My Life With Wagner: Fairies, Rings, and Redemption: Exploring Opera’s Most Enigmatic Composer
New York: Pegasus, 2016
The conductor Christian Thielemann, born in Berlin in 1959, is well-known for his passionate advocacy of German music. What becomes clear in his new book, an intellectual history of his musical development and his relationship with Richard Wagner, the great passion of his life, is that his approach to German music is one which recognizes it as a unique product of the German soul – something that even readers with no background in classical music or the often dramatic politics of the opera world will recognize as a somewhat unconventional, even “problematic,” stance. He does not apologize for being German and his repertoire makes this clear: Richard Wagner, Ludwig van Beethoven, Anton Bruckner, Carl Orff, and even the brilliant Hans Pfitzner, a composer who had intimate, if not always harmonious or orthodox, ties to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich (ties which resulted in his tragic obscurity in the post-war era). Of course, he also performs the works of non-Germans, but his focus is primarily on German composers. His book is part autobiography and part musical history, and it makes for fascinating reading for those interested in Wagner, whether they are newcomers or seasoned veterans. There is no fan of Wagner who will not thoroughly enjoy it and no one curious to learn more who will not profit from its contents.
The first half of the book is a roughly chronological account of his youth: the beginning of his path towards conducting; and the trials, tribulations, and techniques of this artistic calling. It is here that one gets a feeling for his intellectual foundations. The first paragraph of the Foreword is worth quoting in its entirety because it reveals quite a bit about his approach, not only to music but life itself:
Until I was 15 or 16, I listened to a great deal of Gustav Mahler as well as the music of Richard Wagner. Mahler positively falls into an adolescent’s lap. Then, one day, I came across Anton Bruckner, the antithesis of Mahler and a composer who has much in common with Wagner, and I felt that in the long term Mahler and Wagner would not both take up residence in my mind. I had to decide between the more life-affirming or the more life-denying of the two, between Utopia and the enticement of the abyss, between Wagner and Mahler. And I would do it again and again, although the desire to listen to Mahler still stirs in me quietly from time to time. (p. xiii)
Thielemann was sophisticated enough at a young age to have understood the profound difference between the dark, Jewish neuroses that infect the works of Mahler and the profound spiritual heights that are experienced through the music of Wagner. Not only did the young Thielemann understand that music itself is a powerful shaper of the soul, but he chose consciously to resist the perhaps universal temptation to indulge in the shallow, juvenile, and bittersweet pleasures of despair. There is a darkness in all men that can surface, if left unchecked, and it is supremely admirable that, as he makes clear in the last sentence, he resisted this by not listening to Mahler at all, even when tempted.
Another particularly interesting passage in the first chapter is also worth quoting at length in order to provide further context for his development as a man:
. . . I am one of a generation that learned, or was supposed to learn, to hate German music and above all else the music of Richard Wagner. I defended myself first intuitively and then deliberately against this kind of political correctness. Here, as in much else, I am on the same side as [Jewish conductor and pianist] Daniel Barenboim, who says that the politically correct don’t like thinking for themselves. I was allergic to having such things imposed on me, not so much because my parental home was politically conservative (as it was), or because I had different political opinions (which I would have had to formulate first); I defended myself against political correctness because it would have meant tearing something out of my heart that I wasn’t ready to give up for anything. (pp. 7-8)
Thielemann, as a modern German, must morally support his stance on political correctness with a reference to a Jew with a similar opinion, but this statement nonetheless can be read as having a deeper implicit meaning. To not hate German music or, by extension, Germanness, means something of a far greater magnitude to a German than it would for a non-German. Though the Wagner-Hitler connection (however interpreted) is always dancing on the surface of any conversation about Wagner, it is particularly potent and controversial in Germany, which makes Thielemann’s refusal to apologize for his feelings that much more powerful.
