Conductor Christian Thielemann
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Christian Thielemann was born in Berlin,
Germany, on April 1, 1959. He studied piano, harpsichord, and viola in
his youth and later enrolled in the Karajan Academy. He played viola in
the German Youth Orchestra and became an assistant to Karajan at 19.
Thielemann debuted with the Berlin Philharmonic as a harpsichordist in
In 1985 Thielemann was appointed principal conductor of the Deutsche
Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf. Three years later he became general music
director at the Nuremberg Opera. His U.S. debut came at the San
Francisco Opera in 1991, conducting Strauss' Elektra.
Thielemann was appointed principal guest conductor of the Teatro
Comunale of Bologna in 1993. In 1997 Thielemann accepted the post of
general music director at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. He debuted at the
2000 Bayreuth Festival in Wagner's Die
Meistersinger. Meanwhile, conflicts with management at the
Deutsche Oper were brewing, and Thielemann departed in 2004, three
years sooner than expected.
From 2004 he began serving as music director of the Munich
Philharmonic, with a contract running through 2011. In 2008 Thielemann
was named chief musical advisor at Bayreuth, becoming in all but name
the festival director. With Thielemann's 2012 appointment as music
director of the Saxon State Opera and its sibling ensemble, the Dresden
State Orchestra, he has clearly emerged as one of the foremost German
conductors of his generation.
In March of 1993, Christian Thielemann came to Chicago to conduct the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was just 33 years old and had made
only one recording. The intervening years have seen his career
take huge leaps and arouse some controversy, but with all of that
promise yet to come, it is interesting to take note of his
advice and his philosophy.
He was always earnest and spoke quickly at times, often punctuating his
ideas with fragments and half-thoughts. Usually those led to full
ideas or examples, and all of this has been tidied up so as to read
comfortably. His English was quite good and only a few times did
he insert a German word that was needed to precisely indicate his
thought. As with many others from Europe, the structure of his
sentences would often reflect his native tongue, and some of those
quirks have been left in this text.
Sitting in the library of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after his
concert, the spirits of many famous conductors were all around us,
including Carlo Maria Giulini, who made his American debut with the
CSO, and whose association here lasted for 23 seasons, including three
years as Principal Guest Conductor. Thielemann mentioned that he
liked Giulini very much, so that is where we started our interview . .
. . .
Obviously there are many conductors in the world and you
revere quite a number of them. Do you learn from each of these
Always when you see a
very good interpretation, you learn something. You see a
conductor and you hear him, and I think it is more important to hear
somebody than to see the movements a conductor makes. You have to
be talented in a certain
way to do it. Don't look
into a mirror, like some people do, and say, "My God, the
left hand, the right hand." Just do it! The most
interesting thing is the musical concept somebody might have. A
very good conductor has a very good concept. That's something I'm
always thinking about, to
look where is really the climax of the piece and so on. So
you learn from everybody, and sometimes if
a concert is not that good, you try to find out what was missing.
BD: To learn what
not to do?
CT: Um, yeah, maybe to
something. I don't want to say it's a kind of thing that you are
glad when you hear it. That can happen to everybody. You
are not in the same mood every concert, especially if you
do a series of four or five concerts. Recently at the Met
I had eight Rosenkavalier
performances. Fortunately, we were
always very different because we had cast changes, but if you have the
same cast you have really to try to be flexible. I like to be
flexible; I like to change every evening the tempo
and also the agogic accents. I just do it. It's better to
show it with your hands, better to express. There are thousands
or millions of
ways to express with your hands what you want, but there is no
codex, nothing somebody could tell you, "Just do that and you get that
sound," because every orchestra's different. Every orchestra
offers you a different sound, so you
cannot say "I go to the Berlin Philharmonic or I'm going to the
Chicago Symphony, and I have to do this or that." It's
complicated. You need to just be yourself, and
BD: But it doesn't
keep the singers or the instrumentalists off
balance if you're trying new things at the last moment?
CT: No, you
have to know. That is a kind of experience you have to
have. You cannot do silly things. No, I don't mean to try
out a really
shocking program. That's not good, but you need to know how to
keep the attention
of a musician. Every musician is different every
evening. If you hear piano recitals or
violin recitals, you will never hear a very good pianist or very good
violinist give the same interpretation.
