by the fire. A few minutes later another man walks in, and the bartender sees him and says “Cocksucker Mike!” The man says, “That’s fine, thanks,” takes his drink and goes and sits down. The first guy’s watching, thinking, “what the hell is that about?”
Yet another man is leaving the bar and he bumps into the other guy and says “Sorry Cocksucker Mike, didn’t see you there.”
Another few minutes go by, and a UPS truck pulls up. The UPS guy walks in and says “Cocksucker Mike! I thought I’d find you here! Can you sign for this?!”
Our man is obsessed, he can’t contain himself. He goes over says, “I have to ask you, how the hell did you get such a name?” Cocksucker Mike says, “Well, I grew up in this town. I had a wonderful job, a great business, I gave money to charity, sent my kids to college, made good money, married a beautiful woman. Had the respect of the whole town, and all the nearby towns, too. But you suck one cock…”
Reputations are developed over the course of a lifetime, but they are constantly evolving, especially in the day and age of Facebook and Tumblr and Snapchat and God knows what else. There’s even a website devoted to “repairing” your online reputation so that your employer doesn’t see those photos of you drunk and shirtless or having a plantation-style wedding complete with black “professionals.” Try as we might, a reputation is a difficult thing to shake once it becomes ingrained. This brings me to Hans von Bulow, arguably the greatest conductor who ever lived, and judging by the picture above what each and every one of us should aspire to look like in our twilight years.
Bulow’s resume reads like something that a person would pretend their great-grandfather did in a pathetic effort to seem impressive (“seriously, he invented the chef salad!”). It’s so staggering that it requires bullet points for emphasis:
- he studied piano with Franz Liszt. Studied piano with Franz Fucking Liszt.
- he was such a good student that he married Liszt’s daughter, Cosima
- he gave the premiere of Liszt’s monumental B minor Sonata
- he was the soloist in the premiere of Tschaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto
- he performed the first ever complete cycle of the Beethoven sonatas
- he performed the sonatas from memory
- read those last two one more time
- he was an ardent champion of Wagner, Brahms, Tschaikovsky, and later on Richard Strauss
- he conducted the premieres of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg as well as Tschaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite no. 3 (the really good one!)
- he turned the Meiningen Court Orchestra into the killing machine that Brahms worked his orchestral magic out of
- he uttered the phrase “A tenor is not a man but a disease.”
- he pioneered the pedal timpani, which remain the standard for the instrument to this day
I mean, that’s an absurd career. And yet none of those things are likely the first thing a casual acquaintance to classical music would know about Bulow. What they’d likely know, if they could place his name at all, is that his wife had been fucking Wagner on the side and had two kids by him, whom she took with her when she ultimately left Bulow to spend her days with music’s all-time asshole. In spite of this, Bulow remained devoted to Wagner’s music, which tells you all you need to know about Parsifal, AMIRITE? If your wife fucked your dentist, you’d probably find a new dentist no matter how clean he got your teeth. Hans von Bulow – master of priorities.
I would be inclined to write a whole paragraph on how nice guys finish last, but Bulow was kind of a dick himself, a ruthless and uncompromising orchestra leader who ran obscenely long and demanding rehearsals. This, of course, set the stage for the next 80 years of orchestral leadership, where brilliant musicality was combined with Hussein-like totalitarianism and Stalinesque paranoia and intrigue, so in essence Bulow also invented the notion of the conductor we all knew and loved because we didn’t play under him. Regardless, it’s a pretty epic bummer when (arguably) your greatest fame lies in the fact that you got cheated on a bunch.
Really, this is an indictment on the past and the fact that Facebook and Tumblr and Snapchat didn’t exist then, because then we would have been able to numb ourselves with the repetition of hearing it and seeing it ad nauseam. Remember when poor Don Johnson lost his wife, the sultry Melanie Griffith from Working Girl and Something Wild, to handsome devil Antonio Banderas after they worked on some shitty movie together? I barely do either, because Don Johnson got himself a good-looking brunette who’s taller than him and Melanie Griffith now looks like Goldie Hawn went back in time to 1996 and fucked an actual ghost in the heavy-duty dryer section of an automatic car wash. How do I know this? The internet, aka Don Johnson’s revenge.
Hans von Bulow did remarry, to an actress named Marie Schanzer who was almost 30 years his junior and who actually remained devoted to him until his passing in Cairo. She was by any accounts I can find talented and pretty nice to look at in the way chicks in the 1880’s were good to look at (what you could see through the head-to-toe fur coat). She cared for him in his final years and collected and published all his letters after his passing. It’s just too bad that we don’t give a shit – really, the biggest item to take from their relationship is the fact that Bulow thought that getting remarried would smooth shit out with Cosima and he’d be able to conduct the premiere of Parsifal, but in a shocker to no one that trifling bitch wasn’t cool with it (the job ultimately went to the significantly less interesting Hermann Levi).
We now live in a day and age where we can shape our own legacies in ways that generations past simply did not have. Wanna give the impression that you’ve got your shit together and nothing ever goes wrong for you? Go for it, because a thousand pictures of your smiling child will more than offset the time you got that DUI with them in the back seat. I wish Bulow had that opportunity, because the internet would have allowed him to shift the focus back onto his gangster musical exploits (“Hey guys, here’s another video of me playing Beethoven – remember when I played Hammerklavier AND THE OTHER FUCKING 31 SONATAS FROM MEMORY?!”). You don’t have to revise history, you can just bombard it with other shit so that whatever you want erased is subsumed by the rest of the narrative.
So here’s to you, Hans von Bulow. Sorry your old lady was a dirty, dirty whore, and sorry we didn’t have the internet ready in time for you post vacation pics with your new lady. We’ll always have Meiningen. And that time your wife fucked the gesamtkunstwerk guy behind your back for years before leaving you for him. Shit, my bad man.