“I can’t play or conduct a six-four chord to make it sound either anti-Semitic or pro-Semitic, fascist, or socialist or capitalist.” – Christian Thielemann
A popular carrier of the Wagner banner
15 August 2015
My Life with Wagner
By Christian Thielemann.
Translated by Anthea Bell. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 267 pages; £25.
CHRISTIAN THIELEMANN has risen fast through the ranks of orchestral conductors, although not quite as quickly as he might have wished. He wanted to be the first German artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra since Wilhelm Furtwängler 61 years ago, but the Berlin musicians chose Kirill Petrenko, a Russian rival, instead. He has, however, received an agreeable consolation prize. He is to become only the second music director of the Bayreuth festival drawn from outside the Wagner family. (Furtwängler was the first in 1930, but he lasted only a year.)
Mr Thielemann will be happy in Bayreuth, where Richard Wagner—“The Master”—is beyond criticism. His book is an act of homage, part revealing autobiography (“Wagner confronted me with myself…not always [an] undiluted pleasure”) and part informative guide to the Wagner oeuvre, describing the plots and performances of all the operas, with discography thrown in. His favourites are “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”. His enthusiasm breathes life into them.
For 41 years until 2008, the festival was run by Wagner’s grandson, Wolfgang, an irascible Bavarian who inherited Richard’s autocratic style, and excluded from the Festspielhaus all members of the family except his wife and daughter, and, reluctantly, his daughter from his first marriage, Eva Wagner-Pasquier. But he gave the young Mr Thielemann work, and stuck with him as he learned his trade as a Wagner conductor. Wolfgang had few friends, but Mr Thielemann was one of the best of them. The only thing he could not stand was Wolfgang’s love of sausage salad.
Mr Thielemann was born in Berlin in 1959, the son of music-loving parents in a politically conservative home. He was listening to Berlin Philharmonic concerts at the age of five; as a teenager he had no interests outside music. He knew what he wanted—he was going to be an orchestral conductor. The right-wing politics of his home live on in his recent sympathy for Pegida, Germany’s anti-Islamic movement (which may well be one reason why he did not get the top job in Berlin).
He is fierce about the separation of music and ideology. He writes:
“I can’t play or conduct a six-four chord to make it sound either anti-Semitic or pro-Semitic, fascist, or socialist or capitalist.”
His judgments are uniformly single-minded: he thinks only German-speakers can conduct Wagner, and that opera directors who go against the spirit of the music are unconscionable.
Bayreuth is famous for the braying violence of its first-night audience, but there were few boos to be heard after Mr Thielemann’s debut as music director last month, with a new production of “Tristan”, directed by Wolfgang’s daughter Katharina. Both conductor and orchestra got excellent reviews. Mr Thielemann certainly has the Wagner virus: a hopeless addiction to the master’s music. If conducting Wagner’s great operas of love and death, such as “Tristan”, he gets lost in “a psychedelic state of intoxication” and takes days to recover, then Bayreuth will be his drug den.