Wilhelm Furtwangler

From New World Encyclopedia

Portrait of Furtwängler by Emil Orlik

Wilhelm Furtwängler (January 25, 1886 - November 30, 1954) was a German conductor and composer especially noted for his work with the Berlin Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic. A conductor of great stature, his unorthodox style emphasized the subjective interpretation of symphonic literature, rather than a literal reading of it, especially as pertains to presentation of structure, phrasing, and tempo.

However, Furtwängler's reputation was marred by his emphasis on German composers during the Hitler era. He became a cultural icon in his native Germany and was greatly admired by the Nazi Party leadership. Although he did not personally endorse Nazi ideology, no other musician was linked so prominently with Nazi Germany.

Although most of his recorded legacy was accomplished prior to the era of high fidelity and stereo, Furtwängler recordings remain an important testament in the history of conducting in the twentieth century.


Wilhelm's father, Adolf Furtwängler

Furtwängler was born in Berlin into a prominent family. His father Adolf was a noted archaeologist, his mother a painter. Most of his childhood was spent in Munich, where his father taught at the university. Wilhelm was given a musical education from an early age and soon developed a love of Beethoven, a composer with whom he remained closely associated throughout his life.

Early career

Alhough Furtwängler's chief fame rests on his work as a conductor, he was also a composer and regarded himself first and foremost as such. Indeed, he first took up the baton in order to perform his own works. By the time of Furtwängler's conducting debut at the age of 20, he had written several original compositions. However, they were not well received which lead him to look to conducting as a more promising career financially.

At his first concert, he led the Kaim Orchestra (now the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra) in Anton Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. He subsequently held posts at Munich, Lübeck, Mannheim, Frankfurt, and Vienna, before securing a job at the Berlin Staatskapelle in 1920. In 1922, he conducted at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra where he succeeded Arthur Nikisch, and concurrently led the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Later he became music director of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Salzburg Festival, and the Bayreuth Festival, which was regarded as the greatest post a conductor could hold in Germany at the time.

Furtwängler's performances of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Wagner are considered the most notable of his career. He was also a champion of contemporary music and gave performances of thoroughly modern works, including Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra (Bartók)|Concerto for Orchestra]].

"Third Reich" controversy

Furtwängler temporarily lost his position for insisting on performing a work by Paul Hindemith which Nazi authorities considered decadent.

Furtwängler's relationship with and attitude toward Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party was a matter of much controversy. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Furtwängler was highly critical of the party. Hermann Göring, Hitler's Minister of the Interior, soon began to bring Germany's cultural institutions under his dominion through the Chamber of Culture. His vision was to have the Berlin State Opera become central to displaying cultural prestige of German music. Furtwängler was the director of the opera at the time and became a pawn in Göring's plan.

In 1934, Furtwängler was banned from conducting the premiere of Paul Hindemith's opera Mathis der Maler, and was subsequently banished from his post at the Berlin Opera for having defied the authorities for conducting Hindemith's Mathis [[symphony] based on themes from the opera. By 1936, with Furtwängler becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the regime, there were signs that he might follow Erich Kleiber's footsteps into exile.

He was offered the principal conductor's post at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, where he would have succeeded Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini had recommended Furtwängler for the position, one of the few times he expressed admiration for a fellow conductor, an admiration, however, which was not mutual. There is every possibility that Furtwängler would have accepted the post, but a report from the Berlin branch of the Associated Press, possibly ordered by Göring, said that he was willing to take up his post at the Berlin Opera once more. This caused the mood in New York to turn against him, as it seemed that Furtwängler was now a full supporter of the Nazi Party. In a wire to the New York Philharmonic, Furtwangler stated: "Political controversy [is] disagreeable to me. I am not [a] politician but [an] exponent of German music which belongs to all humanity regardless of politics. I propose to postpone my season in the interest of the Philharmonic Society until the time [that the] public realizes that politics and music are apart."

Furtwängler never joined the Nazi Party nor did he approve of the Nazi agenda. Much like the composer Richard Strauss, he made no secret of his dislike of the Nazis. He refused to give the Nazi salute, and there is even film footage of him turning away and wiping his hand with a handkerchief after shaking the hand of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

Furtwängler directs the Berlin Philharmonic in 1942

Nevertheless, despite the Hindemith affair, Furtwängler was treated relatively well by the Nazi regime. He had a high profile and was an important cultural figure, as evidenced by his inclusion in the Gottbegnadeten list ("God-gifted list") of artists considered crucial to Nazi culture. The list, compiled by Goebbels, exempted certain artists from mobilization during the final stages of World War II. Furtwängler's concerts were often broadcast to German troops to raise morale, although authorities limited what he was allowed to perform. Furtwängler later said he tried to protect German culture from the Nazis, and it is now known that he used his influence to help Jewish musicians escape the Third Reich.

