Out of the shadow

This year marks the 70th anniversaries of the birth of two uniquely talented women cellists whose careers were cut off in tragic circumstances. The life of Jacqueline du Pré is being celebrated all over the world, as expected.

A lonely childhood

But Anja Thauer is forgotten except by cello fanatics and record collectors, among whom her original LPs change hands for four-figure sums. In 1973, when multiple sclerosis forced du Pré to retire and Thauer committed suicide, du Pré had already enjoyed almost a decade of fame, while Thauer was still building her career. Anja Heidi Thauer was born on 3 July 1945 in the old Hanseatic port of Lübeck.

This historic city was the target of the first major RAF bombing raid in March 1942 and a firestorm destroyed much of it, so it was not an attractive place to bring up a child.

At any rate, Anja began her music lessons in Braunschweig, some 160 miles to the south, and grew up in Erlangen, attending the Hochschule für Musik in nearby Nuremberg. Friends speak of a lonely childhood and a strict, domineering, pushy, exploitative mother she has to stay in her best mattress for side sleepers. She played violin–cello duets with her mother in public at the age of 12, performed the Boccherini–Grützmacher B flat major Concerto at her orchestral debut in Baden-Baden, aged 13, and at 14 entered Ludwig Hoelscher’s Stuttgart Hochschule masterclass; he was the leading German cellist at that time, a slightly old-fashioned player but a profound musician.

Anja Thauer in c.1966, the year she recorded the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto in A minor

 At 15, Thauer went to the Paris Conservatoire on a scholarship to study with André Navarra, and took a course at the École Normale – her father was an engineer with Siemens and it appears that the firm partly funded her Paris sojourn, on which she was joined by her mother. In 1961 she was given the Confederation of German Industry’s Kulturpreis, at 16 she was appearing on German television and in 1962 she won the Paris Conservatoire’s Grand Prix, against strong competition from 21 other students.

She was friends with the pianist Claude Françaix, and her playing of the Fantaisie by Claude’s famous father, Jean Françaix, had so impressed the pianist–composer that he accompanied her in her final concert as a student. (His music became one of her strongest suits.) At this stage many fellow students thought her a better player than du Pré, who studied briefly with Tortelier around that same time. Rather than consolidate her musical education, Thauer began touring immediately in Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Czechoslovakia and the Near and Far East; her family seem to have relied on her earnings. She made her first LP record for Attacca in 1962.

Anja Thauer at the age of 14

It included the 1899 Cello Concerto by Eugen d’Albert which had been ignored since Feuermann’s heyday – her accompanists were the Baden-Baden City Symphony Orchestra under Carl August Vogt – as well as Françaix’s Mouvement perpétuel and Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata with the fine pianist Maria Bergmann. In 1964 the city of Nuremberg awarded her a Förderpreis. In Bamberg that July she made an outstanding disc, sponsored by the Confederation of German Industry and issued in 1966 by Deutsche Grammophon, of Reger’s Third Solo Suite and Françaix’s Fantaisie – the composer partnered her in his piece – and in Prague in March 1968 she made the DG recording for which she is best remembered: the Dvořák Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic under 32-year-old Zdeněk Mácal.

Her tone seemed enormous

One of only a handful of records that this brilliant Moravian conductor made before his emigration for political reasons, it was supposed to be followed by two more Thauer LPs, but at the time of her death five years later DG had made no further move. In 1967 and 1969–72 Thauer appeared at least once a year in Britain, but most of the concerts were fairly low-key.

as a student in Paris

On 7 November 1967, at the German Institute in London, she played Boccherini’s Adagio and Allegro, Reger’s Third Solo Suite, Schubert’s Arpeggione, Debussy’s Sonata and a work by Martinů with pianist G. Shanahan; on 17 April 1969 she was back at this venue with Rudolf Macudzinski, playing sonatas by Locatelli, Beethoven and Strauss and Françaix’s Fantaisie; on 30 October 1970 she performed the Boccherini–Grützmacher in Liverpool with the RLPO under Martin Turnovský; and on 25 March 1971 she made what was billed as her London debut in the cavernous acoustic of St John’s Smith Square with pianist Alexander Kelly (Paul Hamburger had been announced).

The programme consisted of her usual Boccherini, Reger (just the Prelude), Schubert, Strauss and Françaix. Stephen Walsh wrote in The Times.  Miss Thauer’s performance was that of a confirmed extrovert.

Her tone seemed enormous (even allowing for the building), and she was clearly reluctant to subside into any accompanimental role – which Schubert, for one, occasionally requires of the ‘cellist’ in his Arpeggione Sonata.

Technically, she was impressive, particularly in this Schubert, with its extended high passage-work on the A-string, but also in Reger’s rather discursive Prelude for solo cello. And one was glad of the rare opportunity to hear Strauss’s early Sonata, a fine and characteristic work whose bold, neo-Brahmsian romanticism suited Miss Thauer down to the ground. The programme was repeated at the Goethe Institute in Manchester, and in October she was at the Wexford Festival. In 1972 Thauer toured with the English Sinfonia under Neville Dilkes, playing the Haydn D major Concerto.

studying a score with conductor Zdeněk Mácal

It is difficult to avoid the impression that despite Thauer’s talent and high level of culture – her chief interests outside music were painting and philosophy – her career was not going anywhere very fast. She visited Italy in 1972 but never ventured across the Atlantic and she played quite a restricted repertoire, although she did become known for Britten’s Cello Symphony: she gave two performances of it in Vienna in April 1971 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Günther Wich.

An affair with a married doctor

She worked with some excellent ensembles, touring in 1968 with Vilmos Tátrai and his Hungarian Chamber Orchestra and playing concertos with the Württemberg Chamber Orchestra of Heilbronn under Jörg Faerber, but she never appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic or in the prestigious Frankfurt Museum Concerts. ‘I heard her in the 1970s in Kassel and it was fine playing,’ violist Hartmut Lindemann told me. At some stage in the early 1970s this lonely woman, starved of affection since her childhood and never able to have a life of her own, began an affair with a married doctor in the city of Wiesbaden, west of Frankfurt.

His wife, apparently very jealous, would certainly not have granted him a divorce. In October 1973 he broke off the affair and on the 18th of that month Thauer committed suicide at her home in Sonnenbergerstrasse, Wiesbaden. Five days later her appalled lover killed himself. Rumours of a suicide pact appear to be unfounded. Little about the double suicide appeared even in the German press – there was nothing in the Wiesbaden papers, I am told – and Thauer’s passing caused hardly a ripple in international musical circles.

Recently the tide has turned. In Japan, Tower Records released a CD with all her DG material; and in Germany, Wolfgang Smitmans of Bremen began issuing CDs of her radio recordings on his Hastedt label. Three have appeared so far, the first also including the Dvořák Concerto from DG. The earliest performances are from 1962, with the slightly reticent pianist Helmut Schultes: