My Life With Wagner by Christian Thielemann - Review Overview

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday, 15 August 2015 | 7:43:00 pm


"The harmonies of Tristan arouse feelings in me that I can hardly describe: sensuality, excitement, watchfulness, the wish for enjoyment…. Jump, Wagner whispers in my ear, trust yourself, it’s only one last little step. And already I see myself standing on top of the Radio Tower in Berlin, staring longingly at the depths below. "

The English translation of Thielemann's "biography" My Life With Wagner (more than ghost-written with the assistance of German journalist Christine Lemke-Matwey) has finally been released. Sadly, for now, it hovers balanced precariously atop a number of other books for review by ourselves. So we ask, oh patient reader, for some time before our own, idiosyncratic thoughts emerge. But such a thing has never stopped us plundering other peoples thoughts on a matter. With that in mind, we provide an overview of some of the more "prominent" reviews on the work - unedited by the usual publishers bias for only repeating the most flattering of thoughts.



The Independent's, Lucasta Miller begins by reminding us that Thielemann is not "unassociated (sic) with controversy". (a theme repeated by other reviewers). Alas, at this stage, unlike other reviewers, she does not tell us what these controversies are. Perhaps she assumes either you will be aware already or that "google is your friend"? But then a significant part of the review seems to be involved with throwing around the usual, uninformed tabloid nonsense about Wagner - and then using a limited selection of Theilemann's "odder" moments to exaggerate them. Did you know for example that Wagner was the, "Third Reich's favourite composer"?

She goes on, "No great artist makes the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, ideology and art, history and its transcendence, more problematic and contradictory than Richard Wagner. He achieved unheard of heights and open-mindedness in music, and, as a writer, equally unheard of depths and bigotry in his virulently anti-Semitic essay "Jewishness in Music".

OK. So much, the usual hackened thoughts on Wagner and his work (those brief introduction to opera books are so useful are they not?), what about the book and author in question?

"Thielemann is a passionate advocate for the music of Wagner, which has obsessed him since childhood. Where this book really works is in its focus on the minutiae of performance. It viscerally exposes the levels of perfectionism required in the virtuoso."

"Without alienating the lay reader with technical musicological analysis, it gets across the complexity of a Wagner score and the infinite interpretation possibilities out of which the conductor has to produce a narrative."

But what of the picture of Thielemann the man that is revealed? "The trouble comes when Thielemann lambasts "political correctness" to the point where he asserts that only German speakers with a native-level understanding of the words should perform Wagner ".

But what of the picture of Thielemann the man that is revealed? "The trouble comes when Thielemann lambasts "political correctness" to the point where he asserts that only German speakers with a native-level understanding of the words should perform Wagner ".

At this stage I would argue whether this is "political correctness" that he is "lambasting"? He does not say, as is being hinted at here, that a conductor must be German to conduct Wagner (although, considering his other thoughts this is not an impossibility) but only that they should have more than a passing understanding of the German language. Considering how important the text was to Wagner - and his idiosyncratic use of German - is this not an unreasonable request? Would a conductor who cannot read German be at a more than distinct disadvantage with the work? Not really says Miller for this would; "...not only contradict his more subtle and convincing point that Wagner's libretti are a sound-world in which semiotics are subordinated to syllabic musicality."

More to the point she says, "It is hardly politic from a man who has been accused – however unjustly – of right-wing views and even of a throwaway anti-Semitic comment about his senior colleague Daniel Barenboim. The book does not explicitly allude to such controversies, but shows astonishingly little sensitivity in context. In a revealing comment about his obsession with music, Thielemann refers to his own "autistic attitude."

His worse offence being the, the no doubt uncomfortable - for everyone else present and reading about it - time when he "...describes turning up to a rehearsal of the Ring at Bayreuth in a T-shirt featuring a caricature of Wagner's Jewish musical rival Mendelssohn with a huge hooked nose. He thinks it is funny that it looks like Wagner's second wife Cosima."

Whether one agrees with Miller when she says "That is not a joke Thielemann is entitled to make" is perhaps less important to me then the fact that it does highlight a very "odd" personality trait, perhaps more closely defined with some degree of Aspergers Syndrome than other limits of the autistic spectrum?

Whatever. To Miller the "moral" of the book is that "the meaning of great music is not limited by the intentions of the artist. Virtuosi are not moral geniuses, but their obsessional perfectionism can create astonishing, ambiguous things out of which audiences can make more – and better – than the composer or interpreter could ever have imagined."

(Read in full here)

Over at the Right leaning "Spectator"Philip Hensher is thankfully less interested in repeating the usual myths about Wagner. Of course Thielemann remains a controversial conductor but at least this time we don't need to google as to why.

"That a childhood in the tragic uproar of 1960s Berlin produced a man with a haircut like his and a mind of such musical — and apparently political — conservatism, just goes to show that some people are more stubborn than others. In the event, Thielemann probably threw away his chances in multi-Kulti Berlin in an apparently conciliatory press interview about the right-wing Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) protestors permanently encamped outside the Dresden opera house. He sweetly observed that ordinary Germans ought to try to understand the Pegida movement’s anxieties about, for instance, immigration."

Although, as these views would sit happily with the Spectator (and the Daily Mail which sadly has not reviewed the book so far) it should be noted that Hensher does not label them "controversial" elsewhere.

He does note that this book, originally published in Germany in 2012, was "effectively an application" for the post of music director at Bayreuth. Although like everyone else, he makes the mistake of thinking that Thilemann is the first none Wagner to hold that position, even if he can be forgiven to have missed Furtwangler's "blink and you would miss it" appointment in that role briefly in 1931. 