In 1943, he married his wife Elizabeth, and the couple remained together until his death in 1954. Toward the end of the war Furtwängler fled to Switzerland. It was during this troubled period that he composed what is largely considered his most significant work, the Symphony No. 2 in E minor. Work on the symphony was begun in 1944 and carried on into 1945. The music was, in the tradition of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler, composed on a grand scale for a very large orchestra with dramatic romantic themes. Another important work is the Sinfonie-Konzert (Symphonic Concerto) for piano and orchestra, completed and premiered in 1937 and revised in 1954. Many themes from this work were also incorporated into Furtwängler's unfinished Symphony No. 3 in C sharp minor. The Sinfonie-Konzert is profoundly tragic, and the incorporation of a motif, seemingly from American popular music, in the third movement raises interesting questions of Furtwängler's view of his culture's future, not unlike the "ragtime" theme in the last movement of Brahms' Second Piano Concerto.

Post-war career

Furtwängler photo from Library of Congress collection, date unknown

At his denazification trial, Furtwängler was charged with supporting Nazism by remaining in Germany, performing at Nazi Party functions, and with making an anti-semitic remark against the part-Jewish conductor Victor de Sabata. In his defense, Furtwängler said:

I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like.

Furtwängler resumed performing and recording following the war, and remained a popular conductor in Europe, although always under somewhat of a shadow. His Symphony No. 2 was given its premiere in 1948 by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Furtwängler's direction. Furtwängler and the Philharmonic recorded the [work for Deutsche Grammophon.

In 1949, Furtwängler accepted the position of principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. However the orchestra was forced to rescind the offer under the threat of a boycott from several prominent Jewish musicians, including Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubinstein. According to a New York Times report, Horowitz said that he "was prepared to forgive the small fry who had no alternative but to remain and work in Germany." Furtwängler, however, "was out of the country on several occasions and could have elected to keep out." The violinist Yehudi Menuhin, on the other hand, was among those in the Jewish music community who came to hold a positive view of Furtwängler. In 1933, he had refused to play with him, but in the late 40s, after personally investigating Furtwängler's attitudes and actions, he became more supportive and did both perform and record with him.

In his final years, Furtwängler again served as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. He died in 1954, in Ebersteinburg close to Baden-Baden. He is buried in Heidelberg's Bergfriedhof. The tenth anniversary of his death was marked by a concert in the Royal Albert Hall, London, conducted by his biographer Hans-Hubert Schönzeler.

Conducting style

Furtwängler saw symphonic music pieces as creations of nature that could only be realized into sound subjectively though the composer's art. This is why composers such as Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner were so central to Furtwängler's repertoire, as he identified them as great forces of nature.

Furtwängler consequently possessed a rather unique conducting technique. He disliked Toscanini's literalist approach to the German repertoire, and even walked out of a Toscanini concert once, calling him "a mere time-beater!" Furtwängler himself did not have a strong, incisive beat, but led his orchestras with gawky movements, sometimes appearing to be almost entranced.

Based on his view that symphonic music was a natural, rather than artificial creation, Furtwängler believed that the orchestra's sense of time should be established by the players in themselves, as in chamber music. Furtwängler would intervene, however, to show the orchestra if he felt the music's tempo needed adjustment. Furtwängler would generally hold his baton hand closer to his body and his left would be outstretched giving the expression of the phrase to the orchestra. On occasion he would violently shake his baton hand. In a 1942 video of him conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in celebration of Hitler's birthday, Furtwängler can be seen having tremendous fits as he leads the orchestra through the chorus's final cries of "Götterfunken, Götterfunken!"[1]

Despite, or perhaps because of, this unorthodox style, musicians were mesmerized by his leadership. His best performances are characterized by deep, bass-driven sonorities, soaring lyricism, and wrenching extremes of emotion co-existing with logical cogency. English critic Neville Cardus wrote that: "He did not regard the printed notes of the score as a final statement, but rather as so many symbols of an imaginative conception, ever changing and always to be felt and realized subjectively." Conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach called Furtwängler a "formidable magician, a man capable of setting an entire ensemble of musicians on fire, sending them into a state of ecstasy."

Furtwängler commemorated on a stamp for West Berlin, 1955


Though no other musician was so prominently associated with Nazi Germany, Wilhem Furtwängler remained a critic of the Third Reich and a proponent of music as belonging "to all people." This was evidenced by the courageous stand in defense of his colleague and countryman composer, Paul Hindemith. Though there are conflicting reports regarding Furtwangler's relationship with the Nazis, the Hindemith episode clearly demonstrates that his conscience was directed in a humanitarian and principled fashion.

A number of prominent late twentieth century conductors, including Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim were influenced by his approach to conducting, a style that is characterized by a decidedly non-literal approach with an emphasis on spontaneity and willfulness on the part of the conductor. Arturo Toscanini, the great literalist of conducting, represented the antithesis of this approach. Furtwängler's recordings are valued as important documents for the art of conducting.

