|Dr. Jimbob's Home -> Classical Music -> Conductors -> Wilhelm Furtwängler
When Furtwängler was 8, his father Adolf left his post in Berlin to become a professor of archaeology at the University of Munich, and the family moved from Berlin to the Bavarian countryside. Some four years later, his parents noted the boy's boredom at school, his distrust of teachers that he felt to be his intellectual inferiors, and his problems getting along with his classmates. The Furtwänglers decided to take Wilhelm out of school and arranged for a succession of private tutors. Furtwängler never had any formal schooling beyond the age of 12. He studied a variety of subjects, but his first passion was music. Furtwängler studied piano with relatives, then at the age of 14, Furtwängler began studies in composition with the organist and composer Josef Rheinberger. Rheinberger put Furtwängler into an intensive study of Beethoven's string quartets. The exposure intensified Furtwängler's interest in music and cemented his determination to make a career as a composer.
Training and Early Career
In 1903, the 17-year-old Furtwängler completed his first Symphony, in D major. Unfortunately, the premiere, which was arranged and conducted by an uncle, did not go well. Furtwängler was still determined to become an important composer, but he also took an interest in conducting as a means of presenting his music, and as a slightly more practical way to make a living. His apprenticeship started in 1905, when he was engaged as a rehearsal pianist at the Municipal Theater in Breslau, Silesia. The next year Furtwängler was third conductor at the Zürich Opera House. Unfortunately, he was fired after showing obvious boredom conducting light operetta. Still, Furtwängler gained enough experience in Zürich to redeem the failure of his early symphony by conducting a concert which included another original composition, as well as Beethoven's Consecration of the House Overture and Bruckner's 9th Symphony, a tall order for a 20-year old.
Even at this young age, Furtwängler displayed an uncanny ability to mesmerize musicians and audiences, and demonstrated a knack for handling large musical structures and complex transitions. His skills were almost completely self-taught, though he certainly learned a thing or two by observing Arthur Nikisch, then music director of the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras, and the preeminent conductor of his time. Nikisch too had enormous stage presence and charisma, and a hypnotic power over his audiences and musicians, and Furtwängler resolved to follow in Nikisch's footsteps.
From 1907 to 1909, Furtwängler worked as répétiteur at the Munich Court Opera, where he fell under the influence of the Wagner disciple Felix Mottl. Then, he took a post as third conductor at the Municipal Opera in Strasbourg, where he worked closely with Hans Pfitzner, another celebrated composer and conductor. Furtwängler continued composing, completing a Te Deum in 1910. And he went on conducting, beginning a lifelong passion for the operas of Wagner, Weber, Beethoven, Mozart and Verdi, offered side by side with lackadaisical performances of Gilbert and Sullivan and bel canto opera.
In 1911, Furtwängler applied to replace Hermann Abendroth as General Music Director in the north German city of Lübeck. He was unknown and all of 25 years old, but there was something in the gangly, awkward youth's utter seriousness and dedication to the music that made an overwhelming impression on the orchestra musicians. Furtwängler was made music director of the city of Lübeck, and further honed his conducting technique by presenting operas, choral music, and symphonic literature with the city's array of musicians and singers. In the struggle to master enough repertoire to be able to fill the concert season, Furtwängler put his composing career on a back burner.
Furtwängler's career continued its meteoric rise. In 1915, he became Court Conductor in Mannheim, directing an opera house and the orchestra which had been famous since the time of Mozart. Furtwängler's repertoire expanded rapidly in Mannheim, and his renown spread even further. He made a well-received debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1917, at the age of 31. In 1920 he scored a triumph conducting Bruckner's 8th Symphony. That year Furtwängler took the reins of the Berlin State Opera Orchestra's concert series from Richard Strauss, and took over the Frankfurt Museum Concerts from Willem Mengelberg. Then Arthur Nikisch died unexpectedly of influenza in January 1922. Furtwängler led a tribute concert with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Nikisch's memory, then was selected to succeed Nikisch as the orchestra's Music Director. Furtwängler then conducted another tribute concert at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic, Nikisch's other orchestra, which led to his being selected as that orchestra's Chief Conductor also. Furtwängler had become one of the preeminent conductors in Europe, and he was all of 35 years old.
From Germany, Furtwängler went on to conquer the rest of the musical world, making celebrated debuts with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1922, the Royal Philharmonic in London in 1924, and the New York Philharmonic in 1925. In Berlin and Leipzig, he rapidly won over audiences and critics, and introduced significant amounts of contemporary music by the likes of Arnold Schönberg, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith and Béla Bartók alongside Old Masters like Beethoven and Brahms.
