Presented by distinguished broadcaster James Jolly on 14th October 2011

It is my privilege to present Christian Thielemann, who is to receive Honorary Membership of the Royal Academy of Music.     

If a particular country can claim to have shaped the music of a given century, then Germany’s influence over the development of music in the 19th century is immense. Flanked at one end by Beethoven and Weber, and Richard Strauss, Brahms and Wagner at the other, this was the century that shaped the symphony and gave us German opera, re-energised in the shape of Wagner. And this is the music at which Christian Thielemann excels. He is Germany’s leading exponent of a repertoire and style that can trace its roots back through Herbert von Karajan and Wilhelm Furtwängler to the approach first exemplified and, recorded, by Artur Nikisch.

Born in Berlin in 1959, Thielemann studied viola and piano at the Hochschüle für Musik, and after working at composition and conducting, he became a répétiteur at the Deutsche Oper Berlin aged only 19. And that house would play a significant role in his career as it developed. He worked with the conductor Heinrich Hollreiser and then as an assistant to Herbert von Karajan.

Karajan would no doubt have approved of Christian Thielemann’s mastering of the craft of conducting and running an opera company out of the public gaze of a major opera house – after all, he himself had learned his art in Ulm and Aachen and referred to these prentice years as a “hard but indispensable slog”. Christian Thielemann worked at houses in Gelsenkirchen, Karlsruhe, Hanover, Dusseldorf and Nuremburg, where he held the post of Generalmusikdirektor.

In 1991, he returned to Berlin’s Deutsche Oper for a production of Wagner’s Lohengrin. And just as the Deutsche Oper would run like a thread through the early part of his career, so would the music of Wagner, a composer of whom he is a magnificent interpreter. The early 1990s saw his American career blossom with acclaimed an production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra in San Francisco and engagements at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

In 1997, the Deutsche Oper beckoned again and he was appointed Generalmusikdirektor, a role he held until 2004 – he is the only Berlin-born musician to hold the post. Very soon, he could be found working with opera companies from Bologna – where he was named Principal Guest Conductor – to New York, Vienna to London (which heard him early on in music by Janacek, Pfitzner and Richard Strauss).

Like many of his great predecessors in the Austro-German repertoire, a grounding in the opera-house provided a perfect background against which to develop an inimitable style in the great symphonic tradition of the 19th and early 20th centuries: on record we can hear Christian Thielemann in the music of Beethoven (a new cycle of the symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic is imminent), Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Pfitzner and Richard Strauss. 2004 saw his appointment to the helm of one of Germany’s great but strangely unsung ensembles, the Munich Philharmonic, an orchestra that has the knack of engaging strong musical personalities who develop a great rapport with the Bavarian audiences yet are surprisingly underrepresented on disc – not just a sign of the times. Yet some fine recordings have emerged from his partnership and given a valuable glimpse into a repertoire at the centre of interest of this impressive conductor.

Inevitably Bayreuth beckoned and in the millennial year 2000, Christian Thielemann made his debut at the Festival with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, setting down the roots for a relationship that has borne fruit in productions of Parsifal, Tannhäuser, Tristan and a complete Ring cycle. While seasoned Bayreuth visitors may mourn the lack of great Wagnerian voices, such as graced the stage of the Green Hill in the central decade of the last century, there have been few complaints about the quality of the orchestral contribution, this remarkable ensemble comprised of players from all over Germany fused into an extraordinary conduit for Wagner’s music – and the unique theatre pit at Bayreuth, which presents its own challenges, creates a sound quite unlike any other in the world.

The first years of this new century saw new relationships being forged: a debut with the Vienna Philharmonic in music by Richard Strauss (and a stunning recording of the Alpine Symphony), a Salzburg Easter Festival debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, a Salzburg Summer Festival debut with the Vienna Philharmonic followed by a short tour that took in London, and later a tour to Japan. And along the way there were remarkable performances and recordings of Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal with the Vienna State Opera.

In the concert-hall, and invariably with the Munich Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann has developed a reputation in the music of Bruckner. “To really understand Bruckner,” he has written, “you first have to engross yourself in slowness.” And yet, he does not wallow in this music, and, refreshingly, he does not look backwards to his great Brucknerian forebears – conductors like Günter Wand and Wilhelm Furtwängler. As he's pointed out, “Wand was born 50 years before him, and Furtwängler’s been dead for over 50 years.” So, he's connecting with a tradition but brings modern attitudes to his performances, including encouraging his listeners to engage with them as a personal statement. As he has said, “You have to build the tradition anew, not just carry it on.” And he has short shrift with people who make too much of this music as a religious statement.

The next milestone in Christian Thielemann’s career is planted in Dresden where the Staatskapelle can trace its history back over 460 years and can number among its directors Heinrich Schütz, Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner. This is the ensemble that played in the premieres of nine of Richard Strauss’s operas, and it is to the Staatskapelle Dresden that Strauss dedicated his Alpine Symphony. Christian Thielemann assumes the role of principal conductor next year, and the following spring, the orchestra becomes  resident at the Salzburg Easter Festival and Christian Thielemann the Festival’s Artistic Director.

The festival was founded in 1967 by Herbert von Karajan, and so with a 50th anniversary looming large, people who like to note the subtle workings of Fate will no doubt find a certain satisfaction that the Master’s pupil assumes the Master’s mantle. The work that pulls together so many strands is Wagner's Parsifal – Wagner’s anniversary falls in 2013 and it was the opera on which Christian Thielemann worked with Karajan in 1980 and 1981. And so the story comes full circle.

Christian Thielemann is, given the traditional longevity of conductors, still a young man. There will be challenges but also the opportunity to impart his wisdom to a new generation, as today’s study of Richard Strauss’s Don Juan has proved and hopefully will continue as his relationship with this Academy is formally cemented.

I have pleasure in presenting Christian Thielemann for Honorary Membership of the Royal Academy of Music.