British playwright Ronald Harwood's play Taking Sides (1995), set in 1946 in the American zone of occupied Berlin, portrays the drama surrounding U.S. accusations against Furtwängler for having served the Nazi regime. In 2001, the play was made into a motion picture directed by István Szabó, starring Harvey Keitel and featuring Stellan Skarsgård in the role of Furtwängler.


Furtwängler is well represented by numerous live recordings that are commercially available. Many were produced during World War II using experimental tape technology. After the war, the recordings were confiscated by the Soviet Union and have only recently become widely available. In spite of their limitations, the recordings from this era are widely admired by Furtwängler devotees.

  • Beethoven, Third Symphony, live performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, December 1944 (Music and Arts, Preiser, Tahra)
  • Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, live performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, June 1943 (Classica d'Oro, Deutsche Grammophon, Enterprise, Music and Arts, Opus Kura, Tahra)
  • Beethoven, Seventh Symphony, live performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, November 1943 (Classica d'Oro, Deutsche Grammophon, Music and Arts, Opus Kura)
  • Beethoven, Ninth Symphony, live performance at the re-opening of Bayreuther Festspiele with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth Höngen, Hans Hopf and Otto Edelmann. (EMI 1951).
  • Beethoven, Ninth Symphony, live performance at the 1954 Lucerne Festival with the London Philharmonia, Lucerne Festival Choir, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elsa Cavelti, Ernst Haflinger and Otto Edelmann (Music and Arts, Tahra).
  • Brahms, First Symphony, live performance with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hamburg, October 1951 (Music and Arts, Tahra)
  • Brahms, Second Symphony, live performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, January 1945 (Deutsche Grammophon, Music and Arts)
  • Brahms, Third Symphony, live performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, December 1949 (EMI)
  • Brahms, Fourth Symphony, live performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, October 1948 (EMI)
  • Bruckner, Eighth Symphony, live performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, October 1944 (Deutsche Grammophon, Music and Arts)
  • Bruckner, Ninth Symphony, live performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, October 1944 (Deutsche Grammophon)
  • Furtwängler, Second Symphony, live performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, February 1953 (Orfeo)
  • Mozart, Don Giovanni, both the 1953 and 1954 Salzburg Festival recordings (in live performance). These have been made available on several labels, but mostly EMI.
  • Schubert, Ninth Symphony, live performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, 1942 (Deutsche Grammophon, Magic Master, Music and Arts, Opus Kura)
  • Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, studio recording with Flagstad, HMV, July 1952 (EMI, Naxos) and Der Ring des Nibelungen with Wolfgang Windgassen, Ludwig Suthaus, and Martha Mödl, 1953 (EMI).
  • Richard Wagner: Die Walküre, his last recording in 1954. EMI planned to record "Der ring des Nibelungen" in the studio under Furtwängler, but he only could finish this work shortly before his death. The cast includes Martha Mödl (Brünnhilde), Leonie Rysanek (Sieglinde), Ludwig Suthaus(Siegmund), Gottlob Frick(Hunding), and Ferdinand Frantz (Wotan).


  • Bartók, First Piano Concerto, the composer as soloist, Theater Orchestra, Frankfurt, July 1, 1927
  • Schoenberg, Variations for Orchestra, op. 31, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Berlin, December 2, 1928
  • Hindemith, suite from Mathis der Maler, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Berlin, March 11, 1934
  • Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs, Kirsten Flagstad as soloist, Philharmonia Orchestra, London, May 22, 1950


For orchestra early works

  • Overture in E♭ Major, op. 3 (1899)
  • Symphony in D major (1st movement: Allegro) (1902)
  • Symphony in B minor (Largo movement) (1908) (the principal theme of this work was used as the leading theme of the 1st movement of the Symphony no. 1, in the same key)

Mature works

  • Symphonic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1937, rev. 1954)
  • Symphony No. 1 in B minor (1941)
  • Symphony No. 2 in E minor (1947)
  • Symphony No. 3 in C sharp minor (1954)

Chamber music

  • Piano Quintet (for two violins, viola, cello, and piano) in C Major (1935)
  • Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Minor (1935)
  • Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Major (1939)

Choral works

  • Schwindet ihr dunklen Wölbungen droben (Chorus of Spirits, from Goethe's Faust) (1901-1902)
  • Religöser Hymnus (1903)
  • Te Deum for Choir and Orchestra (1902-1906) (rev. 1909) (first performed 1910)


ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Ardoin, John. The Furtwangler Record. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1995. ISBN 0931340691.
  • Lebrecht, Norman. Life and Death of Classical Music. New York: Anchor Books/Random House, 2007. ASIN B001O1O6R2.
  • —. The Maestro Myth. London: Simon & Schuster, Ltd., 1991. ISBN 1559721081.
  • Prieberg, Fred K. Trial of Strength, Wilhelm Furtwangler in the Third Reich. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1555531962.

External links

All links retrieved May 5, 2023.


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