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The Furtwängler Enigma

The Devil’s Music Master: The Controversial Life and Career of Wilhelm Furtwängler

by Sam H. Shirakawa
Oxford University Press, 506 pp., $35.00

Trial of Strength: Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Third Reich

by Fred K. Prieberg, translated by Christopher Dolan
Quartet, 394 pp., £30.00

To judge from the intemperate responses to two recent accounts of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s life during the Third Reich, his decision to remain in Nazi Germany throughout its twelve-year existence, as well as the nature of his relation to the regime, may be at least as controversial now as at any other time since 1945. On March 15, 1993, the conductor’s widow entered the dispute with a letter to the Times of London criticizing Bernard Levin, who had “attempted a quasidefense”—great musician, weak man—and challenging him to substantiate his characterization of Furtwängler as “an exceptionally unpleasant anti-Semite,” which, as clearly shown by the historical evidence, he was not, and a “lamentable” human being, which is not the right adjective (though an apt one for this complex man would require elucidation).

Elisabeth Furtwängler conjectures that “the question of Furtwängler remaining in Nazi Germany may never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.” Furtwängler himself, looking back, believed he made the wrong choice. In 1947, during his denazification trial, he was heard to say, “I should have left Germany in 1934,” and it seems likely that the statement was an expression of a genuine and longstanding regret.

The film maker Sam H. Shirakawa has written a full biography extending to the nine postwar years of the conductor’s life, and including an appraisal of his discography. Fred K. Prieberg, a German musicologist and author of the as yet untranslated Musik in NS-Staat (Frankfurt, 1982), has confined his account to the reign of terror. But overlapping of the two books even for those years is minimal, partly because some of their principal sources differ, and partly because the points of view are often at variance. Neither of them, however, supports the too simple rationale Furtwängler himself frequently expressed for having remained in the Reich, namely that great music, as transmitted by him, could preserve the highest values of German culture. As we have learned, Germans could exult in the heroic emotions of Beethoven’s music and work as death-camp guards.

Both writers agree as well that the conductor was never a Nazi sympathizer and never an anti-Semite. It is clear from both accounts that Furtwängler helped a number of Jewish musicians, keeping them in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in defiance of the regime. Shirakawa maintains that he was risking his life in doing so. Prieberg more plausibly contends that the conductor was “always aware of the advantage offered him by the regime’s inability to take the severest measures against him,” presumably meaning that before the war he was protected by his international prominence and by the importance of his presence in Germany to National Socialist propaganda, and that during it he was indispensable to the country’s continuing and intensifying musical life.

In 1942, when Himmler had him watched, and warned him that anything he did to help a Jew would henceforth be considered subversive, Furtwängler, according to Prieberg, showed no sign of being worried about his security. He had patrons. After all, Hitler had sided with him in his rivalry with Herbert von Karajan, after the younger conductor’s sensational Berlin debut in 1938. Besides, politically prickly as Furtwängler was, Joseph Goebbels also had come to his defense against Karajan, who was Göring’s protégé, arranging to have the Berlin Illustrierte publish a picture of Furtwängler that was twice the size of one of Karajan or the same page, accompanied by the remark that the older conductor was the most “spiritual and introspective” of all interpreters of symphonic music. Goebbels also warned Berlin journalists not to play off Karajan against Furtwängler, for he was Hitler’s favorite conductor, chosen by him again and again to lead important concert and opera performances. Prieberg tells us that the Führer considered Karajan “an arrogant fop.”

Furtwängler protected only eight Jewish musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic, but among them were the star players—and therefore targets of jealousy—the concertmaster Simon Goldberg and the cellists Joseph Schuster and Gregor Piatigorsky. Shirakawa rightly sees this protection as a strong mitigating factor in Furtwängler’s accommodation to the regime, and he also cites the conductor’s intervention with the government in 1938, to help bring about the release from Dachau of a nephew of Fritz Zweig, the conductor and pupil of Schoenberg. Other documentary evidence reveals that Furtwängler aided at least eighty other Jews who were at risk, and “many more by talking to them in person or on the telephone.” Prieberg appends a list of 108 prominent composers, conductors, instrumentalists, and singers, of whom a few, though not Jewish, were in political difficulties, and whom the conductor helped.

Furtwängler defended Jewish scholars as well as musicians, as in the case of the young Raymond Klibansky, whose critical edition of Nikolaus von Cues had been suspended because of the “Aryan clause”; the conductor rewrote Klibansky’s résumé for him, gave his work the more eye-catching title, “Nicolas of Cusa and Meister Eckhart,” and contributed a note describing the importance of publishing the work.1 Regrettably, after the war Furtwängler apparently gave the US authorities the files containing all of his correspondence from 1933, which might have brought more of his good work to light. Just before his denazification trial in December 1946 these papers mysteriously disappeared.