Furtwängler experienced his first setback in 1926. Rumors sprung up about the possibility of Furtwängler being hired as the New York Philharmonic's next Music Director. However, public accolades were accompanied by attacks from music critics seeking a more purportedly objective, less personal style of conducting, espoused by the likes of Arturo Toscanini. Furthermore, the shy and retiring Furtwängler chafed at the social demands placed on a conductor in the United States and he refused to attend social functions among the wealthy and powerful in New York. As a result, the New York Philharmonic board opted to engage Toscanini rather than Furtwängler as their new Music Director. Furtwängler left New York in April 1927 humiliated and disillusioned, and never returned to North America again. Furtwängler also clashed with the board of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, who resented his part-time attentions and resisted his efforts to tour with the ensemble; these disagreements led to his resignation from Leipzig in 1928.
To be sure, there were successes to go with the frustrations. In 1927, he was selected to take over the concert series of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from Felix Weingartner. This not only made him Chief Conductor in Berlin and Vienna, it gave him a chance to study conducting from the Viennese musical theorist Heinrich Schenker. Schenker's theories of music interpretation stressed the importance of grasping a piece as an artistic whole, with careful management of transitions to achieve a unified organic feel. This style made a deep impression on Furtwängler, and the two studied scores closely together until Schenker's death in 1935.
In 1930, Furtwängler was forced to choose between continuing as Music Director of the Berlin and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras. He would go on conducting both ensembles in memorable fashion for the next quarter century, but at this point, he opted to remain with Berlin. He was made General Music Director of the city of Berlin, and was also named Music Director of the Wagner shrine known as the Bayreuth Festival. The 47-year-old Furtwängler was at the top of his profession, with no limits in sight.
At the same time, Hermann Göring, Hitler's Minister of the Interior, was trying to build his own sphere of influence in the arts. Göring absorbed the Prussian State Theaters - including the Berlin State Opera - into his department, and sought to make the State Opera a place to display cultural prestige for visiting dignitaries, even as the sources of that cultural prestige were fleeing Germany. Göring retained Furtwängler as head of the Berlin State Opera, even as he machinated to undermine him or replace him. Göring also named Furtwängler as a Prussian State Councilor, an honorary title which could not be refused, which carried prestige but limited official responsibility -- or power to change the course of events.
Furtwängler chafed at the growing intrusions from the Nazis. When his Jewish colleague Bruno Walter was forced out of Germany, Furtwängler wrote a letter of protest to Goebbels, though he protested less about Nazi racism than about the threat to the German culture that he held so dear. The Nazis feared offending Furtwängler excessively. They saw conductors like Walter and Otto Klemperer moving on to heroes' receptions abroad, and did not want to lose the greatest conductor in Germany to tempting offers in other countries. Furtwängler, for his part, turned down those offers because he thought himself a German first and last, and naïvely hoped to save Germany from the Nazi nightmare by doing his part to preserve German culture from Nazi depredations. He struggled to maintain the integrity of his beloved Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, and helped countless Jewish musicians in need of money, employment, or an exit visa out of Germany.
The breaking point came when the Nazis tried to dictate what music Furtwängler could and could not conduct. In 1934, when the composer Paul Hindemith was labeled degenerate, and his new opera Mathis der Maler banned from production, Furtwängler lodged a protest, writing a lengthy article in defense of Hindemith and premiering a symphony drawn from the opera with the Berlin Philharmonic. When the ban remained in place, Furtwängler resigned his posts at the Philharmonic and State Opera, and did not resume an official post until after the war.
The Nazis revoked Furtwängler's passport at the same time, leaving him unable to conduct either at home or abroad. For the first time in a quarter century, Furtwängler turned his attentions back to composing, working on a sonata for violin and piano and a piano concerto. But his heart belonged on the conductor's podium, and after just four or five months off, Furtwängler struck a deal with Goebbels in the spring of 1935, conceding political matters to Hitler and his ministers, in exchange for the right to continue working in Germany as a free-lance conductor. He resumed conducting, and brought the Berlin Philharmonic on tour to London and Paris, though he refused to play the Nazi anthem at concerts and carried his baton in his right hand as he walked on stage to avoid giving the Nazi salute before starting his concerts.
In 1936, Arturo Toscanini decided to retire as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He told the board of the Philharmonic that Furtwängler was the only musician worthy of succeeding him. Unfortunately, the board's offer was sent while Furtwängler was in Egypt on vacation. Göring saw the communication first and promptly reinstated Furtwängler as Music Director of the Berlin State Opera. Then Hitler occupied the Rhineland, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, and New York was filled with enough anti-German senitment that Furtwängler's name was withdrawn from consideration. Furtwängler ultimately refused the directorship at the State Opera and went on another sabbatical, spending another year composing music.
