Did Furtwängler change at all after Hitler died?

From a Wall Street Journal book review by Joe Horowitz:

A much more compelling section of Mr. ­Allen’s narrative comes at the end, when he observes that Furtwängler blithely maintained his musical ideology after World War II, with no evident pause for reflection. One can agree that this says something unpleasant about the Furtwängler persona, suggesting a nearly atavistic truculence. But it is reductionist to analogize Furtwängler’s unrelenting postwar hostility to nontonal music to “the non-rational censure of ‘degenerate’ art by the Nazis.” Far more interesting is Furtwängler’s own argument that the nontonal music of Arnold Schoenberg and his followers lacks an “overview.” A calibrated long-range trajectory of musical thought was an essential ingredient of Furtwängler’s interpretive art. Absent the ­tension-and-release dynamic of tonal harmony, he had little to work with.

This is an intriguing line of thought: did modernism make maestro interpretation redundant?

Discuss.

Full review here.

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  • “did modernism make maestro interpretation redundant?”

    Yes and no, right? Obviously, there’s perhaps lesser emphasis on the ‘long line’ and the overlying narrative. But look at how Pierre Boulez could make ‘modern’ music sound organized and almost inevitable. Different skill set, I think.

    • Yes, one does not have to be a Nazi not to enjoy ‘sonic art’ and its atonal precursors. And by the way, choosing between Furtwaengler’s ’barbaric’ spirituality and Toscanini’s attempted ‘horse-race’ fidelity to the scores I take both, thank you.

      • Barbaric spirituality?
        Define it!
        You mean his holistic idiosyncrasy of letting the conscious mind sit on top of its subconscious emotional foundation? That is the definitive romantic approach. Man reaching intellectual and spiritual heights staying connected with his natural foundation. Unlike twelve tone music, which is intrinsically unnatural, constructed against natural laws of harmony and sound. Can still be interesting. But is depriving man of his natural core, if exposure is in too high dosages.
        There was nothing barbaric about Furtwängler’s understanding of art.

        • ’Barbaric’, not barbaric, spirituality – in the sense that WF consequently disrespected the scores in order to achieve something ‘deeper’ – a very Romantic approach. Listen to any of FW’s recordings of the first movement of Beethoven 9, and compare it to any of Toscanini’s recordings and you will feel how ‘barbaric’ was FW’s conducting.

          • Ah I see what you mean. But I would make an argument, that a literal to the text interpretation like Toscanini’s is actually the barbaric one, because it is uninspired. Because it reduces the musician to an executioner of notes and producer of sound, without feelings and without being “on the listen” what the music does with the room and the people in it. Because it denies the human spirit (of the interpreter).

          • P.S. of course FW’s approach in the hand of a true barbarian can indeed render barbaric results. Then it’s safer to just play the notes as written. But in the hand of a great reinterpreter, it can transcend the music into even higher spheres in the given moment in a given environment.

          • In other words, as Toscanini himself could have said, l’uomo era teutonico, un tipo duro, meticuloso pero spiritualmente barbaro, capisci? 🙂

            I would rather say that fidelity to the score enhances the composer’s intentions. However, WF disrespected the scores in a positive way, but one has to be very careful when following his example – ‘anything’ should not be allowed – just think about what Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra did with Beethoven 7.

          • I never play exactly what is written in the music when I play the bassoon. Why does the composer think that he knows more than me? After all it’s ME that’s alive and it’s ME who has to handle this cumbersome instrument and the playing is for the now and not for the past, it’s for the living and not for the dead, so the notes are there for my own expression, and the deep satisfaction I get from playing my own version of the notes, especially in the deep register, is more important that the dry, printed patronizing notes!

            Sally

          • Sally, you must have a very nice boss. Doesn’t he ever ask you to play any of his music?

          • I’m still at Clementi level with my thing, but when I’m toasted I’ll go for the sonic stuff and would not dare to expose myself to all kinds of unbearable patriarchal comments!