Anyone interested in the composer will want to hear about the very particular challenges presented by the unique construction of the Bayreuth festival theatre and how a conductor must alter his usual approach."

And the book itself? "This book is a curious production, and in some respects exceedingly valuable. Thielemann is fascinating on the thought processes and working practices of a musician coming to terms with Wagner. Anyone interested in the composer will want to hear about the very particular challenges presented by the unique construction of the Bayreuth festival theatre and how a conductor must alter his usual approach."

That these "particular challenges" turn out to be the very well documented fact that the "acoustics of the theatre are such that chorus and orchestra will ideally sound slightly out of sync to the conductor" will be sadly less revealing to most then they were for Hensher.

He goes on. "Encouragingly, Thielemann is open to directorial innovation in Wagner so long as it’s respectful of the music. He devotes a good chunk of the book to plot summaries, but while he is insightful about the music, he does not have a lot to contribute with regard to the drama."

Interestingly, to those of us that have found Thielimann's handling of the score to be far greater than his handling of the text, then this might not come as a surprise, Indeed, it supports my reasons for preferring  Barenboim's Wagner overall. Although, there is no one who can handle orchestral "snippets" of Wagner's work like Thielemann.

Continues Hensher, "Isolde is a tremendous role (like Ortrud, Brunnhilde and Kundry), there is no doubt of that’, he pronounces; and, ‘To my mind, Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger is one of the greatest of all operatic roles.’ Much of this seems directed towards a mythical figure, one who is interested enough in Wagner to buy a £25 hardback about him, but not interested enough ever to have listened to his operas"

But wait says Hensher, "These passages seem to me to have a kind of veiling function — of orthodox statements of the sort of things Wagnerians are supposed to say. But occasionally Thielemann gives us a glimpse of a much more impassioned, private, even tormented engagement with the operas. What to make of this — on Tristan und Isolde — where he sounds less like a practical performer and more like a trembling debutant in the gods?

"The harmonies of Tristan arouse feelings in me that I can hardly describe: sensuality, excitement, watchfulness, the wish for enjoyment…. Jump, Wagner whispers in my ear, trust yourself, it’s only one last little step. And already I see myself standing on top of the Radio Tower in Berlin, staring longingly at the depths below. "

"All in all, this is a book with flashes of great insight, in which connoisseurs of the unsaid will find a good deal to ponder. Thielemann lets us into some private aspects of his professional life (like the grey telephone) and occasionally — and unexpectedly — into the agonising Sehnsucht of his inner raptures when the Tristan chord starts up. But he is not going to venture beyond that — to give an honest account what it is like these days to be a blameless but highly conservative German musician, or to describe any aspect of his famously mysterious personal life."

(Read in full here)

Jonathan McAloon at the Telegraph starts with the usual nonsense about Wagner, " It (Bayreuth) had run in its purpose-built Bavarian theatre since 1876 but, during the Third Reich, the Nazi elite had colonised it as a glamorous setting in which to enjoy Hitler’s favourite composer. " (Although whether McAloon considers Wagner being "Hitler's favourite composer as good or bad thing is not clear and given the average reader of the Telegraph this is probably politically and economically astute of him)

"We learn of Thielemann’s early “autistic” immersion in his musical studies, growing up in West Berlin. He finds it “both comforting and alarming” that, as a practitioner, a piece of music’s completeness can blind him to the wrongs of its maker. Thielemann now probes the Romantic composer’s prejudices. “Whenever something in his life went wrong,” he writes, Wagner “blamed it on the Jews”. On the death of his more successful Jewish contemporary Mendelssohn, whom he had tried to court, Wagner attacked him in essays, “giving the usual witch-hunting of Jews the outward appearance of an aesthetic argument”." McAloon summarises.

"Even though My Life with Wagner is a professional’s manual for approaching Wagner rather than a straight biography, more incident from the composer’s life would have made a stronger backdrop for Thielemann’s musical explorations.

Like others he wishes that Thielemann had included more of his infamously hidden personal life - inner and outer one assumes - into the book. As he puts it, "Even though My Life with Wagner is a professional’s manual for approaching Wagner rather than a straight biography, more incident from the composer’s life would have made a stronger backdrop for Thielemann’s musical explorations. And these are wonderful. Initiating us into the dark arts of conducting, he explains how Wagner makes his music deliberately overwhelming in Siegfried, the third opera in the 16-hour Ring cycle, so that the conductor tires at the same point as Wotan’s power begins to diminish."

Indeed, "Thielemann’s writing also achieves something notoriously difficult, the evocation of music in prose. A certain arrangement in Parsifal “makes the orchestra sound as if it were about to take off into the air a little way”. When he writes of the strings in Lohengrin as “silvery glittering and flickering, as if one were dazzled by the sight of sunlight on waves”, he touches on a particularly Wagnerian trick, where we are made to luxuriate in the shimmering chords while being aware of the spell we are under."

(Read in full here)

The sadly, uncredited reviewer at the Economist is the only one to recognise that Thielemann is actually the second, none Wagner to be appointed the role of Music Director at Bayreuth - although I think s/he gets the year wrong in listing Furtwangler as holding the position in 1930 rather than 1931. However, I find it difficult to believe they have been a recent visitor to Bayreuth if they really do believe that Bayreuth  is a place, "...where Richard Wagner—“The Master”—is beyond criticism."

Anyway to the book itself: "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 judgements 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"

"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"

And that is really it from this "review".

(Read in full here)