Christian Thielemann – it doesn’t always have to be music!

Aside from Wagner, Beethoven and the like, his passions are cityscapes, portraits and historic furniture from early 19th century Prussia and Berlin. All, as he says, garnished with outliers“. Star Conductor, Christian Thielemann, speaks as an art collector about inspiration, intuition and matters of taste – and about what the East Prussian Landscape has to do with Anton Bruckner.

Fascination. Passion. Enthusiasm. Christian Thielemann uses these words in an interview with Dorotheum’s myART MAGAZINE in Dresden, not in connection with Wagner’s “Meistersinger” or Beethoven symphonies, but to describe the works of art which the world-famous conductor is convinced inform and enlighten his music. The synergy between artistic and musical interpretation is not lost on him.

Dorotheum myART MAGAZINE:  How are we to think of Christian Thielemann as an art collector? Christian Thielemann: My collecting has always existed in parallel to music. It started as early as my school days, and gradually developed in line with my financial means: etchings came first, then paintings and furniture. The main, overarching theme was topography and places – Berlin, Brandenburg, Prussia around 1800, and later, portraits. But all this is garnished with outliers. You have to punctuate everything so that it doesn’t become monotonous.

What does this mix of styles look like? Well, the giant spectrum that you see in art magazines isn’t really my thing. I prefer Louis XV wall appliqués and the wonderfully simple Prussia of around 1800, which Bauhaus also referenced. I am simultaneously fascinated and frightened by the Bauhaus because it’s almost too simple. But it’s wonderful if you combine these things.

Christian Thielemann © Matthias Creutziger

Would it be accurate to assume that Christian Tielemann would rather live in the past? Absolutely not, especially for medical reasons! Sometimes I wish I could have seen the undestroyed German cities, Berlin, Potsdam, Dresden or Königsberg. And so I bring the things I like into my home.

Does modern art have a place there as well?  I wonder: how does the contemporary develop in terms of topography? There is obviously a fear of being conservative. The last modern work I bought was a Lesser Ury, who was all about Berlin. But I do look at contemporaries from time to time. I became acquainted with Neo Rauch, for example, and got to know the Leipzig School through him.

Neo Rauch designed the stage sets for “Lohengrin” at the Bayreuth Festival last year. As music director, did you have any influence on the choice of artists? In this case it was indeed my suggestion. I had met him at a dinner party and we got along well. I mentioned him to Katharina Wagner. He came to Bayreuth and was very taken with everything.

Was the enthusiasm mutual? Were you taken with his work as well? I have often talked to him about the mysterious paintings in his studio. I sometimes asked him for details about why something was in a particular place. He said it had to go there. It doesn’t have to be explained in any rational way. I thought that was incredibly interesting because it’s similar to a musical interpretation. In music you don’t have to explain why you’re playing it faster or slower or why you’re doing a ritardando. This idea of leaving questions unanswered fascinated me a lot. There has to be a core that you start from, but that core meanders back and forth. And that, in turn, is what frees me when I make music.

So it’s a mixture of experience and intuition … It’s a lot of feeling, but it’s fuelled by experience.

Where does your soft spot for Prussia, especially East Prussia, come from? The “Iron Curtain” deceived all of us, including the Austrians, about the East. We were quicker to go to San Francisco than to Warsaw or Moscow, or to the Baltic states. Immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I visited castle ruins in former East Prussia. Suddenly you get the feeling that the sky is further away and the clouds are different. These long avenues with huge old trees that you rarely see anywhere else … I photographed them till the cows came home. This landscape, its vastness and size, has a lot to do with music and with one’s own consciousness.

What do landscape and music have in common? When I think of Bruckner, I don’t think of St. Florian Monastery, but of the East Prussian landscape. I always thought it was hilly where Bruckner came from, but it was flat there, too. This sprawling landscape is a connection for me. Very special art comes from this area, think of Lovis Corinth or Käthe Kollwitz, for example.

Your curiosity was such that in 2006 you published a book about the destroyed Schloss Friedrichstein, an East Prussian palace once owned by the Counts of Dönhoff that played a key role in the region. The book is now in its second edition. It came about through an invitation from “ZEIT” editor Marion Countess von Dönhoff, who showed me relics from the castle that had survived and some historical photos. I think the garden front of Friedrichstein was one of the most beautiful that ever existed. I wrote to family members and did some research, but there wasn’t much. And then I found a cup with a picture of Friedrichstein at Dorotheum!