BD: But that is
chamber music. What do you do when you have a
hundred people there in front of you?
CT: You can do
it. That's a kind of experience that you have to
feel. You know, "Aha, I can go on to this
point." It depends also how good they know you. If an
orchestra knows you very well, and if they know anything
can really happen, they will play in a different way. If you hear
those old Furtwängler
recordings with Berlin Philharmonic or also with Vienna, my God,
he did things and they loved
him. They did what they could, but this is if an
orchestra knows a conductor very well. They
have to have worked together for a long time. Sometimes you might
get a piece an orchestra knows very well, and they might play it
without a conductor. [Chuckles] Not so well, but they would
But if you try something, they follow because they like it!
BD: Is it easier
or harder to do a piece that is so
ingrained in the orchestra, rather than a new piece which you are
teaching them, or something they don't know very well?
different, ja, but it's more
of an adventure for my
taste. If you have a piece an orchestra doesn't
know, it's another kind of competition. You
study with them... No, they study with you, and you create it
in a certain way. But if you do very known symphonies, like
Brahms, you have to offer something. Otherwise the orchestra gets
BD: Do you have to
offer something new and different?
CT: No, you have
to offer your own personal point of
view, and that has to be convincing. It's not "don't look for
new". What can you do? My God! These
symphonies have been conducted millions of times, so what can you
do? You can offer your own personal way, and that might
be so that the orchestra likes it.
BD: You say that
you try some new things. Does your basic
concept of a work change from season to season?
CT: No. I
study if I have a new concert or a new opera
engagement coming up. I look to the score. I did many times
Rosenkavalier before I did it
at the Met, but I had the whole month of December off. I didn't
to have something to conduct, and I restudied the Rosenkavalier
score. I had done already two productions of
Rosenkavalier, and I know it
so well I can do it without
score, but I restudied it. I changed my concept because
I always felt that at certain points I wasn't satisfied with
BD: Do you get a
clean score and start
CT: I never write
something into my score. I never do that.
CT: Never. I
think your eye must be
fresh. You don't need to mark every third horn or the
oboe entrance. You should know the piece so well that you know
when the oboe is playing. You don't need to write "Ob" or "Cl" or
BD: ...for the
oboe or the clarinet or the
bassoon. But you wouldn't write something like "meno mosso"?
Then you always
have to look at the score. If a soloist is
playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto,
he plays it, obviously, without score. So a conductor very often
conducts with score, but he has to know the piece so well. It's a
kind of security to have it there. I did try it out for
myself. I did Tristan
I did Tannhäuser without
score, and I did Lohengrin
score. [Chuckles] It's a kind of
sport. If something happens, and it can always happen, even if
you feel very secure and are enjoying yourself... Maybe in the
orchestra they feel very
secure. "My God, we did that piece so many times," and then
BD: It all falls
CT: What are you
doing? What can
you do? You don't know the rehearsal numbers of the score.
I think Mitropoulos could've written down an
Elektra score page. Or
say; I don't know if that is really true. I cannot imagine that
somebody can really write the whole Elektra
score from memory. You conduct it and you know the major
things that are coming up, but if somebody asked, "Is that the second
bassoon or the third bassoon?" or, "Is he mezzo forte or piano?" you come very soon to a
certain point, and so why can't you have the score
BD: So most of the
time, then, you do use score?
CT: No, most of
the time I don't.
But for very difficult things, now I have always the scores right
there. You never know. For the
Rosenkavalier, I turn 40 pages
or 50 pages together.
But I have it in case something could happen and then you
have to shout, "Number one hundred!" It's so silly that you have
to prove to an orchestra
like the Met Orchestra or the Chicago Symphony or the Berlin
that you know the score. If you don't know the score, you are
conducting with your head buried in it, and they will complain.
You cannot just pretend to know it.
BD: Do you need the score
more for the
opera performances than you do for the symphony?