The initial grounds of Furtwängler’s opposition to Nazi anti-Semitism, as stated publicly, are simply that it was a great stupidity, not that it was a monstrous evil, although his private views (and later actions) were another matter. In an “Open Letter to Dr. Joseph Goebbels,” published four months earlier in the liberal Vossische Zeitung, April 11, 1933, Furtwängler protests against National Socialism’s anti-Semitic campaign strictly in the name of German music, not because it was morally wrong. It is “against the interests of our cultural life,” he argues, adding, disconcertingly, that a campaign of the sort directed against performers, Jews and non-Jews, “who are out to impress through kitsch, empty virtuosity and the like,” would be justified. “One cannot be too vigorous in one’s opposition to such people and the spirit they represent.” Here Furtwängler fails to recognize that kitsch and virtuosity for its own sake are ingredients of cultural life with as much right to exist as high art.2

Some weeks later, probably in June 1933, Furtwängler addressed a memorandum to Goebbels, though whether or not it was sent or received is not known:

The Jewish question in musical spheres: A race of brilliant people! As a percentage of the orchestra Jews are not over-represented. As soloists they should be defended. [They are also an] indispensable audience.

But “the influence of the Jewish [musical] press” should be broken, for the reason that it has a “harmful influence on musical activity, to the benefit of ‘modernism.”’ Prieberg glosses this by saying that Furtwängler’s real motive was to silence the critic Alfred Kerr, who had frequently attacked him and who had also antagonized Thomas Mann.

While the association of the disliked modernism with the “Jewish press” is unfortunate, to say the least, at about the same time Furtwängler sent a recommendation to one of Hitler’s ministers warning that “among the Jewish international community [Schoenberg] is considered clearly the most significant musician of our time” and advising that they should not “make a martyr of him….” Schoenberg, whose name and reputation were far more widely known than his music, would become a symbol of Nazi persecution in England, France, and the United States. Already dismissed from his teaching position in Berlin, he was living in Paris in impecunious circumstances, and the mixture of personal concern for the composer’s well-being and respect for him as a creative musician, while maintaining at the same time an aversion to his music, warrants a digression as an example of the conductor’s complex, and sometimes noble, character.

During the Weimar period Furtwängler had conducted the premieres of the Variations for Orchestra and the revised Five Pieces for Orchestra. Even so, “atonality” was a pejorative term to him, and was to become his synonym for musical pandemonium. He describes the atonal experience in a striking metaphor:

If we let ourselves be guided by the atonal musicians we walk as it were through a dense forest. The strangest flowers and plants attract our attention by the side of the path. But we do not know where we are going nor whence we have come. The listener is seized by a feeling of being lost, of being…faced with an all-powerful world of chaos. But of course it must be admitted that this strikes a chord in the apprehensions of modern man.

Despite his dislike of “conscious history-making—only a work of art written for its own sake has the prospect of any historical significance”—Furtwängler’s notebooks contain perceptive comments on Schoenberg’s music: “Nothing says more for the importance of Schönberg’s mind than the fact that he found the connection from Wagner to Brahms”; and, “the twelvetone system of Schönberg…as an auditory experience conveys the spirit of chaos but as a method of composition is the epitome of the world of modern science, the most highly rationalized system imaginable.” In 1946, Schoenberg himself testified that he did not believe Furtwängler had been a Nazi and blamed the American ban against him on “the intrigue of one man” (i.e., Toscanini, who is not named). Furtwängler “is many times [Toscanini’s] superior,” the composer wrote.

On November 15, 1933, Goebbels created a Reichsmusikkammer, the musical branch of his cultural policy organization, the Reichskulturkammer, as a means of establishing greater government control over music and musicians. Furtwängler was appointed vice-president, Richard Strauss president, and Hindemith a member of the executive council. The Musikkammer published an edict on “The Ten Principles of German Music.” One principle was that “Judaism and German music are opposites.” Others were that “music arises from deep and secret forces which are rooted in the people of the nation,” that “the essence of music is melody,” and that music “addresses our hearts and our feelings more than our minds.”

At first Furtwängler, then the director of both the Berlin Staatsoper and the Berlin Philharmonic, seems to have thought that his new political office would relieve him of managerial chores in connection with his two great artistic responsibilities, but the “Hindemith affair” brought his credulity to an end with a shock. On March 12, 1934, he had conducted the premiere of three symphonic excerpts from Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler, to general acclaim from the liberal press and condemnation from the right wing, the latter in part because Hitler was known to detest the composer’s music. The Führer had heard the earlier opera Neues vom Tage in 1929 and called it “degenerate.”

In the summer of 1934 an attack on Hindemith’s music was launched in the press with the claim that the composer had great ability but was an imitator with no genuine originality, one to whom “divine inspiration will always be denied.” The diatribes soon became personal. Hindemith was declared “politically intolerable” as well as “closely related to non-Aryans” (his wife and her brother-in-law). Further performances of Mathis in any form were banned. Furtwängler published a letter of protest (“The Hindemith Case,” Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. November 25, 1934), ending: “It is certain that no one of the younger generation has done more for the international prestige of German music than Paul Hindemith.” That same day the conductor received an ovation at a morning rehearsal and several minutes of applause when he entered the pit of the Staatsoper in the evening.

  1. 1

    Klibansky learned this only after the war from US Colonel Nicolas Nabokov.

  2. 2

    Furtwängler on Music: Essays and Addresses, edited and translated by Ronald Taylor (Gower, 1991), p. 138.

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