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University of Sydney

An unfortunate extinction: revisiting Hans von Bülow’s Nirwana

While there has been a welcome upsurge of analytical interest in Liszt’s symphonic poems over the past few decades, in the anglophone world this has yet to translate into any serious work on the single-movement compositions of his disciples. Hans von Bülow’s Nirwana (1854, pub. 1866, rev. ed. 1881) is particularly ripe for reappraisal, since it has already won a modicum of fame for anticipating the chromatic language of Tristan. Ironically, Wagner was critical of the experimental harmonies when he saw an early version, but lauded Bülow for his ‘management of difficult forms’.

In this paper, I will explore this generically overdetermined work – it was at different times called a ‘Symphonic Prologue’, a ‘Symphonic Mood-picture’, and finally an ‘Orchestral Fantasy in the form of an Overture’ – and offer a new understanding of its formal structure. Jonathan Kregor has remarked on how the first three bars ‘generate almost all of the ensuing thematic material’, but the admittedly tight thematic web can and does coexist with a disposition of material which in some respects is in dialogue with sonata-form practices. Building on the recent work of Steven Vande Moortele, I will show how features such as the open-ended exposition and recomposed recapitulation place the work squarely within the tradition of the romantic overture, while also showing how it relates to Liszt’s symphonic poems, with whose early versions Bülow was familiar when he began work on his Fantasy.


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David Larkin is a Senior Lecturer in Musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney. He has published on Liszt, Wagner and Richard Strauss in journals such as 19th-Century Music, Music and the Moving Image, The Musical Quarterly, and has contributed to several Cambridge publications, including The Cambridge Companion to Richard Strauss and the forthcoming Richard Strauss in Context, Liszt in Context and Mahler in Context volumes. He gives regular pre-concert talks at the Sydney Opera House and other Australian venues, and reviews classical concerts and opera.

David Larkin

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