My Life With Wagner by Christian Thielemann; trans. Anthea Bell, book review: Wagner continues to strike chords of controversy

Conductor Christian Thielemann is too blinkered about the composer's bigotry

Lucasta Miller
Thursday 13 August 2015 14:34 BST
Controversial: Christian Thielemann, in a rehearsal for Wagner's 'Parsifal', Salzburg, 2013
Controversial: Christian Thielemann, in a rehearsal for Wagner's 'Parsifal', Salzburg, 2013 (EPA)

The Berlin-born conductor Christian Thielemann is not unassociated with controversy. Earlier this year, when the Berlin Philharmonic was deciding on a successor to Simon Rattle, he was in the running but, after a tense stalemate, the Russian Kirill Petrenko was appointed. Had he got the job, he would have been the orchestra's first German music director since the Nazi era. He was, however, subsequently appointed music director of the Bayreuth Festival.

Thielemann's book, My Life with Wagner, written with the German journalist Christine Lemke-Matwey and now translated into English, highlights the knotty, unresolved questions, which all music lovers have to face, relating to the Third Reich's favourite composer.

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".

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. The highest levels can be achieved only when attention to detail becomes a near-religion. But the best performances can only occur when the Apollonian drive for control over-reaches itself to the extent that irrational Dionysian excess bursts through (Nietzsche is an unspoken presence).

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. This not only contradicts his more subtle and convincing point that Wagner's libretti are a sound-world in which semiotics are subordinated to syllabic musicality. 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."

The worst moment is where Thielemann 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. That is not a joke Thielemann is entitled to make. It threatens to wipe out all his more nuanced biographical insights into the personal sources of the outsider Wagner's poisonous jealousy of the wealthy, upper-middle-class, privileged Mendelssohn, whose works he despised but frequently drew on for musical inspiration.

The moral of this 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.

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