Review: Commonalities and Differences between Wagner and Strauss

The Humanitas Programme, a series of professorships funded by the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust, has brought a variety of world-famous musicians to Oxford. The past contributions of violin virtuoso Midori, tenor Ian Bostridge, and soprano Renée Fleming has been highly inspiring, particularly their work with the University of Oxford’s students. Renowned German conductor Christian Thielemann’s recent tenure as Visiting Professor of Opera Studies has proven no less significant, as his final keynote address at Merton’s TS Eliot Lecture Theatre confirmed. A sell-out crowd listened in captivated silence as Thielemann spoke for over an hour without notes, delivering a talk that combined rare insight with wry humour.

As the Kapellmeister of the Staatskapelle Dresden, Thielemann has earned a reputation as an eminent interpreter of the operatic repertoire, particularly focusing on the works of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. The two composers are often discussed as part of the same tradition, with Strauss seen as an aesthetic disciple of Wagner. One of Thielemann’s central aims in this lecture was to break down this simplistic master-apprentice relationship to reveal the nuances of Strauss’s music. Thielemann argued that it was Strauss, not Wagner, who found the limits of an orchestra’s capabilities in terms of dynamic range, particularly in works such as Eine Alpensinfonie. Strauss also developed his own operatic style by fusing Wagnerian aesthetics with modernist harmonic developments and older, Italianate forms. Thielemann’s intention was not to relegate Wagner to a lesser position in the canon, but to allow Strauss to step out of the earlier composer’s shadow.

A second major theme of the lecture was Thielemann’s own career, where another master-apprentice motif looms large. This narrative, however, was self-fashioned, with the conductor recounting his adolescent meetings with Austrian maestro Herbert von Karajan, who oversaw his early development. The primary message of these anecdotes was that empathy and communication are the foremost requirements of any conductor. Thielemann emphasised the importance of maintaining eye contact with the musicians and understanding the needs of specific singers in particular acoustic settings, revealing the challenges faced when taking the same production to numerous venues.

Thielemann’s approach to conducting Wagner and Strauss is founded upon one pragmatic consideration often overlooked in modern productions: the fact that the ‘heldentenor’ and ‘dramatic soprano’ voices were not widely available to the composers when they were developing their ground-breaking operas. As Wagner’s music altered musical convention, some singers were trained to develop a thicker texture to their voices, as well as a greater ability to project. Earlier performances, during Wagner’s lifetime, would have involved singers more used to the vocal demands of Rossini or even Mozart. For Thielemann, this context means that the loudest extremes of modern orchestral dynamics are unrealistic: quieter ranges are more appropriate. Similarly, Wagner’s reputation as a bombastic composer of epic scope must be tempered by subtler playing from the pit.

The Humanitas Programme states online that its purpose is to “bring leading practitioners and scholars to both [Oxford and Cambridge] universities to address major themes in the arts.” As fascinating as the subject and speaker were, however, this event served as a reminder of the conservative nature of their speaker choices. Thielemann is undoubtedly a “leading practitioner” in classical music, but his appointment will not extend the breadth or diversity of the music faculty’s research and teaching programmes. Instead, the canonical works of the German tradition remain at the forefront of discussion. This in turn does a disservice to an undergraduate syllabus that does not currently engage extensively with more diverse periods and styles of orchestral music. Although the course is slowly changing, at present the universe of non-classical genres and traditions is also given scant attention (with a few notable exceptions, such as courses on hip-hop, and electronic music). Perhaps this criticism could be levelled at music faculties across the Western world, but there is no reason why an institution such as Oxford can not lead the way more forcefully in broadening the horizons of musicology.

However, these pedagogical limitations are no fault of Thielemann’s. He gave an accomplished and stimulating assessment of his two composers of choice, and offered a valuable account of the role of the Kapellmeister in modern opera companies. His conversational tone and frequent jokes lessened the formality of the occasion and ensured that his content never became dry.

During the event there was little opportunity for interaction with Thielemann, with the talk’s convenor taking only three questions from the audience, but his presence at the following drinks reception assuaged this issue. Thielemann’s social ease, coupled with the relaxed nature of his lecture, belied his somewhat austere reputation as a strict, authoritarian conductor. His soft-spoken and mild demeanour did nothing to diminish the intellectual weight of his analysis, offering proof that, as with Wagner, sometimes the quietest dynamics can be the most effective.

Ben Horton

For more information about the Humanitas programme, and for future events in Oxford, please visit their website.

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