Furtwängler returned to the podium in 1937 and resumed his game of political cat and mouse with Goebbels and Göring. The Nazi leadership tried to corner Furtwängler into appearing at official Nazi party rallies and functions, and staged photographs meant to depict Furtwängler as a willing servant of the Nazi regime. Furtwängler used physical ailments, invitations to conduct abroad and more conducting sabbaticals to avoid Nazi obligations wherever he could.
The Nazis made life steadily more difficult for Furtwängler. In 1938, the Germans annexed Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia. The next year, the Nazis invaded Poland and started a war with the Allied Powers. Furtwängler refused to conduct concerts in Nazi-occupied countries, and invitations to conduct in Britain stopped with the declaration of war, so that he had fewer ways to maneuver out of government engagements. And in the late 1930's, the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan rose to the top ranks of Germanic conductors. Karajan was gifted enough to be a credible rival to Furtwängler, and ambitious enough to be willing to do the Nazi leaders' bidding. They began playing Karajan against Furtwängler even as Furtwängler played Göring against Goebbels. A skiing injury to Furtwängler's conducting arm nearly ended his career and added to his misery.
And yet he remained in Germany. Furtwängler had plenty of attractive offers to conduct outside of the Nazi realm. He had no permanent post, no consistent source of income and nothing to trade on other than his international reputation (aided by recordings and radio broadcasts). He felt unable to abandon his homeland in its time of need, though controversy continues over whether the transporting power of his performances helped to keep a spirit of defiance alive in Berlin and Vienna or numbed the artistic elite to the increasing horrors being perpetrated around them. (This controversy is one of the central subjects of the semi-fictional play and movie, Taking Sides.) But the antagonism of the Nazis increased as their military victories slowed and the tide of the war turned. By the beginning of 1945, Furtwängler's intransigence earned the enmity of SS chief Heinrich Himmler. In February of that year, word came that Himmler was planning to eliminate Furtwängler, and he promptly escaped to Switzerland with his family.
Many musicians from the United States protested Furtwängler's rehabilitation, German expatriates alongside American natives. Some were misled by Nazi propaganda, others resented Furtwängler's ability to remain and function in Nazi Germany without being forced to join the Nazi party and do all the leadership's bidding. Still others may have feared competition from a rehabilitated Furtwängler for American concert fees and recording contracts.
But support came from the unlikeliest of places. A Jewish-German journalist named Curt Riess initially attacked Furtwängler as a Nazi collaborator, but after seeing documentation of Furtwängler's acts of resistance during the war, Riess came around enough to write a book-length defense of Furtwängler's music and politics. At the same time, the Jewish-American violinist Yehudi Menuhin made a similarly thorough examination of the evidence about Furtwängler. Menuhin had refused to come to Austria to perform with Furtwängler in 1933, but he emerged in 1946 as one of Furtwängler's staunchest supporters, making a number of American enemies in the process.
Furtwängler's denazification trial of December 1946 dragged over two days. The prosecution's case was weak: some prosecution witnesses made statements in support of Furtwängler's non-collaboration, and the conductor was cleared of all charges. However, the American newspaper coverage played up the flimsy case against Furtwängler, and the Allied authorities dragged their feet for four bureaucratic months before he was finally officially cleared of Nazi ties in April of 1947. During this period of enforced idleness, Furtwängler returned to composing, but he returned to the conductor's podium as soon as he was allowed to, leading his beloved Berlin Philharmonic in an all-Beethoven program within a month of being cleared.
Furtwängler remained busy enough in Europe, and in addition to giving concerts, he also returned to the recording studio. He signed on with EMI in 1946, and began a tumultuous relationship with EMI's classical recording impresario, Walter Legge. Legge assembled a stable of Europe's best known classical musicians to record for EMI. Legge also built an in-house orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, from scratch. He wanted Europe's finest living conductors to shape the Philharmonia into a world-class ensemble, and his tireless perfectionism made for some extraordinary recordings. But Furtwängler continued to loathe the recording process, which still mandated pauses every 4 minutes to allow for side changes, and was not at his best with no audience to respond to in the clinical atmosphere of the recording studio. And Legge grew to resent Furtwängler's chronic unreliability, last minute cancellations and reschedulings. Ironically, Legge turned to Herbert von Karajan to provide a rival and counterweight to Furtwängler. Despite this, Legge drew some memorable performances out of Furtwängler, including a legendary concert performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in July of 1951. Legge introduced magnetic tape into the EMI studios in 1951, which allowed for longer recording takes. Their collaborations culminated in a recording of Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde. The recording was a stunning success, but consumed much of Furtwängler's energy in 1952 and led to his final break with Legge shortly afterwards.
