André Rieu on his journey to becoming classical music's biggest-selling star violinist
Clemency Burton-Hill meets the ever popular Dutch violinist André Rieu at his castle in Maastricht, to find out how the son of a conductor became classical music's 'King of the Waltz' – and one of the industry's top earners
The cake, like everything about André Rieu, is larger than life. Resplendent with fat sticky gooseberries and collapsing under a mountain of whipped cream, it is proffered with a smile and an assurance that this is his ‘favourite cake of all’. The 68-year-old Dutch violinist orders it from a specialist baker in Maastricht, his home town, and eats a slice, religiously, each day at 3pm. ‘Without the cake,’ he tells me with mock earnestness, ‘I am nothing.’
If a daily dose of gooseberry cake is the secret of his success, it is surely working. Rieu is a phenomenon, no other word for it. The kitchen table at which we are eating is located in a castle dating from 1452. Legend has it that musketeer Charles d’Artagnan, inspiration for the literary hero Being famous? It’s nothing. Whether I’m on stage, here in my garden or buying sugar from the local shop – it’s me of the same name, enjoyed his last meal in this very room before getting it in the neck at the Siege of Maastricht. Rieu has lived here with Marjorie, his wife of 42 years, since 2000. (They have two sons and five grandchildren.) He’d visited the castle, perched atop a narrow road overlooking the River Maas, in childhood and later thought it would be nice to own it. Now he does, making adjustments as he goes. On the wintry day on which I visit, a wall is covered in scaffolding, while monastery-style cloisters have recently been completed to elegant effect. There’s a butterfly house and a pond filled with enormous koi carp.
If the notion of a modern classical musician living in a private castle among giant fish smacks of a certain fantastical grandeur, in person Rieu could hardly be more grounded or more charming. No, he laughs, he doesn’t wake up every morning, look in the mirror and say ‘oh there he is, the global phenomenon!’ At last count he has sold around 45 million records and is not only the best-selling classical artist of all time but the biggest solo male touring artist in the world. Nonetheless, he insists, ‘I’m exactly the same. Whether I’m on stage, here in my garden or buying sugar from the local shop – it’s me. Everything in life is relative. Being famous? It’s nothing: it’s something we have created in our head. So I’m on TV; so people on the street sometimes recognise me – why should that mean I’m different? It doesn’t. It would be stupid to think that just because I have sold a lot of CDs I’m better than anybody else.’
As well as the cake, there’s the charisma, which is palpable the instant Rieu arrives in a room. It is impossible, too, to miss the twinkling blue eyes and hyper-expressive eyebrows – which, he admits, play a key role in his live shows. (When you’re performing to tens of thousands of people, there are a lot of big screens transmitting huge images of your face around the arena.) ‘For me, performance is all about contact with my audience. And you can connect with everyone, even 15,000 of them. I play a lot with my face, and with every eyebrow raised I feel how they react.’
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I suspect Rieu’s famously lustrous and animated hair might also further his communicative powers. When it comes to the pantheon of magnificent musical barnets – think Rattle, Isserlis, Dudamel – he could give any of his follically-blessed colleagues a run for their money. But that may be the only instance in which Rieu is compared to such luminaries. Classical music as an industry remains suspicious of mainstream commercial success: to many purists, Rieu’s breathtaking popularity – in ticket sales he is bigger than Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay and AC/DC – automatically invalidates any claim he might make to credibility.
Yet there is no denying the authenticity and passion with which he approaches his music-making. Son of an orchestral conductor, he had initially been introduced to the piano, which he disliked, and was aged five when his mother noticed that he had hands that might be better suited to the violin. It was love at first listen. ‘The violin immediately spoke to me,’ he says. ‘The sound, up close, of my teacher’s vibrato: I was flabbergasted. I wanted to have that sound.’ Within three weeks he had apparently mastered his own style: to this day, a loose and luscious vibrato remains one of his trademarks. ‘It always felt very instinctive,’ he notes.
