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About Wilhelm Furtwängler
Although he took up the baton mainly for practical reasons and originally hoped to focus on composing, Wilhelm Furtwängler is remembered as one of the 20th century's most important, most argued-about conductors. The quasi-Brucknerian music he wrote is now of merely passing interest; Furtwängler was a truly personal, original artist only on the podium. He approached performing as a way of re-composing someone else's work, reconstituting it with a strong infusion of the performer's own ideas and personality. At their worst, Furtwängler's performances could sound mannered, full of sudden, seemingly unmotivated tempo shifts. At their best-and, on CD, these instances greatly outnumber Furtwängler's failures -- his performances abounded with unexpected but illuminating touches that generated moment-to-moment thrills while clarifying the music's grand architectural scheme. General acceptance of such an intensely personal approach to performance waned toward the end of Furtwängler's career, and "objectivity" and "textual fidelity" were the bywords in the three decades following his death. Yet Furtwängler's originality gradually came to be valued again, and his recordings are now widely recognized as bracing alternatives to the precise, respectful, but largely interchangeable performances of symphonic music common today.
Furtwängler's aesthetic values were very much of the 19th century. He was brought up in a cultivated, intellectual, liberal household. His father was a noted archaeologist, his mother was an accomplished painter, and instead of attending regular schools the gifted boy was privately tutored by an archaeologist, a sculptor, and an art historian-musicologist. He grew up in Munich, near the open countryside, so he was able to balance his intellectual interests with an enthusiasm for swimming, skiing, and other outdoor sports. Under the circumstances, it was only natural that he develop into a German nationalist -- most assuredly not a National Socialist, as his ambiguous relationship with the Nazi government would later lead people to assume, but a person who deeply believed that the most profound expression of human grace, intellect, and spirituality was manifested in German arts and letters. This was a matter purely of aesthetics, emphatically not of politics, for Furtwängler naively believed that the two realms could and must remain absolutely separate. His unrealistic high-mindedness would protect him through much of the Nazi era, but would also taint him as a collaborator and damage his career outside of Germany during the last 20 years of his life.
The decades leading up to that period, though, found Furtwängler rising quickly to the highest rank of the conducting profession. Furtwängler did not achieve this success without some regret. He started composing when he was seven, and within ten years he had produced many substantial works, including a symphony, a big choral setting of Goethe's "Die Erste Walpurgisnacht," and several chamber compositions. The young man turned to conducting as a surer means of income, and through an obvious desire to perform his own works. His Munich concert debut at age 20 included his own Adagio for large orchestra as well as Anton Bruckner's "Symphony No. 9." Still, Furtwängler's intentions were not merely mercenary; he had an honest desire to interpret other's compositions, especially Beethoven's. From the beginning, he approached all his musical work from a composer's point of view, and neglected the more mundane matters of technique. Furtwängler was a passable pianist, but little of his musical training had anything to do with performance. He had studied privately with composers Josef Rheinberger and Max von Schillings, but failed to pick up the podium basics. To the end of his life, his beat was so circular and vague that musicians would joke that the only way you could know when the downbeat had arrived was when Furtwängler's baton was level with the third button on his waistcoat -- no matter which direction the stick went from there.
Gangly and awkward, with his extremely long neck and chronically unkempt appearance (except in concert) producing a comic effect, Furtwängler nevertheless built his career steadily. From 1905, he moved up through a series of posts at provincial opera theaters: Breslau, Zürich, Munich, Strasbourg, Lübeck, and, through World War I, Mannheim. He also took over concert series from Willem Mengelberg in Frankfurt and Richard Strauss with the Berlin Opera Orchestra. The death of conductor Arthur Nikisch in 1922 left two important posts open: the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic. Furtwängler inherited them both. He remained with the Leipzig Orchestra for six seasons, but would maintain ties with the Berlin Philharmonic to the end of his life. At about this same time he also began an equally long and close association with the Vienna Philharmonic.
The early to mid-'20s were the great turning point of Furtwängler's life. He was so busy as a performer that he would not have the time to compose anything of consequence until the late '30s. Yet from 1920 to 1935 he did study with the influential music theorist Heinrich Schenker. If this work was of little immediate use to Furtwängler as a composer, it did give him insights into the deep structures of the music he performed. While immersing himself in Schenker's method of harmonic analysis, Furtwängler was simultaneously carrying on a German performance tradition that began with Richard Wagner in the 1840s and continued through Nikisch, Furtwängler's immediate predecessor in Berlin. According to this tradition, the conductor was, in effect, a collaborator with the composer, fleshing out each score with a hundred modifications of tempo, voicing, and emphasis unique to the conductor's understanding of the music. Furtwängler, more than any of his contemporaries, was melding Wagnerian precepts concerning the performer's influence on the drama of each individual phrase with Schenkerian concepts of the music's inherent overall form.