CT: No. I
had the normal German Kapellmeister career, which means that first you
are a coach, studying with more or
less intelligent people, and you learn quite well the
repertoire. I was three years in Berlin at
the Deutsche Oper, and I did more than 70 operas. I did works
Palestrina to L'enfant et les sortilèges
to Figaro, and also
Verdi. I wouldn't say that I know all of them
in the same way, but I had them under my fingers, as we
say. So if I have to do an opera now, I sometimes remember that I
studied it with her
or with him. If
you are a young conductor and you want to be an opera conductor, you
have to do that. If you do the Ring
or Meistersinger, and you
never did it
before and you didn't play it on the piano, you have really to study it
from the beginning. Do you know what that
means, studying Meistersinger
if you don't really know it??? My God!
BD: It's such an
pages! And don't talk about the Ring! You need months and
months and months. If you studied that with singers, you know
already when you are coming to a difficult point. It's very, very
important that you learn
to breathe with them. If you play it as coach, if you play
a whole staging, a whole production, then you find out. If
you conduct it you might be faster at some point, even if it
maybe goes a little bit against your personal point of view. But
have to help sometimes singers. You have also to follow them,
because what can
you do? If you insist on being slow in the first and
second acts, the tenor later has no voice. You want him to be
able to sing the third
act, so you have to compromise. If you do
symphony, you will not compromise so much, but
that is something you have to do. That's experience!
BD: In the
orchestra, though, if there's an incidental oboe solo, you have to make
that he has enough breath for that.
CT: Yeah, but
that's another kind of situation. Everybody is on stage, and it's
not like in opera where you
have in the pit an orchestra. Sometimes the orchestra in the pit
cannot hear very well, and they have to know it. Some very good
orchestras know the
pieces so well that they can follow. Sometimes you cannot conduct
everything, especially in Rosenkavalier.
those Walzer, sometimes you
have only to do something with
your arms, and they'll do it. You need a very good
Konzertmeister, and you need a
very good orchestra
to do that. But then they have that kind of Schlamperei, we say be a little bit
the tempo. You are together, but that has to be a little bit
free. That is very, very difficult.
BD: Do you also
make sure that you have a good prompter to rely
CT: Mmmmm, it
helps quite a lot, yeah. But you don't worry, though, because
most of the singers are very secure. Opera
conducting is more an adventure than concert conducting. And
don't forget a concert usually is from 8 to 10. An opera like Rosenkavalier begins maybe at 6 and
at 11. Tristan is
longer, and Götterdämmerung
is, my God, six hours!
BD: But then you
might get La bohème,
which is over in a snap.
CT: Yeah, but my
repertoire is the German, so that's normal for us! I don't like
to talk about money, but I get the same for Rosenkavalier
and a concert. You don't make music to
make money. That's not right, but an opera like Rosenkavalier is so exhausting that
imagine. You as a conductor have to get them all
together. Sometimes they are not very exact, and you must be
friendly since you have to keep it together — which
sometimes can be quite hard.
BD: It just
happens that we are meeting after a
concert. How should a conductor feel after a concert —
[Chuckles] Self-critical. [Hearty laughter] I enjoy
very much the things that were good and other things were very
good. Then maybe I think, "Hmm... you could've done
better." So I am always looking forward to tomorrow, and being
self-critical. If you are too secure, that's the
end. Never do so much that you cannot think about
the pieces you do. Sometimes, as is happening to me, you have
this offer and this offer, and
you have to go, go, travel, and that's hard! You come maybe to an
orchestra rehearsal and you are jet-lagged. That is not
good. You have to learn to say "No." That's the most
important thing you
have to learn in this profession, to say "No." Even
if everybody says, "But that is such an important engagement,"
everything will be
important. You have to make your own decisions because if you are
good, people will be friendly,
but they will not re-engage you again.
BD: With all the
offers that are coming in, how do you decide which concerts
you'll accept and which operas you'll accept?
CT: I always want
to have time off because for an artist, or for somebody who works hard
to get an
inspiration, it is very important to have a life which has maybe
nothing to do with conducting and music. You need to have time
to see friends and to have a family, or
to do whatever you want to do. You must have a sentimental life
the private things you can do. Go to
exhibitions, see other things, read! If
you're always with your scores, and you are worrying about next
week and the week after and being organized, you don't even read the
newspaper! You don't
know what's going on! That's sad for my taste.