It is also worth noting that at one point, Mr. Thielemann was involved in some controversy when a remark attributed to him was deemed anti-Semitic. Referring to the possible departure of Daniel Barenboim from the Berlin Staatsoper amidst some turmoil, it was alleged that Thielemann said, “Now the Jewish mess in Berlin is coming to an end.” Though he denied that he actually said it, Jews were, unsurprisingly, up in arms over this “unspeakable” (a favorite Jewish shaming word) and vicious attack. This quote was originally attributed to him in an article by Roger Cohen in The New York Times, and is recommended reading for its almost comedic depiction of Jewish paranoia and persecution fantasies. This Jewy gossip is mentioned here only because it might shed some light on why Thielemann just happened to mention the political opinions of Barenboim in his book and, more importantly, it also hints at the possibility that he is aware of the impact of Jews in the arts. It is not unreasonable to assume that his rejection of Mahler was an intuitive rejection of Jewishness in music, nor, especially if The New York Times is to be believed, is it unreasonable to assume that Thielemann has at least some understanding of Jewish influence in the politics and drama of the German opera scene. That “something out of my heart” to which Thielemann refers above might just be his commitment to his own people as much as to his commitment to German music. One certainly hopes that this is the case.
After the intriguing story of his early years in the first part of the book, the second, entitled “Wagner’s Cosmos,” contains various discussions about Wagner in general, including Thielemann’s take on certain famous conductors of Wagner, the social and musical dynamics of Bayreuth, the “ideological aspect” of Wagner, what he believes makes for great Wagner performances, and a very useful chapter for beginners which begins simply but importantly with the exhortation, “Don’t be afraid!” (p. 128).
The chapters in which the author discusses particular conductors and the joys and complications of working in Bayreuth are delightful and informative. What is of interest here, however, is primarily Thielemann’s chapter on the ideological aspect of Wagner which, of course, cannot but include Hitler and Jews – both because they are actually relevant (Hitler less so, from a chronological standpoint if nothing else) and because to ignore such topics would be considered, in the critical imagination at least, tacit approval of Wagner’s anti-Semitism on Thielemann’s part. We have recently observed the controversy surrounding the White House’s failure to mention the mythical “six million Jews” in its Holocaust Remembrance Day tweet, so it is not hard to imagine what the reviews would be like for a book on Wagner in which the Jewish question was ignored.
Thielemann begins by indulging in some of the de rigueur Jewish fantasies concerning the origins of anti-Semitism, such as it being the result of an envy of Jewish success. He writes, “Wagner’s aversion [to Jews] . . . sprang from a deep-rooted social envy. `The Jews’, who had been emancipated and then rose in social standing from the beginning of the nineteenth century onwards, represented a welcome object on which he could project that envy” (p. 82). This is, of course, classic Jewish psychoanalytic nonsense: it cannot be disproven and it can be used to justify any objection one might raise. Next, Thielemann fawns over Mendelssohn, who means to him “almost as much as Wagner. . .” (p. 82). This might very well be true, but its inclusion in his preliminary remarks on the ideological aspect of Wagner strikes one as forced. To be sure, Wagner’ relationship with the more successful Mendelssohn was complicated: contradictory attitudes are frequent, public versus private opinions do not always converge, and so on. But is this evidence that Wagner’s feelings about Mendelssohn resulted from envy? Not necessarily. In fact, it seems far more likely that Wagner’s various early expressions of positive feelings towards Mendelssohn arose from his need to “get along” in the music world and, more generally, in society. That Wagner was so forthcoming about his antipathy towards Mendelssohn after the latter’s death seems to suggest that Jewish power was great enough to force even a man such as Wagner into falsifying his true feelings, rather than suggesting that Wagner’s attitudes towards Jews were a later manifestation of feelings of inferiority.
Thielemann continues his rather pathetic “defense” of Wagner by offering a musical variation of the sort of neutered ambivalence contained in the conservative mantra that “Democrats are the real racists.” He writes, “How do we deal with Wagner’s anti-Semitism? There is no room for it in the music, where C major does indeed remain C major” (p. 88). Chords cannot be anti-Semitic, suggests Thielemann. But why not? If they can be martial, romantic, holy, or melancholic, why then can they not be anti-Semitic? If they can’t be anti-Semitic (that is, embodying emotions and expressing values that run counter to some or all of the characteristics of Jews), then they can be nothing at all. To suggest that Wagner’s anti-Semitism is not present in his music is to deny Wagner’s very soul, to pick and choose comfortable nuggets from his art for one’s own convenience. It is a cheap and dishonorable way to approach any artist, but perhaps most especially Wagner. Thielemann even suggests the possibility that characters from Wagner’s operas such as Beckmesser or Alberich are not representations of Jews. This is simply absurd, but demonstrates the incredible contortions of observable reality that whites feel compelled to engage in so that they are not accused of anti-Semitism.
