We live in a time of scrutiny for the moral flaws of artists – even, or perhaps especially those whose creations we admire. And for a few classical musicians, the gap between sublime work and shameful deeds is greater than conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler’s.
Seized with a sublime belief in the power of music and supernaturally capable of convincing listeners of this power, Furtwängler led Beethoven and Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner with possessive power, as if he alone could reveal their deepest psychological and even spiritual secrets.
Sometimes it seems that he could. With his expressive and flexible approach to tempo and dynamics, Furtwängler breathed the structure of an entire piece into every bar, making every bar the sound of improvisation. Ask me to show you what the meaning of a conductor is, what he can achieve, and I would point you to Furtwängler’s recording.
The problem is that Adolf Hitler also pointed to him. For Hitler, Furtwängler was the supreme representative of sacred German art; To the satisfaction of the Nazis, he served – in fact, if not in name – as the chief conductor of the Third Reich.
There are many complications. Furtwängler never joined the Nazi Party, and after his initial protests over the expulsion of Jewish musicians and the weakening of his artistic control were resolved in favor of the Nazis in 1935, he found ways to distance himself from the regime, not least because of its race. politicians. His performances with the Berlin Philharmonic and at the Bayreuth Festival immediately served the Reich and helped those who sought to survive, even opposed it.
“At Furtwängler’s concerts, we all become one family of resistance fighters,” said one Nazi adversary.
Nevertheless, Joseph Goebbels had no doubt that Furtwängler, as he put it, was “worth the effort.” Furtwängler avoided conducting in occupied countries, but, for example, headed the Berlin Philharmonic in Oslo a week before the German invasion of Norway in April 1940. He refused to conduct during the rallies in Nuremberg, but was satisfied that he performed directly in front of them, including: in 1938 with the Vienna State Opera immediately after the Anschluss.
Whatever significant help Furtwängler offered to those in need, he was tarnished. Given the cover he offered to the “devil’s regime,” émigré conductor Bruno Walter asked him after World War II, “What is the significance of your help in individual cases with several Jews?”
Snappy enough during Furtwängler’s lifetime – when protests forced him to resign from positions he was offered at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936 and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1949 – debate erupted after his death in 1954.
Time has brought distance, reconciliation and exploration. The musicians took up the Furtwängler case, led by Daniel Barenboim. The books rehabilitated the former employee. In one, written by Fred Pryberg, Furtwängler was declared a “double agent”; another, written by Sam Shirakawa, described him absurdly, as if he were Dietrich Bonhoeffer with a club.
There was record after record – mostly archived radio broadcasts, some of extraordinary quality. Unfortunately, during the war, Furtwängler proved himself to be the most visionary, speaking to an Aryan audience at the helm of the purified Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
However, these wartime recordings only added to the Furtwängler puzzle. Was the frantic Beethoven Ninth he gave in Berlin in March 1942 an act of resistance, a burnt sound? Or was it further evidence that the “fate of the Germans” was “to unite things that seemed impossible to unite,” as he put it in 1937?
“German music proves,” he continued then, “that the Germans have achieved such victories before.” Hitler apparently thought so. Furtwängler was filmed shaking hands with Goebbels after being forced to play the Führer’s birthday symphony a month later.
Despite our current environment, the temptation remains to overcome these difficulties rather than confront them again. This seems to be the basis of the new Warner Classics 55 CD set, which bills itself as “The Complete Recorded Wilhelm Furtwängler”.
The box, designed with the help of Stephan Topakian, former vice president of Société Wilhelm Furtwängler, a French organization founded in 1969, is a rare collection of old Warner and Universal catalogs. He takes listeners from the first timid recordings of Furtwängler Weber and Beethoven in 1926, through classical recordings such as his Sixth Book of Tchaikovsky in 1938 and his Ninth Book of Beethoven in 1951, to the lofty Die Walküre, which he recorded a month before his death.
Listen to the box, and if you’re left wondering if the microphones ever actually picked up Furtwängler’s carefully calibrated dynamics and seemingly out of depth, you’ll still find ample, magnificent evidence of his famous long line, his ability to make judgments consistent. You also discover that he was not at all the invariably slow, monumental conductor he is often remembered for. In his “Idyll of Siegfried” there is a touching warmth, in Haydn – tenderness and charm, in living Mozart – greatness.
A lost world is felt everywhere, a style of conducting that goes back to Richard Wagner, who, with his deliberate inaccuracies and the privilege of the perceived spirit of music over its textual details, strives for something completely different from what the maestro does. Today.