In July of 1952, Furtwängler collapsed at a rehearsal, ill with bilobar pneumonia. He made a slow recovery, and the antibiotics used to treat the infection severely damaged his hearing. This was a devastating blow to a man whose entire life was sound. He recovered enough to resume conducting and recording. Plans were even made to make studio recordings of the four operas of Wagner's cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, but only got as far as a complete recording of the second opera, Die Walküre in the summer of 1954. Another relapse of pneumonia sapped Furtwängler's will to live, and he died in Baden-Baden on November 12, 1954.
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It's been argued that Furtwängler may have been the last, greatest exponent of this German Romantic school. He cultivated one of the most unorthodox, imprecise beats, looking more like a marionette having a grand mal seizure than a conductor leading an orchestra. But this beat forced orchestra members to listen to each other, so that the music became more of a collectively agreed expression of the ensemble than the unquestioning following of the conductor's instructions. Furtwängler introduced continuous vibrato into his Germanic orchestras, and worked hard to develop the cello and bass sections of the orchestral strings. This bass-heavy string sonority generates a complex blend of overtones that in turn creates a memorably rich orchestral sound. And his composer's approach to conducting, with the German Romantic approach to large-scale phrasing and the Schenkerian approach to showing the organic unity in a piece, gave his best performances an intuitive logic, a sense of sweeping inevitability. Finally, like Nikisch or like pianists such as Sviatoslav Richter, Furtwängler had an astonishing personal charisma. His mere presence in a room could change the sound of his orchestra, according to Berlin Philharmonic tympanist Werner Thärichen, and audiences were carried along, whether they agreed with his approach to interpretation or not.
Furtwängler's shortcomings include some rather restricted repertoire choices. When Furtwängler was Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic and when he conducted in New York, there was a surprisingly wide range of music (he conducted Bach regularly, and led the New York Philharmonic's premiere performance of Stravinsky's Le sacre du Printemps). But in his private writings, he admitted that he performed a broad repertoire more out of a sense of obligation than because he had any sympathy to most 20th century composers. After Furtwängler renounced all official titles in 1934, his repertoire choices narrowed down to the composers that mattered to him the most, with emphasis on the Germanic Romantic tradition from Haydn and Mozart to Wagner, Bruckner and Richard Strauss. Thus no recordings exist of Furtwängler conducting Mathis der Maler, the Hindemith work that he risked his career over, only a handful of works by Gustav Mahler, Béla Bartók, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky and Jan Sibelius, and nothing from the Second Viennese School. Furtwängler's mystical dynamism also leaves little room for a sense of humor; for wit and charm, you'll have to look to other conductors.
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As Germany plunged into war, Furtwängler performances, especially the ones in Berlin, take on a new quality. There is more purposefulness to the emotionally charged moments, an unleashed fury that borders on hysteria, and grows fiercer and fiercer as Germany plunged further into darkness. Most of the recordings that survive from the war years come from performances captured on the improving medium of magnetic tape developed by the Germans and used by the Reichs Rundfunk-Gesellschaft (the state radio company) to broadcast concert performances on the radio. The performances aren't to everyone's taste, and the high-octane ferocity doesn't necessarily survive multiple performances well. One favorite performance of mine is a 1942 recording of Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C, D.944. This performance shows Furtwängler's abiity to generate thrilling momentum over large spans of time, and features another compelling acceleration, this time in the final movement. There is also Beethoven's Piano Concerto #4 in G, Op. 58, performed in 1943 with Conrad Hansen as the piano soloist. The gem here is the slow movement, where soloist and conductor bring a remarkable urgency to the Beauty-and-the-Beast contrasts. A performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in Eb, Op. 55 from 1944 with the Vienna Philharmonic is legendary for its electric, organic tension. And some of Furtwängler's finest Bruckner recordings survive only from tape, including a classic 1942 Berlin Philharmonic Bruckner 5th and harrowing interpretations of Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 in c, again with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1944 and the Symphony No. 9 in d, with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1944.
After the war, Furtwängler evolved a more autumnal style. There is still freedom of tempo and phrasing, but a more detached, Olympian grandeur make some of his last recordings among the very best. Particularly memorable are the concerto collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin, which include studio recordings of the violin concertos of Beethoven and Brahms. Both recordings capture the remarkable give and take that could happen when Furtwängler had a gifted partner to interact with. Better still is a studio recording of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb, Op. 73 with the Philharmonia Orchestra from 1951. The soloist here was Edwin Fischer, one of Furtwängler's favorite musicians. Fischer had helped to premiere Furtwängler's piano concerto before the war, and their recording of the "Emperor Concerto" has the kind of easy symbiosis that comes from two decades of collaboration. Moreover, it was around this time that EMI introduced magnetic tape into their recording studios, allowing for longer continuous takes and more organic performances.