For all the Rieu household was music-filled, it was staunchly Catholic and by no means idyllic. ‘I had a very unhappy childhood,’ he tells me frankly. ‘My parents were very severe – they told me off for being cheerful all the time; they told me I would come to nothing in life. My mother used to say: you must never look people in the eye, it’s very rude.’ He looks at me, this walking human advertisement for eye-contact, and gives a cheeky shrug as if to say ‘oh well’. Was the violin an ally against his miserable upbringing? ‘The violin was part of my body, my life,’ he muses. ‘Exactly as it is now. But they were not proud of me, my parents. My father never encouraged me or my siblings. I think they were afraid of my happiness, my openness.’
Still, it was working under the baton of his father, whilst leading the second violins of the Maastricht Symphony Orchestra, that set him on his path. ‘After a single day of being an orchestral musician, I thought: this is not my life,’ he recalls. ‘And I would watch these great soloists like Menuhin or David Oistrakh, and then five metres or so behind them would be “the shadow”, usually the wife, and I knew: I don’t want that solo life either, being alone, all “look at me”. From that very first day my dream was to have my own orchestra.’
The dream turned into lavish reality. Rieu’s Johann Strauss Orchestra, so-named after his musical idol, is the world’s largest private ensemble. It celebrated its 30th anniversary this year with a series of spectacular concerts in Maastricht’s medieval town square, attended by over 100,000 people who had come from more than 80 countries including Fiji and Australia. (Maastricht was an arduous enough trip from London’s St Pancras, with multiple train and car journeys!) In contrast to orchestral musicians the world over, who often complain of being overworked, underpaid and undervalued, Rieu’s musicians appear to be treated inordinately well. They’re accompanied on tour by a professional chef and fitness instructor, while their buses are custom-made for comfort by Mercedes-Benz. Orchestral members who are parents can benefit from the services of a private kindergarten. Rieu also owns his own recording studio, production and events company, and stage and costume atelier. In 1987 he began by convincing 12 plucky players to come with him for the ride: ‘I had no money to promise them, no nothing, but they arrived at this school, which didn’t have any heating, to rehearse with me’. He now has over 110 people on the fixed payroll and another 100 or so work with him on a freelance basis. ‘That is a huge responsibility,’ he says. ‘I take it seriously. Some of them have been with me for 30 years, when they could have gone anywhere else. I’m very proud of that.’
The orchestra collaborates with him on everything – not just the concert extravaganzas but the studio recordings and record-breaking cinema relays (in 2015 and 2016, broadcasts of their annual Maastricht concerts were the highest grossing cinema event of the year, raking in more than £1m in a single night). Rieu is relaxed when it comes to labels: he doesn’t worry whether something counts as pop or classical, folk or jazz. ‘I want to tear those walls down,’ he laughs. ‘For me there is only good and bad music. And bad music is music without heart. Why do we play music? To touch somebody; not to show off how good we are. One of the encores we do is “Falling in Love” by Elvis. It’s such a special moment, when you see the audience singing along. I am listening out all the time. Even a snatch of something I hear on the street: if a melody grabs my heart I know I must play it.’
It is perhaps this unapologetic love for the music that, above all, Rieu’s devoted fans respond to – especially when news headlines can make our world feel increasingly un-wonderful. Rieu is convinced by the positive impact music that can have. ‘As long as there is music we can continue to hope for happiness, love and the chance of peace,’ he has said. So what does ‘amore’ mean to him? ‘It means everything. Love is everything. I am a positive man, and I can’t help thinking that we are better now than we have been, that there is progress. There is a tendency to say the world is going downhill and we only talk about death and negative things. But I don’t think so. We are growing, we are advancing, and music can play a huge role in human progress.’ Even if the impact is measured person by person, it matters. ‘People come to my concerts and they tell me they can’t believe how happy they are afterwards,’ he grins. ‘It can take them two weeks to come back down to earth.’
Clemency Burton-Hill is the creative director of New York Public Radio, an interviewer for BBC Music Magazine and the host of BBC Radio 3's Classical Fix and WNYC's The Open Ears Project. Before moving to the US, she was one of the BBC's main presenters of classical music coverage, presenting the BBC Proms and BBC Young Musician coverage. She is also the author of Year of Wonder: Classical Music for Every Day.