Wilhelm Furtwangler: Titan of the Podium

It was on this date – November 30 – that my favorite orchestra conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, died in 1954. I’ve been meaning to post on him for some time and the anniversary of his passing makes this the perfect opportunity.

The Hungarian maestro, Arthur Nikisch, was the leading conductor in Germany during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When Nikisch passed away in 1922, the then 36-year-old Furtwangler took over his positions as principal conductor of both the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras, although he withdrew from the Leipzig post after six years to concentrate on the Philharmonic and his other conducting duties, which included a close relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic. 

Furtwangler first attracted my attention some time before I heard any of his recordings. I used to read books about conductors in my college’s library when I should have probably been studying. I was a fairly new fan of classical music and was drawn to the role of conductors and the way they impacted orchestral performances right from the start. From those books, I gained the distinct impression that Furtwangler was one of the towering figures of 20th century conducting. 

So a few years later, when I came across a recording of Beethoven’s ninth symphony by Furtwanlger and the Berlin Philharmonic while browsing at a used record store, I decided I should give it a listen to see why he had such a large reputation. I was not prepared for the impact that recording would make on me when I returned home and played it for the first time. It was a life-altering experience for me and the most powerful musical experience I’ve had outside of the concert hall – and possibly regardless of where I was while listening. I sat still, in virtual shock, for several minutes after it had finished.

Conducting legends in 1929 (L to R): Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer and Wilhelm Furtwangler

Beethoven’s ninth was one of the few pieces I knew well at that point. I had several recordings of it, which I had played many times. But listening to the 1942 Furtwangler-Berlin performance that day was like hearing it for the first time again. The tempo fluctuations, climaxes and savage intensity were dramatically different and much more powerful than anything I had experienced while listening to my other recordings of the ninth. In fact, that still holds true roughly 30 years later, in spite of the fact that I’ve heard countless recordings and live performances of the piece by now. 

Compare for yourself. The ninth is a long symphony. But just listen to the opening movement of the 1962 recording by the same Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Herbert von Karajan, who was one of the conducting greats in his own right. It’s 15-16 minutes long. Then listen to Furtwangler conduct the same movement 20 years earlier. The sound quality of the Furtwangler performance is not comparable to the later stereo recording by Karajan, but you can still hear the difference in performance styles. Furtwangler’s opening movement is about two minutes slower. The big climax a little over half way through the movement makes an earth-shattering impact. The way he handled the coda (end) of the movement – slowly building it up and molding floating parts into a titanic climax – often gives me the impression that he was doing nothing less than depicting Creation itself.

Now compare the way Furtwangler led Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture to the stereo recording by Fritz Reiner, another conducting legend, and the Chicago Symphony. It’s a short piece, but the Furtwangler performance is again over two minutes longer than the Reiner recording. It’s been said that Furtwangler did more with silence between the notes than many conductors did with the notes. This performance gives a good indication of that.

One final side-by-side comparison: Listen to the opening movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony in a 1978 recording by the Vienna Philharmonic and another great maestro, Carlos Kleiber. Then check out the same movement by Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic in a live 1952 performance.

Furtwangler was less concerned with orchestral precision than many of his contemporaries and probably all of today’s major maestros. In fact, some say he consciously avoided it while attempting to create the desired interpretive impression or atmosphere of a given section within a piece of music. Below are interview clips with several musicians who discuss Furtwangler’s approach to conducting and precision.

Here is great story told by one of the Berlin Philharmonic musicians, who discusses Furtwangler’s ability to instill his particular sound in the orchestra even when he wasn’t on the podium, but had merely shown up at a rehearsal being led by another conductor.

This is one of few available video clips of Furtwangler in action, rehearsing the final movement of Brahms’ fourth symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1948 on tour in London. You can see why his physical style was sometimes called “puppet-on-a-string.” It was part of his method for creating the type of sound he desired, which was considerably different than the style that was in vogue among the top orchestras in the U.S., where whip-crack precision was the aim. 

There is one non-musical issue that often comes up when Furtwangler is discussed, and I don’t feel I’m at liberty to avoid it if I’m going to give a full picture of the man.

Some of you may be putting two and two together with regard to the time and place of some of the above Furtwangler-led performances. He conducted primarily in Germany and Austria during the Nazi period and through World War II. He was, in fact, Hitler’s favorite conductor. The month following the Beethoven ninth performance I linked to above, Furtwanlger was ordered to lead the same piece for Hitler on his birthday. One didn’t turn down such an order in Germany during that dark period and go about his business as if nothing had happened. In fact, one might not live to tell about it if the order wasn’t followed.

The issue of Furtwangler and the Nazis has been discussed and debated at great length. In fact, a heated debate on the topic was in progress the day I began posting on classical music message boards in the late 90s, and the topic came up a number of other times during the many years I was a presence on such forums. 

Opinions vary on Furtwangler’s actions during this period. It’s generally agreed that he strongly opposed Nazi policies, including their anti-Semitism. He also was instrumental in helping a number of Jews, including some of his musicians and his long-time secretary, escape Germany before they were sent to their inevitable fates. 