But, to Thielemann’s credit, he takes to task those who feel that Wagner must be sanitized for contemporary audiences. He provides two interesting examples:
They rewrite the ending of Lohengrin turning the admonition ‘To fair Brabant’s Duke make your vow / Taking him as your leader [Führer] now!’ into ‘Calling him your protector [Schützer] now!’ And in the closing words of Hans Sachs in The Mastersingers they cannot stomach the line, ‘Honour your German masters’, but make it into ‘Honour your noble masters’. (p. 91)
He suggests that this interferes with the musical rhythm of the pieces, but it is hard not to suspect that he finds such alterations ethically reprehensible, and perhaps even an affront to Germanness. Certainly, his previous comments, as well as his recording history, would seem to suggest that this is indeed part of his objection to such politically-correct meddling. The chapter ends with another statement concerning Wagner’s choice to end all of his operas with a major chord. He writes, “They all close in the major, even Tristan, even Twilight of the Gods. You may think that crazy, but it also represents a fine statement of defiance: in spite of everything life goes on. There is always a final remnant of Wagner, a last ember crying out to be rekindled” (p. 94). But what is to be rekindled? Is he simply referring to Wagner’s optimism, the potential for revolutionary art? Probably, at least in part. But, again, between Wagner himself and Thielemann’s explicit Germanness, can it be much of a stretch to assume that more than a hint of German pride and the desire for a healthy and vital German future are present in this statement?
The second half of the book deals with his theories and taste regarding Wagner performance. He generally leaves philosophical and political discussions aside and writes about the changing qualities of Wagnerian singers and conductors. For example, he takes issue with those who do not allow themselves freedom in conducting, specifically the use of tempo rubato, “that clever and at its best imperceptible shift in musical time that, put schematically, has the main voice sometimes hurrying ahead of the accompaniment, sometimes lagging behind it – and evens out this ‘robbed time’ at the end” (p. 124). This style has gone out of fashion for the past century or so, but it is one which Thielemann uses confidently. He continues:
A Wagnerian rubato can be thought out and planned ahead, or it can arise spontaneously – if you know how to deal with it. But you have to reject scruples. Is this allowed or isn’t it? By the time you have thought that through, it is usually too late. The great musicians of the old days would just have laughed at all the musical traffic signs we put up today: they often simply went ahead and did as they wanted. And it was often the right thing to do. We must recover that certainty of feeling. (p. 125)
The reader is prompted to consider what he is actually saying. Granted, he is referring specifically to the art of conducting, but we know that Wagner, for Thielemann, embodies a certain attitude towards life, a certain approach to the universe. Such an explicit call for musical rule-breaking, arbitrarily fashionable as those may be, is hardly reminiscent of the conservatism for which he is known. Might this even be considered an Archeofuturist approach towards music? The incorporation of the best of German tradition with a contemporary sense of disregard for stodgy and antiquated values imposed upon the present by the past seems inherent in the soul of Wagner himself.
The final part of the second half of the book finds Thielemann going through each opera and describing each one’s plot and performance history, and which recordings he finds most valuable. For beginners, these discussions are eye-opening. Here, Thielemann acts as a teacher. He writes in a casual, conversational style that is accessible and truly intriguing. His passion shines through and makes the reader want to explore more and more – and with confidence that these long, complicated operas are indeed understandable, relevant today, and can be a source of deep meaning in one’s life. It is inspirational stuff, to be sure. He succeeds masterfully in making the reader unafraid of Wagner, just as he advised earlier in the book. There are many books on Wagner that are essential reading; however, if one had to recommend a single ideal introduction, this is it. There is a world of value and a lifetime of adventure in the works of Richard Wagner, and, for many people, this book could very well be the key that opens those doors.
2. Roger Cohen, “Berlin Operas Are Feuding, With Anti-Semitic Overtones,” The New York Times, October 21, 2000.
3. Henry C. Jackson, “ADL Head Rips Trump Team Over Holocaust Statement That Doesn’t Mention Jews,” Politico, January 27, 2017.