What the Warner box is not, however, is a fully registered Furtwängler. His discography has always been the subject of controversy, as has his controversial attitude towards the environment, but Warner confined himself to his studio efforts and live recordings, which he made with the explicit purpose of commercial sale.
Ironically, these criteria led to the inclusion of recordings that Furtwängler chose not to release, such as Walküre and Götterdämmerung from The Ring, which he directed in London in 1937. And the myriad of live recordings left out, even those that previously appeared on Warner and Universal, including his rage through Strauss’s Metamorphosen in 1947; his astounding Ring for Italian radio in 1953; his devastating, distraught tales of the Third and Fourth Brahms; and almost all of his mystical Bruckner.
Perhaps this decision is not too difficult when you consider that the exclusion of all but a few live cassettes means a dedication of fewer than two discs to the war that defines the period of Furtwängler’s life. The timeline shown in the footnotes, in the present tense, modestly states that he “limits his activities” during the war years, although he considers himself “obliged to participate in certain official activities.” Topakian, curator of the lodge, writes that the post-war Beethoven Seventh in Vienna presents Furtwängler “in its purest form,” while the intensity of his 1942 Berlin report “has nothing to do with work.” Some amnesia plays a role here.
But as often as Furtwängler proclaimed himself an apolitical artist, his conservative, nationalist worldview was never separated from his conducting, as musicologist Roger Allen showed – even after 1945, when most of the recordings in the Warner box were made.
Furtwängler was born into the family of a professor of archeology and an artist in 1886. As a child, he considered himself a waiting Beethoven. But reviews of his early writings were harsh; the historian Chris Walton found that he did not return to writing in earnest until the mid-1930s, when Nazi cultural policies dealt a blow to modernism and gave way to its endless, quasi-Brucknerian wanderings.
Furtwängler did not meet as much resistance as the guide. After a number of secondary positions, especially in Mannheim, in 1922 he became Principal Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, later resigning from a post in Leipzig at the Vienna Philharmonic.
During this period, Furtwängler developed an aesthetic that has an uncomfortable resonance today. His propaganda for the indomitable superiority of German art was an important part of this – even if he led Schoenberg despite his hatred of modernity. But his methods of analyzing scores and even his theory of conducting were expressed in chauvinistic language. He wrote that music should not be banned – that is, “unless it is a clear case of rubbish, kitsch, or anti-state cultural Bolshevism.”
The rise of conducting styles that challenged him – most notably the textual literalism of his rival, Arturo Toscanini – confirmed for him that the Weimar Republic was Germany in crisis. Despite his disagreements with the Nazis, it seems likely that he, like most conservatives, hailed their seizure of power as a return to an authoritarian, Wilhelminian past – a process by which art, which he believed to be less, would be cut out.
This worldview persisted even after Furtwängler fled Germany in early 1945 after warning Albert Speer of threats to his safety and after he was acquitted during the 1946 denazification. As early as 1947, he still hailed the “organic excellence” of German symphonists; two years later, he denounced the “biological insufficiency” of atonality.
Nor did Furtwängler back down from grandiose claims about the power of music and his role as its savior. Surprisingly, he thought it prudent to write to colleagues in 1947 that “a single performance of a truly great German piece of music was inherently a stronger, more substantial denial of the spirit of Buchenwald and Auschwitz than all words.”
Warner’s box makes it clear that he worked wonders in the post-war years, including the harrowing formalism of his Gluck overtures; the complete revelation of his Fourth Schumann; heavenly storm “Fidelio”; and Tristan und Isolde, which has remained unrivaled since its 1953 recording.
But just as Furtwängler was naive, claiming towards the end of the war that he was proof that a “completely unbroken nation” was still alive and well, that he had guided Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner through the conflict unscathed, so that would be naive. think of these later interpretations as something different from what came before.
And the dangers associated with Furtwängler’s legacy are still present in classical music today: the myth he immortalized about exceptional genius; the idea that Beethoven or Brahms are unhindered “universal” in their art and influence; the false ideal that music soars above politics is invariably unblemished. As for the man himself, the enduring power of Furtwängler’s artistry is evidenced by the fact that we still demand so much from him morally – more, for example, than from Herbert von Karajan, who joined the Nazi party, or Karl Bem, who welcomed Hitler from podium.
Chris Walton, a historian, suggested that given all his intellectual and aesthetic affinity for the Nazis, perhaps the question to be asked is not how it used to be, why he stayed in Germany. Perhaps this is why this man, who, as Walton writes, “was almost“ destined ”to become a model for Nazism,” did not do it — not quite so. There remains a glimpse of light for him and for us.