One painting of a pair of two Christian Thielemann purchased at an Old Masters auction at Dorotheum from Carl Traugott Fechhelm: The Berlin City Palace, south part of the Spree wing, with the Erasmus Chapel and the House of the Duchess, the Long Bridge or Prince Elector’s Bridge (today the Town Hall Bridge) in front

Any other surprises at Dorotheum? I was astonished to find pictures of Malbork Castle at Dorotheum, something very rare. Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Friedrich Gilly’s rediscovery of Malbork Castle is the reason you see this particular aesthetic of Gothic brick buildings in northern Germany – for schools, barracks, hospitals, etc. This is very interesting and so important for our art history. Sometimes I get so absorbed in these things that I’m not even keen to make music.

So it’s good for getting a bit of distance? Mostly it’s good for inspiration. As an artist, you stand on stage. I always have to give. But who gives me anything? A work of art, for example. I get something from that. I learn something new with every exhibition I see. Recently I learned about egg tempera at the Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini exhibition in Berlin, for example. I spent half an evening reading about this term and was surprised that there are 500-year-old paints with that kind of quality! They had no penicillin, no anaesthesia for people undergoing surgery, women died in childbirth – and yet they produced something like that. It’s staggering to think about.

Conductor with a passion for collecting cityscapes. Berlin Cathedral (in the form realised by J. Boumann the Younger and G. W. von Knobelsdorff 1747–50) , signed Fechhelm 1768

Do you have anyone consulting you? I’m my own consultant. I buy whatever I fancy. I open a catalogue, visit a gallery, take a quick look, and that’s it. If I have to think too much, I don’t buy it.

You are also a lender for various museums. Where do you find the time for all this? A person in the artistic profession needs other sources of inspiration as well. You wouldn’t believe all the things I’ve gone out of my way to see in Vienna! I have been to the wonderful Winter Palace of Prince Eugene more than once. I don’t always have to make music. I say to myself: “Go to a gallery and have a look at something pretty, so that you don’t turn into some kind of narrow-minded idiot that only knows about one thing – and you’ll also be better at music!” I’m taking more and more time for these things in that respect. I read art magazines, find out what’s on the market and enjoy what’s out there. At the TEFAF art, antiques, and design fair, for example. I see art as part of what I do.

Art with tradition, you mean. Without tradition, we are nothing. That doesn’t mean that we have to follow it slavishly, but we don’t dissociate from it, either. There’s a wonderful Goethe quote here at the Schauspielhaus in Dresden: “Ältestes bewahrt mit Treue, freundlich aufgefasstes Neue”, which translates to something like, “Old traditions, well respected / innovations not rejected”. But the German wording also implies that you might take something new into friendly consideration, but might still think it’s hideous. I like to go to contemporary exhibitions, get involved, try to understand. You find a way to access it after a while. Or you get to the point where you’ve had enough.

Do you see parallels to music in that respect as well? With certain music you reach a point where it just annoys you. But that is my personal taste which I would never accept as a common criterion. It’s my criterion. I always think it’s charming when a person describes something as really horrible. You don’t have to think everything is good, even the old things. The good thing about this is that taste changes over time.

Christian Thielemann prefers to describe himself as a Kapellmeister, a chamber orchestra leader, rather than a conductor. The focus of his work is on the opera and concert repertoire of German Romanticism. Critics praised the conductor of the 2019 Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert for his “mixture of subtlety, meticulous elegance and great dynamism” (Bayerischer Rundfunk). Born in Berlin, Thielemann started his career at the age of 19 as a répétiteur at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and as assistant to Herbert von Karajan. After working in Gelsenkirchen and Dusseldorf, he became the youngest German general music director in Nuremberg in 1988 before eventually returning to the Deutsche Oper in 1997 to serve in this capacity for seven years. He was general music director of the Munich Philharmonic from 2004 to 2011. Thielemann has been principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden since 2012. He was appointed Bayreuth’s music director in 2015, where his seminal annual interpretations have had a formative influence ever since his debut in the summer of 2000. He has also been artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival since 2013.

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