Remembering Wilhelm Furtwängler on the anniversary of his death

99403-004-787E1F4BOn this day (November 30th) Wilhelm Furtwängler died 60 years ago (1954). He was, in my opinion and in the opinion of many others, the greatest conductor of the 20th century – which pretty much means the greatest of all time, since the 20th century was THE century of great symphony conductors. He was especially known for his interpretations of the core German repertoire: Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner. Ever since my first encounter, in 1973, with a Furtwängler recording (his famous 1952 recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde), I have been under his spell. And spell is indeed a good word to use in connection with his music-making. I recently discovered that Pope Francis has also been under the spell of Wilhelm Furtwängler!

Furtwängler has been a controversial figure since the 1930s because he refused to leave Germany when the Nazis rose to power. He is still accused by many ignorant people of being a Nazi, though he was anything but that. His reason for staying in Germany was very simple: he did not identify his “Germany” with that of the Nazis. His Germany was the Germany of Beethoven and Goethe, the Germany of great achievements in art, music, literature and science. He stayed in Germany precisely to do everything in his power to preserve that Germany in the midst of the darkness that Nazi Germany had become. He did not flee, as others did. And for this he was reviled. He even had to be “de-Nazified” by the Americans before he could conduct again after the war!

There is a short video snippet that encapsulates for me the great paradox of Furtwängler’s decision to stay in Germany. The snippet contains the last 4 minutes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a 1942 performance in Berlin.

The Nazi swastika is prominently displayed and the audience is full of Nazi officials and soldiers wounded in the war. And in the midst of all this, Furtwängler is conducting the immortal music that Beethoven set to the words of Schiller, words that declare the universal brotherhood of man! Could the irony be greater? How does one reconcile these words with the murderous legacy of the Nazis? That’s precisely why Furtwängler stayed in Germany. Through the power of music, he stood on that podium as a reminder of the values that the men and women in front of him had renounced. Note the breathless tempo in the final ten seconds. He unleashes the full Dionysian joy of Schiller’s words, as if shouting to the audience to wake up and see the darkness that has closed in upon them. How those men and women could listen to that music and those words and still raise their “Sieg Heil” salute to Hitler is simply beyond my comprehension. But isn’t that always the case with the truth? People heard Jesus’ words but still went on as if they heard nothing. People hear what they want to hear. People can easily filter anything that is uncomfortable or challenging and still applaud.

Perhaps Furtwängler was naive to stay in Germany – and many people have excused him with precisely that label. Perhaps he was; but everyone who is a visionary can be called naive. Everyone who refuses to do what is expected of him can be called naive. He chose the difficult path, a path that became his cross to bear right to the end of his life. Yet, he created music of unimaginable power and poetry. He was at his best in live performances, not in the recording studio. And no musician has been the subject of so many bootleg and off-the-air private recordings as Furtwängler. Long before there was a Bod Dylan “Great White Wonder” bootleg, there were the hundreds of bootleg recordings of Furtwängler concerts and opera performances that were avidly hunted by collectors, including myself. Just three months before his death, he gave a memorable performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Lucerne. This is one of those countless live recordings treasured by music lovers. The slow movement in this performance is simply staggering. Furtwängler wrote about this movement: “The Ninth Symphony is pure music through and through. Take the theme of the adagio: totally wrapped up in itself, far removed from the day-to-day world, decorated with an infinite number of rose windows, the very essence of gothic architecture.” There is a timelessness that Furtwängler achieved in his performances of this movement that has never been matched by anyone else. The sound is not up to modern standards, but you leave the “day-to-day world” and enter something totally other. After the movement’s quiet end, there is a long pause before Furtwängler launches the huge finale with Schiller’s Ode to Joy.

An even more famous performance of the 9th Symphony is the one that opened the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. The entire performance can be heard here (audio only):

The Wikipedia article on Furtwängler is very informative, with perhaps too much detail on the Nazi years, but it is well worth reading. Many years ago the BBC produced a one-hour documentary on Furtwängler that has been posted on YouTube in four parts. The quality of the YouTube videos is poor, as is often the case with videos that are taken off TV broadcasts and digitized by amateurs.

In this day and age of trivial music and even more trivial celebrities, men like Furtwängler are a reminder to us – just as he was a reminder to the Nazis – of the power of great art to cleanse, heal and challenge. It is a humbling experience to witness true greatness in any area of human knowledge or achievement.


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