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The publication of Christian Thielemann’s semi-autobiographical, largely polemical book coincides, rather neatly, with his appointment as music director of the Bayreuth Festival. It is a position he has occupied in all but name in recent years on the Green Hill and resurrected for the first time since Wilhelm Furtwängler briefly held it in 1930 following the death of Siegfried Wagner. Anyone approaching the book to slake a thirst for controversy will be sorely disappointed. Thielemann is famously guarded about his private life and the autobiographical content is noticeably slight. Beyond a potted ‘how I got from there to here’ introduction and a peppering of anecdotes, there is little that adds substantially to what we already know about him.

He is even more discreet about his rightwards-leaning politics. Discussions of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, the adoption of his music by the Nazis and the family’s association with Hitler tread an anodyne middle ground with painstaking diplomacy. Incrementally, it risks sounding far too archly accommodating to be altogether persuasive.

His relationship with the Wagner family – the feuding power behind the Bayreuth fiefdom – is handled with equal circumspection, Thielemann gingerly picking his way through relationships with various family grandees and their perpetual behind-the-scenes jostling for position and power with all the concentration of a man in snowshoes in the middle of a minefield. The portrait that emerges of Wolfgang Wagner – Bayreuth’s authoritarian autocrat from 1951 to 2008, who took Thielemann under his wing and shaped his destiny at the house – is surprisingly (or not as the case may be) benign. There is a niggling impression of a debt being duly repaid.

The more substantial part of the book is taken up with considerations of the operas. Although Thielemann never seems wholly sure who he is writing for – the first-timer or the veteran – he brings to bear an unabashed conviction of the primacy and potency of Wagner’s ten great operas, albeit one that side-steps what could have been real meat on the bone: their intended and inherited political implications.

In its glimpse into the creative thinking of a conductor who divides opinion like few others, My Life with Wagner satisfies. But given Thielemann’s willingness to enter the political arena elsewhere, his strained tactfulness towards the abidingly contentious aspects of Wagner’s operas disappoints.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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