BD: You need to
come back to the music refreshed.
CT: When I come
back, I'm really refreshed
and really looking forward to it. I
have more energy. If I do a
concert, I can really give everything I have. Maybe people
like it and they say, "Oh God, he's quite
wild." But I like to be wild. Sometimes
I know that I have several things coming up, but
then I have two or three weeks off. Then I don't do anything for
one week. I sleep, see friends,
come late home, go to wonderful restaurants, and really have a
life! It's very important that you can have wild nights to do
BD: East and West
Germany are coming back together, so this
obviously affects your personal life. Does this also affect your
CT: Not so
much. It has been a wonderful moment because half of my family
lives in ex-East
Germany, in Leipzig, so my family is part from Saxony
and it's an
influence. I grew up in West
Berlin, which doesn't exist anymore, and I'm very glad about
it. When I was a little child
standing at the Wall, I
saw that this is one city! It is one country. I was always
wondering about people who
said, "Oh, no, we have to accept that it's two countries, two
nationalities." I never understood that. East Germany tried
making out that Bach was the
first socialist. That was so silly that you could laugh!
You didn't, though, because it
was a tragedy! It was a tragedy! The biggest part of my
family, all the relatives of my
father, remained in Leipzig after the War. We had several
discussions with them and they said, "We didn't leave because first was
then Weimar, then Hitler, then Americans, then Russians." Things
became quite difficult. They really had trouble, but that is
something, that's an influence. You are
now so free to go to Dresden and to see those wonderful
things. It is a country, it is one country. There's one
mentality, and nobody can tell me that we West Germans are so different
from the East Germans.
BD: How does that
affect your music making, if at all?
CT: [Pondering a
moment] Maybe you feel it's another color.
You cannot describe it. You are not faster or
slower, but if you have a very nice moment in your life, or an
overwhelming moment in your life, you
certainly do music in another way. Maybe it's more
intense. I don't know, but I
couldn't say that I changed an interpretation because of the
reunification. Sometimes you have certain
imaginations you think about. I remember in my position in
Nürnberg, we did Beethoven 9
on Reunification Day, and that was wonderful. It was at midnight
of October 2 to October 3. I went
for the celebration; I went to Berlin because I wanted to be
there. I had the general
rehearsal in the morning of October 2, and I went home. I was at
the Brandenburg Gate, and you never forget this moment. Then I
went back the next morning and in the evening I had the Beethoven 9.
That is something very special, because you
conduct it in a kind of trance. The reunification will never
happen again, so it's such a... you cannot describe that.
So a piece like Beethoven 9
maybe becomes something... [snaps fingers] I don't know.
BD: But now, if
someone is listening to a tape of that particular performance from the
distance of several months or a couple of years, or
ten years or twenty years, would it be as special for them, or would it
another Beethoven 9?
CT: I don't know;
they have to decide
it. Sometimes, if you
are on stage conducting or playing, you might have a
very good feeling. Or you might have a bad feeling. You
might say, "My God, it's tonight," and people might say, "Ohh, it was
wonderful!" In those moments, I
feel always not well because
I'm very self-critical. But after the
performance, a friend might ask, "What happened in the third
was a lack of tension, but you didn't feel it. So it is very
different from that what you feel and what the
public feels. It is not the same.
BD: Should it be
CT: I think it
cannot be the same. It would be interesting to know, as a
conductor or as a performer, what the
public really thinks, but you cannot because you are involved, very
involved; and if you become very involved, you have to do with
yourself. It's enough to do. You have to
keep them together. You do the accelerando
you want; that's interpretation. Coming back to what you asked me
earlier, you must have a frame for
your interpretation. That's the idea you
have with the architecture of the piece. However, in the frame,
like in a
kaleidoscope, you can change a little bit, but the whole idea should be
the same. A free interpretation doesn't mean that you're going to
do silly things without sense.
