Why Wilhelm Furtwängler Still Moves Us Today

His Life: A Genius and His Involvement with the Regime On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Death of Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Wilhelm Furtwängler was always a stranger in this world. He was someone who went his own way and stood apart from the others: he could not be pigeonholed in any one category, no matter how broad. Furtwängler is the ultimate embodiment of the musician who refuses to adapt to preexisting molds, the anti-ideologue par excellence-and I mean the present tense here quite seriously, for this is what makes Furtwängler still so vivid for us today. On the one hand, as musical director of the Berlin Philharmonic he belonged to the establishment, but at the same time, in musical terms he was considered an outsider from the very beginning. Contemporaries like Toscanini and Bruno Walter, for example, towed the line much more closely in aesthetic terms. It might seem bizarrely ironic to us today, but in fact the émigré conductors were much less torn figures than Furtwängler, who did not leave Nazi Germany.

The fissures in Furtwängler were internal ones. He was a subjectivist who philosophized. And this is exactly what he expresses in his work: the philosopher led the rehearsal, while the poet conducted in the evening. The one could not have existed without the other. Sharp tongues might claim that this indecision, this ambiguity was his fate. I don’t believe that. Furtwängler was convinced that everything is connected: music as an organic whole. For Furtwängler, there were no phenomena independent of one another.

How, we might ask, was he then able to survive intellectually and politically through the Third Reich?

Of course, as I child I knew who Furtwängler was. I had heard him in Buenos Aires conducting the St. Matthew Passion, and naturally it was something very special when I was introduced to him in the summer of 1954. Just think: I loved to play piano; I would have played for anybody, even the hotel waiter. But this man had a great aura about him. Today, I can imagine that Furtwängler must have been very insecure as a person, very vulnerable. And also very German. Furtwängler needed his musical home. Perhaps that’s why he never accepted the end of tonality.

It’s constantly being said that Furtwängler was conservative. But that’s not true, especially when it comes to the young Furtwängler, who conducted Stravinsky’s Sacre and later Schönberg’s Variations for Orchestra. Furtwängler had a deep-seated belief that music must evolve. Music is sound, and sound has to become, not just “be.” As a result of this understanding, his music was always new, and never just a question of the repertoire. Furtwängler did not rehearse just in order to call up what he discovered in rehearsal for a concert in the evening. For Furtwängler, a Beethoven symphony was just as new, just as vital as a piece composed yesterday.

Despite all his distance from the world, all his wanting to be divorced from the present time, technological innovations of his day. He flew in drafty propeller planes to South America whenever a lucrative offering attracted him there, and already his work in the early 1920s we would consider “jet-setting” today. When he took over the direction of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1922, he was also active at Leipzig’s Gewandhaus and in Vienna. Looking back at the programs of these years leads us to draw but one conclusion: the man must have spent most of his time living on night trains.

Furtwängler was unconventional. In the case of his successor, Herbert von Karajan, for example, the musicians always understood quite quickly what he wanted, and they carried it out. In the case of Furtwängler, everything was always different. He was unpredictable, and thus followed his own inner necessity. He took musical liberties and spontaneities not because of some kind of personal preference, but because the musical structures required it. Furtwängler never calculated the “how” in a score, but the “where.” He would say to himself, here there has to be a stress, and here there can by no means be a stress. Without this scaffolding, without this analysis, he could never have been as free as he was. To this extent, Furtwängler was far more than the “master of the moment” that he is so often called. That is what most impresses me about him: his extraordinary freedom in his responsibility before the work. Wilhelm Furtwängler wasn’t the Lord Byron of the twentieth century: he very much tried to integrate his subjectivity into the whole.

Wilhelm Furtwängler stood for an engagement with the music’s content. I cannot explain a Beethoven symphony in words. If that were possible, the symphony would either be superfluous or for its part impossible. But this does not mean that music has no meaning. This search for the content in music is what’s missing today: we look for the illustrious moment, or the cold architecture, or the historical truth. But we are cutting ourselves short.

As a composer, Furtwängler was primarily good at generating fantastic dramatic escalations. If his works had not been written in the first half of the twentieth century, but around 1870, the world would have been amazed by these masterworks. In terms of craftsmanship, his music is absolutely perfect: but aesthetically the seams are visible.

Since I was lucky enough to begin very early, I was still able to meet many famous musicians personally. Sometimes it seems like I was one of the last to visit a museum of “prehistoric art” before it was closed forever. One thing I noticed is this: these great figures all found their own issue over the years, the one idea to which they subordinated all else. The cellist Pablo Casals, for example, discovered that the little notes aren’t listened to enough. So he concentrated on almost nothing else, becoming in the end something of a caricature of himself. Isaac Stern, the violinist, celebrated the articulation with the right bow arm, with the same effect. And Sergiu Celibidache made an ideology of Furtwängler’s ideas about sound. If one were mean-spirited, one might say that he ultimately used the music to prove his own theories. But in the case of Furtwängler, there’s nothing like that. For him, there was always the wonder of the riddle.

All of us felt Furtwängler’s influence: Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta, and I. But Furtwängler’s mythic stature only really began to take form at the end of the 1960s. The record companies were not especially fond of him. We young conductors now discovered recordings that we found to be better than the actual piece itself: Furtwängler’s recording of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony is a good example of this. Or his Tristan with Kirsten Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus. You can’t imitate that: but you can try to understand why it is the way it is, and then do it perhaps in an entirely different way. It doesn’t have to sound like Furtwängler, but it must be like Furtwängler.

Many musicians make music the same way they live their lives. Furtwängler tried to live his life the same way he made music. That isn’t a very comfortable position to take: you have to want it and be able to do it. But only then can things turn out differently than they so often do today.

This article originally appeared in Der Tagesspiegel

Translated by Brian Currid

Wilhelm Furtwängler, born on January 25, 1886 in Berlin, held early positions in Breslau, Zurich, Munich, Strasbourg, and Lübeck. In 1920, he became conductor in Mannheim and took over the direction of Frankfurt’s Museumorchester. In 1922, he became the director of the Berlin Philharmonic, and was simultaneously director of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra. In 1931, he took over the direction of the Bayreuth Festival, and in 1933 became director of the Berlin Staatsoper. In 1934, he resigned from all posts when the Nazis banned the performance of Hindemith’s Mathis the Painter, but remained in Germany. In 1945, he moved to Switzerland; after his “de-Nazification” in 1946, he returned as director of the Berlin Philharmonic and opened the New Bayreuth Festival in 1951 with Beethoven’s Ninth. In the summer of 1954, the 11-year-old Daniel Barenboim played for him in Salzburg. Furtwängler died in Baden-Baden on November 30, 1954.