Stephen Fry Would Love Christian Thielemann’s ‘My Life with Wagner’

Part memoir, part biography, and mostly lumbering essay, this is Thielemann imparting a Wagner fan's point of view from the conductor's podium.

When British actor and comedian Stephen Fry shot the documentary Wagner & Me, which was essentially a fanboy’s field trip to the annual Bayreuth festival devoted to the late composer, he approached the subject from a perspective that is all too familiar to many fans of classical music. In between his episodes of near-sycophantic giddiness, Fry tried to reconcile Richard Wagner the person with Richard Wagner the composer. How can a Jewish man who lost family members in the holocaust possess such a unabashed love of Wagner’s music? Fry wrestles with these thoughts all of the way to the end of Wagner & Me, and even at the film’s conclusion, you still get a sense that the peace he achieved came at some unknown personal cost.

Classical music aficionados continue to be torn apart by a composer like Wagner — not in a way that polarizes the music’s core audience, but in a way that can divide a single aficionado within him or herself. Year after year, decade after decade, art lovers like Fry long to pry the legacy of Wagner’s music away from its painful associations with antisemitism and its use and influence in Nazi Germany. And decade after decade, Wagner’s questionable beliefs from the past lock antlers with his operas yet again for a new generation of classical listeners. The cycle repeats.

German conductor Christian Thielemann makes clear early in his book My Life with Wagner that he has little-to-no use for Political Correctness. To him, the unfortunate clashing of ugly ideology and the tenderness of human feelings is just another one of those annoying little things that prevents us from becoming engrossed in the arts. A life-long Wagner devotee and recurring conductor at the Bayreuth festival, Thielemann neither chastises nor condones his favorite composer’s ugly past. He neither dwells on nor completely ignores the controversies that continue to plague Wagner’s name. He simply acknowledges them, then sets them aside.

Part memoir, part biography, and mostly lumbering essay, My Life with Wagner is Thielemann imparting a Wagner fan’s point of view from the conductor’s podium. You may think that the book would appeal to a rather small subset of classical music fans, and you may be correct in thinking that. Beware though, this is a ravenous subset, and it doesn’t stop Thielemann from emptying his head of all things Wagner for close to 300 pages.

In addition to his inability to pare down the contents of the book, the author’s tone might be considered just a bit off-putting to the layman. Theielemann’s expertise in classical music takes him beyond the level of aesthete and, inadvertently or not, plants him high on a pedestal where he gazes down on his childhood peers who wasted their time with pop music or members of the current classical music community who allow their feelings to be hurt by politics. His narrative just steams ahead as though it were indifferent to the reader’s attention span or willingness to keep up.

Thielemann studied conducting under the legendary Herbert von Karajan, but blink and you just might miss it. After his brief and obligatory autobiography, he hastily steers the book to his comfort zone, the discussion of all things Wagner and the one-of-a-kind festival that is devoted to his music.

If the Bayreuth Festival is unfamiliar to you, here is a quick history. Wagner fled Dresden in 1849 after participating in a failed political coup. Smelling trouble from the authorities, he began a nine-year exile in Switzerland where the surrounding scenery filled the composer with an urge to take opera in a bold new direction. In his mind, it was so new that he refused to call his productions ‘operas’ anymore — they became Musical Dramas.

Fearing debt collectors, Wagner remained reluctant to return to Germany. He proved so elusive that even his most affluent fan, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, had trouble tracking him down. When the political climate of his homeland stabilized, Wagner returned to Germany on King Ludwig’s dime and went about constructing an opera house to suit his every musical need (on page 95, Thielemann slyly introduces the term specialized term “architectonic”). He did all of this within the German town of Bayreuth, where Wagner’s custom-made theater stands to this day. This is ground zero for the annual festival where the surviving Wagner family members roll with the changing times in an effort to sustain an interest in the composer’s music in today’s world.

People like Thielemann and those around him are under enormous pressure to get things “right” in the eyes of the Wagner family as well as the Bayreuth concert-goers, so much so that there’s a telephone in the orchestra pit where Wolfgang Wagner, the composer’s grandson, could casually give Thielemann a ring in the middle of a rehearsal to tell him that the tempo is all wrong. Thielemann had it easy, though. One chapter of My Life with Wagner is set aside to the many conductors who waived the baton at the festival, all of whom are immortalized in frames lining a pure white hallway in Bayreuth. In Wagner’s own lifetime, such men were considered “tedious fellows”.

After his passing, the composer’s next of kin were no less scrutinous in their selection of conductors. Reading this chapter kind of reminded me of how many directors David O. Selznick fired while making Gone With the Wind — there were too many who just couldn’t get it quite right!

What Thielemann the writer lacks in general warmth, he makes up for in a candid view of the warts and blemishes that cover the Wagner name. He admits that, if he were to meet Wagner today, he would ask in full earnestness why he chose to infamously chastise the composer Felix Mendelssohn so viciously. Sometime after Mendelssohn’s death, Wagner wrote a scathing essay titled “Jewishness in Music”, where the late composer was the main target of much of Wagner’s jealous, antisemitic wrath. According to quite a few music historians, Mendelssohn’s reputation suffered greatly due to Wagner’s conspiracy-fueled temper tantrums.

Less than 100 years later, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party would descend upon the Bayreuth theater, turning it into a party pad with the very willing blessing of the deceased Wagner’s daughter-in-law, Winifred. Siegried Wagner, the composer’s son, seemed to inherit his father’s capacity for jealousy when he calls Johann Strauss’s music “smut”, complaining that his father’s genius was being ignored, thanks to Strauss’s long shadow. Thielemann doesn’t try to sweep any of this under some kind of special rug reserved for geniuses, nor does he go to any great lengths to explain it. He just leaves it in the past, where it happened.

As a result, these juicy details and anecdotes don’t make up a bulk of the book, Thielemann’s career at Bayreuth does. His arguments with the composer’s descendants, the geographical layout of the Bayreuth grounds, the warring factions of wardrobe in opera, and what goes into the ideal Wagner performance are the meat and potatoes of his book. The salad course, or dessert if you prefer, are the descriptions of each opera where Thielemann outlines each plot and highlights key recordings of each work. Years of accumulated knowledge make there way into each opera’s respective chapters, including some of Thielemann’s favorite recordings. If the casual layman has made it this far in the book, this could very well be the final jumping-off point. You have to be serious about your opera — your Wagner opera, specifically — to devote so much time and attention to such a stupefying amount of detail.

The same can be said for roughly half of the book. My Life with Wagner is the kind of book written for people like Fry — someone who, given the choice between attending the Bayreuth festival or their mother’s funeral, would choose the festival.

RATING 6 / 10