Wagner had promulgated his theory of performance as a direct rebuke to the conducting of Felix Mendelssohn. The latter composer-conductor preferred to maintain an unvaried and usually speedy tempo through the major sections of a movement, striving for accuracy and clarity, and allowing the score to speak for itself without undue coloring from the performer. Mendelssohn's approach established a lineage of its own, and found its greatest proponent in Arturo Toscanini. Naturally, Toscanini and Furtwängler were set up by the critics of their time as great antipodal rivals. The two conductors each privately criticized the other's work, but they remained on cordial terms until politics intervened in the '30s.
When Furtwängler made his debut with the New York Philharmonic -- Toscanini's orchestra -- in 1925, New York critics who were then forming the "cult of objectivity" around Toscanini decried Furtwängler's wayward performances. Still, the concerts were a popular success, and Furtwängler was re-engaged for further guest appearances. The New York relationship ended in 1927, however, because of critical caviling and Furtwängler's refusal -- or awkward inability -- to curry favor with the Philharmonic board. In 1936, Toscanini himself would suggest that Furtwängler succeed him as the Philharmonic's music director, but protesters intervened and Furtwängler never conducted in the United States after those initial seasons in the '20s.
By 1936, New York's anti-Furtwängler camp had more to complain about than the composer's subjective performances. Furtwängler had failed to understand the menace of Nazism, and while other leading musicians were fleeing Germany either as a matter of conscience or to save their lives, Furtwängler naively believed he could do more good by remaining at his Berlin post. He maintained that art was a matter entirely separate from politics, and that his nation needed someone like him to maintain the great German artistic traditions during this period of upheaval. In other words, he thought of his concerts as an infinitely nobler sort of morale-boosting U.S.O. show for German civilians. "Music transports (people) to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm," he claimed, a remark that could come only from someone preoccupied with the life of the mind.
Toscanini recommended that Furtwängler succeed him as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1936, but the same New York pressures that had kept him out of America a decade before, coupled with the German government's threat that if Furtwängler took up residency in another country, he would never be allowed to perform in his homeland again, caused the conductor to turn down the offer. This led Furtwängler into an argument with Toscanini, several months later at the Salzburg Festival, over the ability to separate art from politics. The Italian conductor, by then a high-profile anti-Fascist, declared that by remaining in Germany and currying favor with the authorities, Furtwängler was as good as a Nazi himself, and broke permanently with his German counterpart.
Furtwängler's decade-long dithering over how to deal with German fascism can be traced to a flaw in his personality that had nothing to do with politics. Throughout his life, Furtwängler found himself at the mercy of his indecisive, vacillating nature. To some extent, this made his performances spontaneous by default, because little had been settled during rehearsal; he sometimes made no effort to clarify his desires for the orchestra. His comments could be as vague as his beat. Gregor Piatigorsky, who had been the Berlin Philharmonic's principal cellist before becoming a prominent soloist, included in his memoirs this description of a Furtwängler rehearsal: "Furtwängler, after pleading with the orchestra, `Gentlemen, this phrase must be -- it must -- it must -- you know what I mean -- please try again -- please,' said to me at the intermission, `You see how important it is for a conductor to convey his wishes clearly?' Strangely, the orchestra knew what he wanted." Similarly, Furtwängler was able to bumble his way into the good graces of Hitler's circle. After all, only a few years into the regime, he was the sole internationally celebrated conductor left in Germany, and the Third Reich needed Furtwängler for its propaganda purposes.
