The Meister From Germany

Shunned for his politics, Christian Thielemann reveals more than he intended in a book about Wagner

Norman Lebrecht

Christian Thielemann: Misanthropic maestro (photo: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

The most gifted German conductor for half a century is a hero in his own country and a shadow abroad. He has no artistic relationships beyond the German-speaking Heimatland and he is very seldom seen in London, Paris or New York. If Christian Thielemann is an important conductor, and he certainly is, the world ought to be hammering at his door. It isn’t. And therein lies a tale.

Of Thielemann’s gift there has never been a doubt. Anyone who saw him conduct Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth this summer, in the theatre or on video, will have heard in the opening chord exactly how the ending would be shaped four and a half hours later. That instinctual command of Wagner’s structure, his musical language and his inner secret are enough to appear no more than once or twice in a generation.

A musician who knew Thielemann in 1970s West Berlin confirmed to me that his mastery of a score was already evident at 14 years old. His middle-class parents had perfect pitch and his mother noted “seems to be musical” when the boy was just a year old. His teenaged talent, my informant said, was not accompanied by social grace or unusual intelligence, but these things can develop over time.

At 19, Thielemann was taken under the wing of Herbert von Karajan. He rose swiftly through German foothills, was general music director in Nuremberg at 28 and by 1997 was in charge of West Berlin’s Deutsche Oper. Signed up by the New York conductors’ Svengali Ronald Wilford, he seemed to be on the threshold of international celebrity, when things started to go off-piste.

When Thielemann was in London to conduct the UK stage premiere of Hans Pfitzner’s 1917 opera Palestrina, I noted “a certain stiffness in the air” around the Royal Opera House. Some musicians were calling him Hitler, bridling at his abruptness, allied to an unblinking faith in the German genius. His interpretative reverence exposed Pfitzner’s expressive limitations. The work died.

Back in Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, whom Thielemann had assisted at Bayreuth, threatened to sue for slander over alleged remarks about “a Jewish mess”. Thielemann denied using the J-word and the fuss blew over, though not without residue. Thielemann was the only maestro of his generation to promote German musical supremacy over European consensus. He became linked with the political Right. Lately, he has appeared to express support for the anti-immigrant Pegida movement. I say “appeared” since Thielemann’s remarks are couched in ambiguity and equivocation, a technique long favoured by the German far-Right.

Musically, his tastes are ultra-conservative and supremely German. He conducts Beethoven, Bruckner and Wagner with the deepest conviction. He shows no interest in contemporary culture.

His work history is turbulent. He quit Deutsche Oper in a huff in 2004 and the Munich Philharmonic in 2011. An administrator says he expects obedience and shares no credit. Another says he is a prisoner of his gods, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Karajan. Advised that he needed a website, Thielemann dismissed the suggestion. “Karajan never had a website,” he declared.

Passed over by the Berlin Philharmonic when they elected a chief conductor this year, Thielemann was compensated with the flimsy title of music director at Bayreuth, his spiritual home. Now 56, he has no known personal relationships and travels everywhere with his mother. A former long-term associate describes him as “the unhappiest man on earth”. So where, you are wondering, is the praise?

A new book, My Life with Wagner, (Weidenfeld, £25) has Thielemann’s name on it. He did not write it himself but approved a distillation of a summer’s Bayreuth conversations with a Wagnerite journalist, Christine Lemke-Matwey. Conductors do not write books to share bathroom-mirror truths, rather to impress us with their moral profundity. Barenboim, Boulez and Furtwängler are among the worst examples. Thielemann, by contrast, is revealing in unexpected and thought-provoking ways, not just about his inner self (which is not terribly interesting) but about a particular form of German amorality that seeks redemption in the objective contemplation of monstrous behaviour. Try this:

Wagner goes to the limits. His music dramas are full of murder and violence, incest, revenge, betrayal, obscenity, sexual subservience, none of them admirable things. Yet we go home after them feeling stronger. By projecting our fears on Wotan and his companions, we learn how life is played out.

Some strands of that thought are too horrendous to pursue to a logical conclusion. At face value, Thielemann is saying that art exists to stop us setting free the beasts in ourselves. We would all love to rape our sisters and burn the house down but, since Wagner does it for us, we don’t have to.

The conductor’s job is to bring the work close to perfection or the world will come to an end, just as Wagner said it would. Here’s Thielemann, again:

Sometimes I have nightmares. I dream that artistic quality is out of tune. I dream that art and music are destroying themselves because the quality has gone wrong. Because far too much that is trivial, empty, superficial and indifferent is rife, and is tolerated. And because none of us can find genuinely creative time to spare any more, either for ourselves or for such great work as Richard Wagner’s.

The world is a terrible place, says Thielemann. Since we can do nothing to improve human conduct, let us observe it from a safe theatrical distance and derive what comfort we can from our personal detachment and innocence. The greatest sin — nightmare — would be to neglect or distort great art, the only thing that might redeem us. Accept that the word is evil. Make good art.

This is not an original thought. Wagner wrote much the same in his long-winded essays. But, taken in a 21st-century context and with the benefit of Holocaust hindsight, it drives a deep shaft into an area of the German psyche where cultural achievement atones for past guilt. Karajan, a master of denial, applied music as a balm of oblivion. Thielemann, his apostle, preaches that art pardons all. Like many maestros, he conveys more than he knows. For this candour, let him be praised.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"