That is something I
BD: So you always
start at the same place. Do you end
in the same place and get there different ways, or do you end in
CT: It could
happen that I end in different places. For example, in the last
Beethoven 5, you have
three times this "Da, da, daaa, da da-da-da-da dum." So what are
you going to do with it? I do the first one rather slow, and I do
every time a little bit faster. It should not be a real
accelerando, but it should
lead right to the end. You
could do it differently. It's not that it is the only way.
You might have another idea on the evening. It happens to me that
sometimes I have just in this moment another idea. Then I do it,
and maybe later you find out it didn't lead where you wanted. But
that is the adventure of being a
musician, of being a Musikant.
not only Musiker, that is Musikant, to be a kind
of free spirit. Do it! If you work with an orchestra, don't
talk about it. Do it!
BD: Just do it.
CT: Yeah, just do
it! You cannot explain to the Chicago Symphony a
Beethoven symphony. They will
look at you, and after five minutes they will say, "Why
doesn't he really do it?" They will say, "Do it!
BD: But if you're
working with a considerably lesser orchestra, do you have to do more
it depends on the level. If you are working really with a
bad orchestra, that means that you have to explain everything.
Fortunately I don't have to work really with bad
orchestras. But you have to see what are
they offering. Every orchestra has a
different music director, so they very often have a different kind of
staccato, or they have a
different kind of accelerando
sometimes... Little things, you know, and you cannot pretend,
with two or three rehearsals, that
you can change the sound completely. I grew up in
Berlin listening to Berlin Philharmonic with
Karajan. So if somebody else came... I know somebody who
jumped in for a Brahms 4.
I don't say the name, but it was the
Karajan Brahms 4.
BD: They didn't have time
to re-rehearse the orchestra.
CT: No, because
certainly, if they have 20 years with Karajan and the kind
of sound he liked, you cannot
change it in two rehearsals. [Photo
at left - Thielemann seated at the piano with Karajan in 1982]
BD: What if
someone had come for a full week or even two weeks
of rehearsals and performances?
CT: You have to
choose, and that is the kind of experience I was talking about.
You learn that if you work with
singers, and if you work also with not-so-good orchestras. If you
have not so much time, you have to
choose the right places. With an intelligent orchestra, if you
say in the first movement, "Give me that legato, and do it this way, "
and if you show that with your hands, then maybe in
the third movement, if something similar comes and you do the
of gestures, they will think, "Aha! He wants that legato in the
first movement; let's try to do it again." You can get this if
you work with very intelligent people. Something I admired so
much with Karajan was that
he sometimes conducted with just his little finger, and out came the
most beautiful things. But that is if an orchestra knows a
years and years and years and years, and did the repertoire so many
BD: So he's not
really conducting, he's just reminding them.
CT: In a certain
way, but that's wonderful! But that is only happening if there is
a really long collaboration, and I think an orchestra has
also to like the interpretation. They like doing that.
Listen to the old Furtwängler recordings. How much must the
Berlin Philharmonic have loved
Furtwängler to do those accelerandi
in the Brahms symphonies. There are incredible things they
did when they were together because
they knew what he wanted after so many years!
BD: Do you feel
that anything you are doing these days is incredible?
Nothing's incredible. I think
always about the Brahms Requiem,
and the phrase alles
Fleisch es ist wie Gras. "You are like grass," so don't
think that you are terribly important.
BD: You don't feel
you are important?
CT: [Thinks a
moment] The music is the most important thing. We are all
people who have to do with music, and we have to be so grateful.
You must have so much respect. Poor Beethoven! What did he
have for life? He had a terrible
life, and we are making our careers and our good life with his
music or with Wagner's music! We are in such a wonderful
situation, so we always need to be reminded and
think about that. For a certain period we have a
life. Maybe we will be very old — 80 years
or 90 or
we might be hundred years, or it might be over after 50 years or over
after 40 years! Always be grateful for that what you can
do. It's so wonderful to conduct a Beethoven symphony; this
wonderful music, and you can command! That's wonderful!
Isn't that enough? [Laughter]
BD: I guess it
should be! Are you at the point of your career now where
you think you
CT: Where should
it be? Mmmm. I don't think about that. I am grateful
things I get. I haven't got a plan. I want to make music
as good as I can.
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] So you'll just let it happen?
CT: Hmm... I
let it happen.