Furtwängler's correspondence with the political authorities today seems equivocal, employing a few Nazi buzzwords and conceding many points, even while demanding artistic autonomy or making a stand for composer Paul Hindemith, who had run afoul of the Nazis. And his efforts to protect the Berlin Philharmonic's Jewish musicians ultimately came to little, though not for lack of trying. (During the war, BBC employees found themselves deluged with German refugee musicians brandishing glowing letters of recommendation from Furtwängler, whether the musicians were any good or not.) Furtwängler tried to separate himself from the regime while still ensuring his ability to make music. With three exceptions, he refused to conduct in occupied countries; he protested beginning a concert in Vienna until the swastika banners -- "those rags" -- were removed; and he adopted the habit of coming on-stage with baton in hand so he wouldn't be able to give the required Nazi salute. (A notorious photo of Furtwängler reaching down from the podium to shake Hitler's hand was a carefully set-up entrapment by the Nazis in response to the conductor's intransigence.) Furtwängler's acts of independence may seem feeble to us, so many decades removed from the rise of the Third Reich, but we must remember that in those days, people were arrested and murdered for less than this.
Furtwängler did resign as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic for political reasons in 1934, and although he continued to conduct the orchestra until nearly the end of the war he refused to sign an administrative contract with the group until 1951.
He managed to work within the system nearly until the end of the war, giving apolitical concerts in exchange for being a rather troublesome propaganda tool. Yet early in 1945, Hitler's cultured chief architect, Albert Speer, warned Furtwängler that Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler was on the verge of arresting him. In February, Furtwängler joined his family in Switzerland for a scheduled engagement and remained there through the end of the war. But as soon as peace came to Europe, Furtwängler was caught in a flurry of Allied charges of Nazi sympathizing. It took until the middle of 1947 for Furtwängler to clear his name and be allowed to conduct again, even though the card-carrying Nazi Herbert von Karajan was allowed to return to the podium much sooner, thanks to the machinations of English record producer Walter Legge.
Despite his official denazification, Furtwängler was hounded by charges of collaborationism for the rest of his life, especially in the United States. In 1949 he was offered the directorship of the Chicago Symphony, but vilification and protest -- much of it from leading musicians -- caused the offer to be withdrawn. Similarly, an opportunity to become the Metropolitan Opera's musical head was quashed in 1951. Furtwängler's sole high-profile supporter in America was violinist Yehudi Menuhin who, as a Jewish musician, had made a careful inquiry into Furtwängler's wartime activities and concluded that the conductor had behaved honorably.
Furtwängler's predicament has been summarized most fairly and succinctly by David Cairns, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music: "His controversial position under the Third Reich has been gradually forgotten, in admiration of the revelatory splendor of his music-making at its best. Yet the two things were in a deep sense one. His social unworldliness, his inability to deal with people with whom he felt nothing in common, his indecisiveness before the practical decisions of life, his profound sense of Germanness, his obstinate belief that art had nothing to do with politics -- all these and the grand idealism of his interpretations were expressions of the same nature, the same exalted philosophical outlook; they reflected the sheltered, highly civilized upbringing he had received."
Furtwängler's political rehabilitation came almost immediately in Europe. He resumed his regular appearances with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, enjoyed annual engagements at the Lucerne Festival, reopened the once Nazi-tainted Bayreuth Festival in 1951 with a performance of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 9," and even made a series of studio recordings -- a process he disliked almost as much as he detested his EMI producer, Legge.
In 1952, a course of antibiotics during a bout of pneumonia seriously damaged Furtwängler's hearing. Two years later, after recording Wagner's "Die Walküre" in what was to have inaugurated a complete Ring cycle, Furtwängler again developed pneumonia. This time, depressed by his hearing impairment and ashamed of his great culture's recent descent to evil, he surrendered to the illness and died peacefully in a clinic near Baden-Baden.
Furtwängler had taken up composing again between the Nazi ascension and his death, producing three hulking symphonies, a piano concerto, and two violin sonatas. The symphonic music is obviously influenced by the thematic shapes and formal patterns of Anton Bruckner, although Furtwängler rarely indulges in that composer's thundering repetition. Harmonically, the music is defiantly tonal, sharing a bit of the lush, overripe romanticism of such interwar Austro-Germanic composers as his one-time teacher Max von Schillings, Franz Schreker, and Franz Schmidt. The melodies, however, lack distinction and the structures seem overextended; Furtwängler would hardly be remembered today only on the basis of his compositions.
He has secured the interest of posterity, though, on the strength of his conducting. As mentioned, he hated the constraints of the recording studio, bemoaning the practice of reducing great symphonies and concertos to series of tiny, isolated chunks to be played again and again until they were "perfect." So the bulk of Furtwängler's recorded legacy consists of concert recordings, mainly from the '40s and '50s, some made under good conditions for broadcast, others taken down in execrable sound. Hardly any of this was available to the public in the first ten years following the conductor's death. But since then, Furtwängler's following has grown from a group of devoted cultists to a substantial population of music-lovers willing to listen through the occasional sonic limitations of vintage recordings (constricted frequency range, distorted climaxes, hiss or surface noise into which pianissimos dissolve) hoping to be surprised, enlightened, or provoked -- reactions rarely triggered by today's polite, note-perfect performances.