            Sally

          • Toscanini may have become more rigid in his last decade (not helped by the often super dry boxy recorded sound), but many of his best performances have plenty of expressiveness and passion in addtion to the emphasis on drive and precision.

            Simon

          • @ Simon
            I agree about the best of Toscanini. I but have generally found those qualities more consistently and combined with more grace in recordings of other conductors of previous generations, especially de Sabata and Fricsay. Just my personal opinion.

  • I know i am going to offend some, or many, people with the following, but freedom of speech is all about speaking one’s mind in order to try to discover the truth, and this will inevitably run the risk of offending others, or being offended, so here goes: Classical music (for want of a more accurate definition) always tells a story, makes a journey, and deals with universal values in its long-line narratives; in a sense, it tries to look at humanity’s place in the universe through its discourse, and reflects the basic processes of life itself. Atonal “music’ is almost entirely a reflection of what goes on inside the composer’s (often psychotic) head, especially when the composer ceases to look outwards, but is only preoccupied with his neurosis/psychosis; this is essentially a reflection of the basic process of degeneration and death, which are the logical outcomes of unchecked psychosis and neurosis. It is no surprise that any great musician would rather study and perform tonal music, with its complete connection to life and the universe, rather than expend energy on the various “organized” attempts to express a plethora of distorted thoughts and emotions that have no bearing on the outside world.

    • Amen to that. And note that atonality can be a useful tool to express madness in opera –the best example I know of proper use of atonality is Richard Strauss’ Elektra.

      • In Strauss’ so-called ‘atonal’ episodes, the music is still organised in a tonal context, like ‘abstract’ bits in realist piantings which suggest space or atmosphere or chaos; when Strauss wrote music which went ‘off the picture’, he expressed comparable states of mind in his protagonists: Salome, Elektra, and personalities in their environment. The ‘atonal’ bits in Strauss are still very expressive for this very reason. The same with Schoenberg’s ‘free atonal’ works before he embarked upon his 12-tone system: they often sound ‘awful’ but are still expressive as music since it suggests ‘normal’ music all the time in the background. Hence the profound expression of desolation in his ‘Vergangenes’ which is often described as ‘atonal’ but which is entirely tonal and effective in its musical expression:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwnBAtpqOJw

    • Bravo! I’m not sure this is how I would make the delineation between tonal and atonal, but the comparators work and this was really enjoyable to read, deeply-thought and pursuasively argued. Thank you for posting this!

    • On May 22 in the thread “Only One Loser in The Met vs Levine”, Mr. Ashkenazy made a malicious libel on a fellow musician. Although what he wrote had been proved in court to be false, he refused written requests to withdraw the remark. His comments above about “freedom of speech is all about speaking one’s mind in order to try to discover the truth and this will inevitably run the risk of offending others” must therefore be taken with a huge handful of salt, the more so when a blatant untruth was portrayed by him to be the truth!

      • In what way, precisely, and on whom, did I make a ‘malicious libel’? I just reviewed it and I did use the phrase ‘….although this proves nothing, of course….’ in respect of Levine. The ‘third sentence’ did not name anyone, so I see no reason to withdraw my post. I stand by what I said, which neither accuses nor claims to prove anything; it is merely factual.

        • And you are the one hiding behind the “NICK2” moniker. If you want to discuss this any further, you can always find me on Facebook, unless you be unwilling to reveal your true identity. Maybe your cimments, given your concealment, should be taken with a pillar of salt, or even a small drift of snowflakes.

        • What you wrote was this: “Another classical music performer, although equally perverted, did such things quietly in Thailand”. Given that the artist to whom you refer was mentioned in this connection on the front pages of most of the world’s media, the name is well-known. It is also well-known – and has been so stated more than once on slippedisc threads – that the artist did not hide or slink away. He elected to go to court to prove his innocence. After months of bail and court hearings during which the artist was frequently libelled as you libelled him, the court in Thailand dropped all charges. That, Mr. Ashkenazy, is fact – unlike the innuendo you now continue to spread without foundation. And you did not apologise.