CT: I'm not
terribly jealous. I am not jealous
at all. Sometimes I'm sad if I hear that concerts are not nice,
or are not good and
are not filled. But there is
so much work to do and so many wonderful
positions! You cannot say, "Oh, I
have to be there." Certainly
I have very much time. I'm 33 years old and
I have really much time to think about having a very important
position. Let's see what happens!
BD: I wish you
lots of continued success!
BD: So far,
you've made one recording with Kollo. Are there other
recordings coming out?
CT: No, not now.
That's the very strange thing — I haven't
been contacted by recording companies. I don't know
why that didn't happen, but sometimes people say that I'm
so difficult. I had a wild period. In Berlin we say
"Berliner Schnauzer," and that
means the "Berlin mouth" which can
open. Maybe you are not very psychological,
but that has nothing to do with a recording company. Sometimes
you have to be at the right moment at the right
place, and somebody will meet you. But there are so many
recordings you can buy, and I think
I would really like to say something. I don't know, at 33 years
aren't you too
young to say something to be recorded? I remember Karajan saying
recordings were done when he was my age. They did a
Meistersinger Overture and he
said later, "My God! I think I was drunk when I did that."
There are sometimes
a little bit too many recordings for my taste. Go to a record
shop and you see Beethoven symphonies with everybody. Maybe you
have your personal choice.
BD: You don't want
to be among those choices, then, at this
CT: I don't know
I am really so mature to have much to say right now, that it is
worth to be recorded. I might be, but if I do
something, I would really try to say something so that people think,
"That is not new, but that is very special." I try always to find
some tempi, so it might be
controversial, but that's good because I think
people should choose between different
interpretations! I'm speaking
now about the old masters like Klemperer or
Furtwängler. Furtwängler is certainly the conductor I
admire the most, but if you listen to
Beethoven 5 with Toscanini,
with Furtwängler, with Klemperer, with
Bruno Walter, and with Fritz Busch, you have five really different
interpretations! That is something wonderful! I think it
should be today in the same way. I don't say that is, and
certainly you have many different interpretations, but if
I add mine, it should be not different, but it should be
shouldn't say after listening to it, "So we can buy also Solti, or we
can buy also..." I would like them to say, "My God, maybe we hate
it! He's so slow, or he's so fast," but that's something; people
are talking about that. I don't like to have an
interpretation. No, it has to be mature; you have
to have lots of experience. Why did the old masters do such great
Beethoven symphonies? Because they have been
done so often! Look how many times
Furtwängler conducted Beethoven symphonies before he made the
recordings. That was very late. It was really the right
time. The things we
know now from the late '30s and '40s, or the '50s before he died,
really he was a mature conductor! He
was certainly wonderful when he was 30 or when he was 25, but maybe not
that mature to listen
to a Beethoven 9th like when
they reopened the
Bayreuth Festival. That is something. He had conducted it
100 times! So you have
that kind of Überblick.
That can only to happen from your heart; that's a
miracle! Not everything should be recorded, for my taste, a
certainly there are
things which are not recorded right now, which should be recorded.
CT: Ja, certain repertoire. But
who's going to
listen to all those records? We don't
even know what all you can have! If you
look the catalog...
BD: It's enormous!
CT: My God!
Sometimes we don't even know the composers. Let's be honest
— sometimes there are
Baroque composers we don't even know, and they have a complete
edition of all his violin concertos! Maybe they
are very important, but have we got
the time to hear that? It's very important that they
exist, but you will never have, really, an overview so that you really
know which you prefer. We have only a certain time on Earth to
live. We cannot spend our whole time trying
to read everything about Goethe, or everything about
Shakespeare, or everything about Wagner. That would be
boring, so we choose! Maybe we have the right choice, but maybe
don't. Maybe we take this book, or maybe we
should go three inches to the left and we would find
something else. Also your personal taste changes... [pauses
to ponder all of this]
BD: Thank you for
coming to Chicago, and thank you for speaking with me today. Danke schön.
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© 1993 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in the library of the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra on March 12, 1993.
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB in 1994, 1995, and 1999. This
made and posted on this
website in 2012.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.