He made public efforts to stand up to the regime early on. But there were consequences for him. Goebbels made it clear that if he followed through on plans to leave Germany to conduct in America, he would never be permitted back in the country. Furtwangler’s love for Germany and German culture was stronger than his hatred for the Nazis. He bowed to the pressure and was used by the regime for propaganda purposes on a number of occasions. 

That soiled his reputation permanently in the eyes of some. It also led to his banning from the podium for approximately two years following the War’s conclusion.

This isn’t a clear-cut issue, and I respect the views of those who can’t look past Furtwangler’s failure to leave Germany in protest, as some other leading musicians did during that period. But his personal flaws were outweighed by his efforts on behalf of various Jews and his admittedly naive attempts to safeguard German culture from the taint of what the Nazis were doing to it in my opinion. 

For those who wish to read more on this topic, I recommend The Devil’s Music Master: The Controversial Life and Career of Wilhelm Furtwangler, by Sam H. Shirakawa. (Oxford University Press, 1992)

Furtwangler conducts for the Nazi hierarchy.

After the War and Furtwangler’s return to the podium, it became customary for him to be sought out by music festivals that were reemerging from that dark period to lead Beethoven’s ninth, signifying the brotherhood of humanity.

He picked up where he left off with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics in 1947 and led many memorable performances, some of which survive on record, until his death in the Autumn of 1954. 

Furtwangler with composer Richard Strauss

Recommended recordings by Wilhelm Furtwangler

(Most, if not all, can be found on YouTube)

Beethoven

Symphony No. 3: Berlin Philharmonic, Dec. 8, 1952

Symphony No. 3: Vienna Philharmonic, Dec., 1944

Symphony No. 4: Berlin Philharmonic, June 27, 30 1943

Symphony No. 5:  Berlin Philharmonic, May 25, 27 1947

Symphony No. 6:  Vienna Philharmonic, Nov-Dec 1952

Symphony No. 7:  Berlin Philharmonic, Oct-Nov 1943

Symphony No. 9: Berlin Philharmonic March 22-24 1942

Coriolan Overture: Berlin Philharmonic, June 27-30 1943

Leonore III Overture: Vienna Philharmonic, Jan. 28, 1945

Fidelio: Salzburg Festival, Aug. 5, 1950

Brahms

Symphony No. 1: NDR Symphony, Oct. 27, 1951

Symphony No. 1: Berlin Philharmonic, Feb. 10, 1952

Symphony No. 2: Vienna Philharmonic, Jan. 28, 1945

Symphony No. 3: Berlin Philharmonic, April 27, 1954

Symphony No. 4: Berlin Philharmonic, Dec. 12-15, 1943

Variations on a Theme by Haydn:  NDR Symphony, Oct. 27, 1951

Schubert

Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished”): Berlin Philharmonic, Feb. 10, 1952

Symphony No. 9: Berlin Philharmonic, 1942

Schumann

Symphony No. 4: Berlin Philharmonic, May 14, 1953

Wagner

Tristan & Isolde: Philharmonia, July, 1952

Tristan & Isolde Prelude and Liebestodt: Berlin Philharmonic, Nov. 8-10, 1942

The Ring Cycle: La Scala, 1950

Ring Excerpts: London (Covent Garden), 1937

Tannhauser Overture: Berlin Philharmonic, May 1, 1951

Lohengrin, Prelude to Act I: Vienna Philharmonic, March 4, 1954

Bruckner

Symphony No. 8: Vienna Philharmonic, Oct. 17, 1944

Symphony No. 9: Berlin Philharmonic, Oct. 7, 1944

Tchaikovsky

Symphony No. 6: Berlin Philharmonic, Oct-Nov 1938

Smetana

Moldau: Vienna Philharmonic, Jan. 24, 1951

Mendelssohn

Hebrides Overture: Vienna Philharmonic, Aug. 19, 1951

Published by BZ Maestro

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3 thoughts on “Wilhelm Furtwangler: Titan of the Podium

  1. You probably know that Furtwängler was offered, and accepted the position of music director of the Chicago Symphony in 1949. The story is that the Board was forced to rescind the offer under the threat of a boycott from a number of famous musicians including Toscanini, Szell, Horowitz, Rubinstein, and Isaac Stern. Although that is the information given online (Wikipedia) I thought I remembered something about him in our Archives Blog, but I can’t find it. I wonder if it might have had something to do also with that fact that there were probably quite a number of Jewish supporters on the Board (although I could be wrong about that, I really don’t know).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. I’ve heard that, and also that he was in line to take over the NYP after Toscanini left for NBC. I can’t remember if that fell through entirely because of the Goebbels threat or if there were protests from Jews in New York as well.

      I guess the Chicago situation opened the door for Kubelik, who didn’t last long because of that infamous critic.

      In my neck of the woods, when Karajan brought the BPO on tour to Philly (I believe it was supposed to be a Furtwangler-led tour, but he died before it started), Ormandy didn’t greet him and may have stood with protestors outside the Academy of Music. The story is that Karajan never invited him to Berlin for that reason.

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  2. Fleeing was the easy solution. But he was the only one who stood up against Hitler and survived. Of course, all the frightful ones are blaming him.
    It’s a shame NYP was affected by the german propaganda.
    It might have worked out well.
    However, he might also have shared the fate of Stefan Zweig.
    Both so deeply anchored in the german tradition, not thriving elsewhere.

    Like

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