          I will happily give you my name. I cannot do so on Facebook, though, since I have not joined that site and have no intention of doing so. I have not checked your own website but will do so after posting this. If there you have a personal contact email, you will soon have my name and credentials.

      • And you are the one hiding behind the “NICK2” moniker. If you want to discuss this any further, you can always find me on Facebook, unless you be unwilling to reveal your true identity. Maybe your cimments, given your concealment, should be taken with a large pillar of salt, or a large drift of snowflakes.

        • I have tried and failed to find any contact detail for you on Wikipedia. I am not sure if NL permits email addresses on this blog site. If he answers in the affirmative, I will be glad to post mine. You may then provide me privately with yours – I do not mind which address you use although I will not route this correspondence through a third party like an agent. I am sure you will accept this is reasonable.

    • Without wishing to question the artistry of Furtwangler, Callas and Richter, I find the kind of hyperbole in Michael Tanner’s Spectator review unhelpful:

      “in most of his [Furtwangler’s] performances, as can still be heard on innumerable recordings, he seems to have a larger part in the creative process than almost any other performer (only Callas and Sviatoslav Richter, both passionate admirers of his, share that feature).”

      Do only they really share that feature?? Or how about:

      “Partly too, and perhaps making people now more uneasy still, his recordings — most of them of live performances — are so overwhelming in their intensity and depth as to be unsettling, in a way that makes many listeners suspicious of their effect.”

      Do they really make listeners suspicious?

      Alan

    • Yes, I read that review too. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the WSJ (and Norman) for highlighting the particular passage above.

  • Depends on what “maestro interpretation” means. Contemporary music is so complex, it certainly needs someone to lead the whole thing, if nothing else than being a human metronome, but then again, isn’t that exactly what contemporary music is all about anyway, rhythmic and harmonic complexity?

    So in that sense, the human metronome is fulling the very essence of contemporary music, there simply is nothing more beyond: the rhythmic and harmonic complexity speak for themselves AS meaning. The composer announces to the world: “Listen to how hard my music.”

    • Anon writes: ” rhythmic and harmonic complexity speak for themselves AS meaning”

      Huh? Isn’t this true of all music? The meaning comes from the sound it makes.

  • “….. did modernism make maestro interpretation redundant?”

    It made the concept of ‘interpretation’ in itself redundant, since interpretation refers to the whole dimension of expression which is an emotional category, like the ‘inner dynamics’ of music as created by exactly what FW said: the structural form as a whole. Modernism replaced all of that by reducing music to the means, its sound and its structure, and also required a mode of listening to the thing that is happening at any moment (as Boulez explained in his writings) instead of something only happening as part of a whole. It’s cleansing the art form of everything that makes it human and emotionally living, and reducing it to its material means: ‘the medium is the message’.

    You don’t have to be a genius, or a conservative, to hear that. Any musically-gifted pair of ears can hear that. The accusation by modernist advocates that rejection of such art form as music is merely conservatism, bourgeois nostalgia and ‘not understanding your own time’ was (and still is) stupid and intellectually dishonest, and is inspired not my artistic but cynical, political considerations.

    Conductors working with sonic art have great challenges to master in terms of organisation and technique, and while they can try to infuse the gestures with something like musical expression, this quality is precisely the thing it does not want to be included. Boulez’ conducting of repertoire works give away where all this is about: he tried to render the scores as best as possible but there is no soul in them, he cleverly and astutely imitates conducting musical scores. Even his Stravinsky recordings, the music of a composer who claimed music did not express anything – and was gravely mistaken, also concerning his own music – are dry and lack the vivid imaginative quality that you can hear in, for instance, Ansermet’s recordings. Stravinsky’s music – up till his last sterile period – is full of energy, only under the hard surface of a brilliant sound.

    Hitler was a vegetarian. Does that mean that vegetarianism is fascistoid? The same with tonal music. The condemnation of the nazis of ‘degenerate music’ hit both atonal and ‘Jewish’ music and these categories were mixed-up and confused, because the nazi brain was completely mixed-up and degenerate. WF’s rejection of the atonal music he knew – Schoenberg, Webern – was obviously based upon musical considerations.

    • Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître was given BBCRadio3s Building a Library treatment earlier this year. Huge disparities among the recordings in terms of expressivity, as well as fidelity to the score. Somewhat surprisingly the most accurate was Robert Craft’s (one of the earliest recordings).
      Boulez’s tended to get more soft-centred/soporific with age.

      • Accuracy in performing Marteau is a meaningless concept, since the notes don’t form meaningfulrelationships with each other: it is all about gestures and colouristic effects, it is decorative sound art, so inaccurate renderings are as good as accurate. On that point the difference with music is obvious. Any attempt to make it ‘expressive’ is projecting into the work something that it wants to avoid – and one ends-up with pathetic gestures like the throwing of confetti at wedding parties.

        • I’ve played plenty of modern music in my time. I don’t think I fully agree with your conclusion, John. To me, modern music – regardless of how atonal or not – is like most any other kind of music: some of it is better than others. I find much of it to be incredibly expressive – sometimes too much so. And let’s face it, “expressive” is a subjective concept. One person’s ‘sterile’ can be another person’s ‘expressive’.

          • I never condenmed ‘modern music’. I only think it is intellectually dishonest to claim that atonal modernism, i.e. sound art, is music; I think it is a different art form altogether. Hence the rejection of many truly gifted performers – sound art requires very different capacities. If ‘modern music’ is expressive, I think either it was not sound art, or it was not expressive, or: not expressive in a musical sense.

    • Because it is so many-sided and complex, and because it does not designate (and thus lacks our preferred form of “concreteness”), it is only too easy to convert impatient reaction into confident assertion, and substitute bellicose opinion for self-educated listening; as here..

  • Now I know what went wrong!

    Everyone who recognized atonal music was a foolish mistake was shamed into silence with accusations of “Nazi!”

  • There can be no unqualified answer to a question based on such a sweeping generalization. There are many different kinds of modernism, many different kinds of atonality, and many different kinds of work that mix tonality and atonality.

    Berg’s violin concerto, for example, is a modernist classic with a profound structural organization. The first section is even in sonata allegro form (or at least something very close to it.) It is also a deeply emotional work inspired by the death of Alma Mahler’s daughter. It combines tonal and atonal elements, but this does not alter its modernist credentials.

    Wozzeck is a massive and expressive musical structure deeply dependent upon proper tempos and timings.

    Berio’s Sinfonia is another modernist classic that requires a conductor with a true sense of structure, as well as an understanding of the work’s emotional expressiveness.

    Ives’ symphonic works require a keen sense of structure by the conductor.

    Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Hans Werner Henze wrote large operatic works that require conductors who understand their musical and dramatic structure.

    Countless examples of profoundly structured modernist music could be named.

    Reviewing the comments, we see how there is nothing that creates greater certainty and broader assertions of truth than ignorance. A big problem in Trumpistan on many different levels. One of the hallmarks of the 20th century was the understanding that our truths are always somewhat conditional. Relativity, phenomenology, quantum mechanics, World Wars, Holocausts, the nuclear evaporation of cities, class warfare, civil rights struggles, the division of the world into massive ideological blocks. Never mind, let’s sweep away entire epochs of human thought and expression with our transcendental certainties………

    • I think Horowitz is entirely right in his assessment.

      William’s comment is to be taken seriously, and seems to me born from misunderstanding of what atonal modernism was and where it stood for. And that is something easily detected by the musical ear that Furtwängler was.