The current international standard for orchestral sound stresses brilliance, and is generally weighted toward the treble. Furtwängler's sound, in contrast, featured rich strings and full-bodied brass and woodwinds, all blossoming out of a rich bass. This gave his performances not only a particular sonic weight, but also a balance that allowed the bassline a revelatory prominence. In that famous 1951 Bayreuth Festival recording of Beethoven's "Ninth," for example, there are moments in the first movement in which the cellos and double basses are allowed to come forward and snarl what are usually just chugging accompanimental figures Furtwängler's bass emphasis had as much to do with music theory as with a preference for a certain sonic texture. Schenkerian analysis, which Furtwängler studied, seeks to reveal a work's deep tonal relationships, stripping away the music's foreground clutter of melody and rhythm to expose the score's fundamental harmonic structure. This method of searching for a score's organic harmonic unity is really useful only in studying Austrian and German composers from Bach through Brahms, who consciously built their works upon certain tonal patterns. Such music, of course, formed the core of Furtwängler's repertory, and Schenker's principles helped the conductor understand the grand architecture of a movement or even a complete symphony. So Furtwängler logically brought out the bass, which is where the harmony generally lies.
Another result of Furtwängler's application of Schenkerian analysis was that he conducted not bar to bar -- his incantatory arm-waving was useless for that, anyway -- but in long phrases that assembled into even larger, contrasting but interdependent episodes linked by critical transitions. Conveying the particular character of each episode, each phrase, required fluctuating tempos, which Furtwängler would generally establish at the moment of performance rather than in rehearsal.
Furtwängler is often classified as a "slow" conductor, in contrast to Toscanini, a "fast" conductor. Neither characterization is entirely true. To generalize Furtwängler's case a bit more accurately, he tended toward extremes; his slow passages were, indeed, unusually expansive, but his fast passages rocketed off the page. Turning again to that Bayreuth Beethoven "Ninth," the slow movement is drawn out to nearly 20 minutes in a deeply meditative reading that remains unfortunately earthbound, while the last movement's finale shoots out of the orchestra as fast as the excellent musicians can play. Of course, a number of tempo gradations lie between these extremes in every Furtwängler performance, but the shifts can be surprising. Furtwängler intended this moment-to-moment particularity of expression to convey the work's overall meaning. His approach was simultaneously improvisatory and spiritual, impulsive and searching. The tensions between a work's structure and its emotional content propelled his finest readings.
His most intriguing -- and, to his detractors, most off-putting -- performances date from the war years. The wartime performances, most of which are readily available on CD, throb with heightened drama, urgency, and tragic intensity. Perhaps the most breathtaking Brahms performance ever recorded is that of Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic on January 23, 1945. From that concert, only the finale of Brahms's "Symphony No. 1" survives on tape, but it is feverish and thrillingly impetuous enough for an entire evening. Significantly, this music ended Furtwängler's final Berlin concert before he left Germany under threat of arrest. Toscanini and his successors who promoted themselves as faithful servants of the composers would ask, through their performances, "What does this score mean, in its very essence?" Furtwängler's performances asked, "What does this score mean to me, in this particular time and place?" In a 1948 BBC interview, Furtwängler declared that "The conductor has one arch-enemy to fight: routine. Routine is very human, very understandable, it is the line of least resistance and there is no denying that in daily life it has its advantages. But all the more must we insist that it plays the most deadly role in music, especially in the performance of old and familiar works. In fact routine with its loveless mediocrity and its treacherous perfection lies like hoar-frost on the performance of the most beautiful and best-known works."
Today, with rehearsal time at a premium, clarity and efficiency reign supreme, and so routine lurks as the power behind the throne. Most people realize that bringing out the true nature of the score is not just a matter of playing the notes with perfect accuracy, but we have pragmatically learned to settle for precision in lieu of insight. Furtwängler's performances, as wrong-headed as they may occasionally seem, are even more important now than they were in the second quarter of the 20th century. Furtwängler challenges us to engage in a lively, sometimes infuriating musical argument. He is not for people who listen to music for relaxation. ~ James Reel
- Berlin, Germany
- 25 Jan 1886