Hans von Bülow often used pointedly religious rhetoric in his statements about music: “I believe in Bach the Father, Beethoven the Son, and in Brahms the Holy Ghost of music,” he famously proclaimed. Elsewhere, he called Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier the “Old Testament” and Beethoven’s sonatas the “New Testament” of piano music. Beginning in the 1870s, these types of pronouncements became a central aspect of Bülow’s public image. This occurred as he began to position himself as a Beethoven specialist, with his celebrated edition of Beethoven’s piano sonatas (1871) and his new practice of performing “cycles” of Beethoven’s sonatas and (beginning in the 1880s) symphonies. Critical responses to Bülow as both pianist and conductor began to mirror his religious rhetoric: critics described his concerts as a kind of preaching, a proclaiming of the musical “gospel,” or a scriptural exegesis, and his audiences as a devout congregation.
Such accounts participated in the well-documented elevation of instrumental music as a Kunstreligion in the nineteenth century. Yet they moved beyond the mysticism and religious pluralism characteristic of early-Romantic Kunstreligion, and avoided calling the performer a “priest,” an epithet common in mid-century music criticism. Instead, Bülow and his critics positioned his activities within a more traditional German Protestantism by emphasizing the didactic nature of his performances, their focus on a strict “gospel” of canonic works, and their affinity with preaching and biblical interpretation. This article situates these developments within attempts to create a national culture in the new Kaiserreich of the 1870s and 1880s. This period saw numerous calls for new forms of religious experience free from the dogmas of organized religion, yet consistent with the Protestantism that was increasingly touted as a unifying force. In this context, Bülow was able to invest his role as performer with a prestige that drew on the interpretive practices and modes of authority associated with the Protestant church.