      “There are many different kinds of modernism, many different kinds of atonality, and many different kinds of work that mix tonality and atonality.” That is true, but much depends upon how one defines tonality, and atonality, and what one thinks is ‘modernism’, which was a diverse cultural movement, but with a couple of central tenets, and a program, like a political party. For music, one can safely conclude that an aesthetic which tries to avoid any relationship between the tones that may refer to the harmonic series, and thus would establish an ‘inner space’ where energies move from one articulation point to another, is an art form which rejects not a style, but the fundament of music. I think that this can be called modernism: reduction of music to its material: ‘pure’ sound without the dimension of inner tonal space and all of its associations with expression and long-term tonal form (i.e.: tradition). There are tonal works including ‘atonal’ elements, and the other way around, but that does not diminish in any way the fundamental difference of the idea of modernism in comparison with music.

      Tonality is, by the way, not merely the harmonic system of keys, but a much wider network of relationships as can by heard in Debussy, middle Schoenberg, Scriabine, Szymanowski, Bartok, Britten, etc.

      Berg’s violin concerto is a tonal work, since the tones are musically, tonally, related to each other in however stretched ways (therefore he could incorporate the Bach quotation without stylistic rupture). That it is also (kind of) 12-tone piece, is Berg’s craziness, since he did not need that system at all, as Wozzeck shows (also a tonal work, albeit at the very edge of coherence which is an expressive means given the subject; the use of traditional forms in that opera was an attempt by Berg to keep himself on the rails in that pool of insanity and absurdism). So, since Berg composed tonally, he is not really a modernist composer – he fell into the trap of Schoenbergian myth making and complained bitterly about the much greater and cumbersome composing process with all the little scraps of paper at hand with all the series and their permutations.

      Berio’s Sinfonia is an atonal work – that is: its aesthetic context is atonal – but in which tonal elements are incorporated. That is why it is an interesting work also from a musical point of view – if one can endure its longwinded pretentiousness. In the first mvt, first half, he uses a diminished seventh chord as a fixed ‘anker’ around which the atonal insanity ‘happens’. It is as if the piece hangs with its finger nails at the edge of a ridge, over the deep abyss of total chaos, after which a toccata-like neurosis with random notes hammers-in the modern predicament:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJXHDct6FWI

      The crazy quotation mvt is concept art à Rauschenberg, with bits of the repertoire cleverly woven into a tapestry, of which the basis is a Mahler movement. Just awful.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcRyNRybeTA

      Ives’ work requires a big cupboard to keep his scores for future anthopologists. He is honoured as one of the very first people who thought that music was, in the first place, its sound and not its meaning. It is of some interest to understand that he was a hobby composer, an amateur, next to his successful career as an insurance man. To compensate for the security obsessions of his daily work, he jumped into the total insecurity of sonic explorations which must have been great fun to do.

      http://johnborstlap.com/why-ives-is-not-a-great-composer/

      Zimmermann and Henze wrote neo-expressionistic theatre works where the chaotic organisation in the pit has to express what is going-on on the stage. Henze wrote some effective music though, and where it is expressive, he is tonal – in the sense middle Schoenberg is tonal and much of Berg. Zimmermann had a postmodern idea: Der Kugelform der Zeit, where all idioms, styles, methods of music history are present at the same time and entirely available to the contemporary composer. The way he put this into practice though, was modernistic: he took it literally and propped his pieces (like Die Soldaten) full with stuff without integrating the material. This literalness is a result of the modernist idea of the prioriy of the material as such.

      A truly modernist, atonal work may be thoroughly structured, or be entirely random, and the result may sound exactly the same – this was the quite disappointing outcome of two opposite opinions in the sixties. You can organise disconnected notes rationally, but the organisation remains on paper and is not audible. But that does not matter – for instance, nobody has convincingly demonstrated how Boulez’ ‘Le Marteau sans Maitre’ is serial, since he used the organisational system in an idiosyncratic way, strictly and also, not strictly at all – which is quite pointless anyway, it is decorative sound art and organisation is entirely random and always ‘OK’ in such idiom. You can cut the piece into smaller episodes and glue them together in another order and it would not make an aesthetic difference.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4uxwxOdb8P0

      The reference to ignorance and broad assertions, trumpism even, in WiIliam’s comment, are stock-in-trade criticisms of modernist ideology, which wants us to believe that there is an immense depth in modernist ideas in music, which attempted to cancel the musical tradition and begin from scratch – but with the help of loads of theory and quasi-scientific thinking which had to make-up for the lack of musical content. Serious art music has nothing to do with “relativity, phenomenology, quantum mechanics, World Wars, Holocausts, the nuclear evaporation of cities, class warfare, civil rights struggles, the division of the world into massive ideological blocks”…. but all of these experiences of modernity dreamed-up a vision of the world as a psychopatic institution where the staff has fled, which may be true, but with which we are not much helped.

