Magazine article Gramophone

My Life with Wagner

Magazine article Gramophone

My Life with Wagner

Article excerpt

My Life with Wagner

By Christian Thielemann

(translated by Anthea Bell)

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, HB, 320pp, 25 [pounds sterling] ISBN 978-0-297-60855-4

It is always cheering, where one of the mastodons of the musical forest is concerned, to be able to say to someone, 'Take this book.

The man was a monster and the work is immense but here in about 300 pages is an intellectually engaging and superbly well-informed overview of the entire shooting-match.' Kurt Blaukopf's Mahler was one such book; Christian Thielemann's misleadingly titled My Life with Wagner (autobiography it is not) is another.

Thielemann has been imbibing Wagner since he was a child in rompers in Berlin in the 1960s. Fifty years on, few people know more about Wagner, and from so many angles, as he. After its autobiographical preamble, the book falls into two 100-page sections. In the first, we read about Wagner the man, his ideologies and methods, as well as Bayreuth itself, both as a political dynasty and as a strange yet strangely rewarding house in which to make music.

There is also much about conducting ('analysis first then interpretation'), though Thielemann's trawl through Bayreuth's rogues' gallery of conductors is disarmingly hit-and-miss. He admits ignorance of Victor de Sabata (a legendary Tristan interpreter who profoundly influenced Karajan's 1952 Bayreuth Tristan, which Thielemann so admires) and omits Karl Bohm altogether. Happily Bohm appears several pages later, conducting with his feet in bowls of cooling water in defiance of the covered pit's soaring summer temperature.

The book's second half is an insider's guide to the operas, each provided with a bespoke entry on its origins, its casting and orchestration, plot, music, and Thielemann's own private take on its recorded history.

Thielemann sees Wagner as a craftsman-poet, a real-life Hans Sachs, albeit a good deal less agreeable personally. Sachs faces facts and avoids misfortune; in every other opera, says Thielemann, 'someone turns up--a fantasist, a purist, a man possessed, an artist if you will--and everything goes wrong'. Wagner, he suggests, is a Jekyll and Hyde figure. 'One side of his personality sees visions and staggers from one insanely somnambulistic state to the next, the other constructs and refines, mixes and discards ideas, simmers and tastes. It is part of his genius that each side knows about the other.'

In Wagner the word is the procreating seed, the music the element which brings it forth. …

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