Bass-baritone Quasthoff recounts his remarkable experience overcoming severe physical disability to become one of the world’s most celebrated classical singers.
Born in Germany in 1939, he was among the thousands of infants crippled by the drug thalidomide, administered to pregnant women to assuage morning sickness. Quasthoff’s hands protrude from his upper body like flippers, and he stands 4’3” on stumpy, jointless legs. He spent the first three years of his life in a clinic before being released to his parents in a plaster body cast. They promptly discarded it, determinedly devoting themselves to teaching their son to walk and to get by without special treatment. The author credits their tough love for his astonishing success, and he emulates that stance in his autobiography. Deliberately scanting the human-interest angle, he relates his adventures in chummy prose that expresses no consciousness of disability. When the family discovered his musical talent, he recalls, his father couldn’t keep from grinning while admonishing the six-year-old for showing off. Denied admission to a music academy because he couldn’t play an instrument, Quasthoff took private singing lessons, studied law, did radio voiceovers and experimented in cabaret and jazz. He gave concerts throughout Germany in schools, churches and community halls during the 1980s, winning a few small prizes. He hit the big time in 1988, when he won the ARD International Music Competition, “one of the most famous forums for young musicians in the world.” Since then, Quasthoff has worked with conductors Colin Davis, Helmuth Rilling, Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle, specializing in romantic lied with successful forays into opera, and has won three Grammies for his recordings. Discoursing on his personal music philosophy, he avers that spontaneity trumps established interpretation and technique is overrated. Nonetheless, he’s a crusader for high art, bluntly terming Andrea Bocelli’s work “rubbish” and the Three Tenors’s success “corporate strategy.”
Playful and humorous in tone, this inspirational story prompts admiration for the author’s intellect and integrity, rather than facile tears for his condition.