      And in the end, established insanity and alienation ends-up as state-subsidized destruction:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwlCD2y2tBA

    • Mr. Osborne, I’m beginning to like your thoughts more and more. I don’t always agree, but you’re very persuasive – what you say is always well thought out.

  • Certain topics in SD always lead to a huge number of comments, often containing very passionate opinions. ‘Wilhelm Furtwängler’ is one such topic. It is even more impressive if we consider that 99% of his recording legacy sounds as if it was registered under the water.

    • I take it that you’ve never heard his Tristan und Isolde with Flagstad, Suthaus, Fischer-Dieskau, etc. and the Philharmonia Orchestra. A very ‘above-water’ recording of a legendary performance.

      • I have been listening to Furtwaengler recordings since the late 1970’s, just after the ‘Furtwaengler revival’ when almost everything he recorded has been reissued starting with the ‘terrible’ (in terms of sound quality) Ring recorded in Rome. By the way, the ‘Furtwaengler fever’ was such that around 1980 the only ‘historical conductor’ selling more vinyl LPs than Furtwaengler was Tulio Serafin, who conducted most of the La Scala recordings of the 1950’s (especially those with Maria Callas). The few recordings that are quite good are the studio recording of ‘Tristan und Isolde’, that you refer to, and a few surviving war-time recordings done with Magnetophon technology (of which the most realistic that I know is Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony taped in March 1944 – a technical wonder!). Long in the 1950’s his recordings were shamefully poor from the sound quality point of view.

  • Pointing out that there happen to exist a few interesting atonal works is like pointing that there happen to exist a few diseases with beneficial side effects… it doesn’t begin to justify spending decades seeking worse ones.

    The atonal apostles like to comfort themselves by claiming it’s all the audience’s fault, that they just aren’t bright enough or studious enough or open-minded enough.

    “Trumpistan!”

    I’m not coming at this from “ignorance” or lack of exposure. I’ve taken the theory classes, read the textbooks, sat through the lectures, attended the concerts… I even played in the Very Serious Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer world premiere!

    I’ve given it a fair shot.

    It is tedious, gimmicky crap. An Emperor’s-New-Clothes delusion that has been pursued and promoted far beyond what any need to experiment and consider new possibilities could merit.

  • To me, ‘modern’ music is like most any other genre of music: some works are better than other ones. To put a subjective spin on it, my ‘mood’ at the moment has a lot to do with how receptive I am (or not).

    • There is nothing wrong with ‘modern music’. But what is an ongoing scandal, is the claim that sound art (a subgenre of ‘modern music’) is just a continuation of ‘the’ musical tradition, while its advocates have done their very best to completely and fundamentally reject that tradition. This can easily be demonstrated by numerous ideological writings.

  • Is it still necessary to point out that Furtwängler put Music higher than Politics?
    Lets not forget two minor details: The “Hindemith-Case” in 1934/35, and the fact that Furtwängler conducted the premiere of Arnold Schönberg’s op.31 in December 1928…

    • “put Music higher than Politics?”
      And yet these two areas are more intwined than we might care to think.
      Take the often discussed area of education and how this can be dependant on Government funding if you hope to reach a wide demographic of the population. In the U.K. I’d say this has changed over the past 20years or so.

    • Your claim, I don’t think, is quite true. He had little interest in public affairs, but he had definite political views (the superiority of the German music tradition, and hence Germany’s place in the world; and that the Nazi’s were philistine thugs, no better than the ordinary plebs who knew nothing about culture).

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