On Wilhelm Furtwängler

Leonore’ Overture No. 3

composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, conducted by Furtwängler Wilhelm. by Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Capitol, (out of print)

Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, Op. 60

composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, conducted by Furtwängler Wilhelm. by Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 42777-2, $8.99

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (‘Choral’), Op. 125

composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, conducted by Furtwängler Wilhelm. by Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Hunt Productions 532, $14.99

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K 550,

composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, conducted by Furtwängler Wilhelm. by Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
EMI CDH 763 1932, $9.99

Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759

composed by Franz Schubert, conducted by Furtwängler Wilhelm. by Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
EMI CDH 763 1932, $9.99

Symphony No. 9 in C (‘The Great’), D. 9444

composed by Franz Schubert, conducted by Furtwängler Wilhelm. by Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Hunt Productions 525, $14.99

Tristan und Isolde

composed by Richard Wagner, conducted by Furtwängler Wilhelm. by Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Opera Chorus
Angel 4732, $56.99

Wilhelm Furtwängler was the performing musician who, more than any other, provided me with the criteria for judging a performance. Not that I knew him personally; my career had just begun when Furtwängler’s ended during the 1950s, and partnership with a great conductor of his age would have been no easy matter for a youngster anyway. But I had heard several of his concerts in Vienna, Salzburg, and Lucerne, as well as a number of opera performances. These, and the records and tapes which since that time have kept me in touch with his conducting, have remained for me a most important source of reference to what music making is about.

The greatness of Furtwängler, the conductor is, I think, best appreciated if one disregards Furtwängler the composer, the writer of essays, letters, or diaries, the thinker (outside the purely musical sphere), the German patriot, as well as the person “political” and “nonpolitical,” childish and sophisticated, magnetic and absurdly irritable. Those who believe that the character of a musician has to be as elevating as the best of his music making need read no further—a lot of great music will elude them. A young intellectual who, in conversation with Alban Berg, complained about Wagner’s character was told by Berg: “For you, as a non-musician, nothing could be easier than to condemn him.”

Unlike Wagner, Furtwängler hardly qualifies as a villain. Yet I shall have to dissociate myself from some of his views, above all from his obsession with the overwhelming importance of German soul and spirit—that conviction about being chosen which, according to the eminent Zionist leader Nahum Goldmann, was, ironically, for some time a belief common to both Germans and Jews. Then there is Furtwängler’s belief, derived from Goethe, that “the very great is never new,” and his clinging to tonal harmony, to the heritage of the classical and Romantic symphony, to popular intelligibility—even in the case of new compositions—which in the end blinded him to the achievements of twentieth-century music, and made him overestimate his own. His definition of a composer as “one who can write his own folksong” suggests a dangerous affinity with those who regard music as a controllable political tool.

Furtwängler considered himself primarily a composer, and repeatedly spoke of the day when he would finally stop conducting in order to do something truly worthwhile. But it was not merely a matter of chance that this wish remained unfulfilled. There was, of course, the fact that. Furtwängler had been successful as a conductor, whereas he remained relatively unnoticed as a composer; but there must also have been a critical instinct within him which told him that, notwithstanding his belief in himself as a composer, conducting was where his powers of persuasion lay. All we need to know about his compositions is that they helped him to look at the works he conducted from a composer’s point of view.

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Letters

Furtwängler’s Schubert August 15, 1991