No survey of Furtwängler's art would be complete without mentioning the 1952 studio recording of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Never mind that the performance featured the reigning Isolde of the time, soprano Kirsten Flagstad, working with her favorite conductor. This performance was the consummate example of Furtwängler's ability to manage transitions between sections of a piece and to hold the largest structures together in living, breathing unity. Producer Walter Legge was also essential to the recording, transforming the recording studios in London's Kingsway Hall into a sonic reproduction of the pit Wagner designed himself at Bayreuth to show his operas to best sonic advantage. Conductor and producer brought the best out of each other in this series of sessions, even if they never did collaborate again after the sessions were over.
Most of Furtwängler's best known recordings from the symphonic literature also date from after the war. There is a disc on Deutsche Grammophon which has a December 1951 recording of the Haydn Symphony No. 88 in G and a May 1953 recording of Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in d, Op. 120, both with the Berlin Philarmonic. The Haydn recording offers a surprisingly light, fleet touch in the faster movements, and is tender without being overdone in the lovely slow movement. (Not everyone agrees, but I like a Vienna Philharmonic recording of the Haydn from October 1951 even more, for the characteristic suave, gemütlich sound that the Vienna orchestra adds to the performance.) The Schumann is one of the great Schumann symphony recordings on disc. It was allegedly done in a single astonishing take (though it does sound like there are some edits on the disc), and is perhaps one of the best examples of Furtwängler's mastery of the art of momentum. Equally memorable is a December 1951 recording of Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C, D. 944 with the Berlin Philharmonic. This recording doesn't quite have all the electric intensity of the wartime performance, but the better recorded sound and the more relaxed approach give this performance an autumnal glow that make it one of his most beloved recordings. Finally, one of his best postwar performances is a hair-raising 1951 performance of Brahms's Symphony No. 1 in c, Op. 68 with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra. Furtwängler could achieve astonishing results with even a regional orchestra, drawing a performance unique even among Furtwängler recordings for its blazing conviction and sweeping inevitability.
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Among these performances, my personal favorites are the wartime Vienna Philharmonic recording of the Symphony No. 3 (mentioned above) and a 1953 concert performance of the Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 on Deutsche Grammophon. The latter is not to all tastes; it demonstrates the ways that Furtwängler's tempo manipulations (especially in the Scherzo) sometimes ranged towards the perverse, but I adore the grandeur of the opening movement, the Prokofiev-like marching quality in the slow movement, and I love the finale, which starts at a funereal tempo and gradually accelerates to finish at a furious, faster-than-Toscanini clip.
As crucial as Beethoven's music was in general, the Symphony No. 5 in c, Op. 67 and the Symphony No. 9 in d, Op. 125 were the most important to Furtwängler. Unfortunately, I don't warm as much to the frenetic extremes that are taken in pretty much every performance of the 5th that he did; they are interesting to hear, but don't wear well with repeated listening. And Furtwängler himself was never sufficiently satisfied with his interpretation of the 9th to commit it to a studio recording. Fortunately, there are a number of concert performances that survive on disc, and a survey of the best performances is in some ways an appropriate summary of the arc of Furtwängler's career. A 1937 performance from London with the Berlin Philharmonic shows the dramatic flair of the young conductor in the process of conquering the musical world. The 1942 wartime performance with the Berlin Philharmonic is a different matter entirely: Furtwängler's characteristic unrestrained fury makes for the most dramatically memorable performance, if not one that can (or should) be heard multiple times. The performance celebrating the re-opening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951 was the one that Walter Legge officially sanctioned for release on EMI, and it's the most widely available performance. Unfortunately, the Wagnerian grandeur of this performance is marred by sloppy orchestral playing, particularly from the awful horn section, and the choral singing is at best indistinct. This leaves us with the performance that Furtwängler himself was happiest with: a concert given at the Lucerne Festival, with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1954. There is not as much of the fire and brimstone as the 1942 recording, perhaps less of the grandeur of the Bayreuth performance, but a memorable balance of autumnal detachment, sheer sonic beauty (especially in a good remastering), great arching melodic lines, and drama to spare.
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Every Furtwängler fan has their own particular favorite performances. These are mine, and the best sounding ressiues of each recording that I know of:
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