What Furtwängler brought to the party

What Furtwängler brought to the party


norman lebrecht

August 10, 2018

Following a flood of engaged responses on Slipped Disc, Joseph Horowitz has expanded his original perceptions on the Berlin Philharmonic conductors and the Nazis.

Here’s a taster:

Thanks so much for this engrossing feedback. Maybe we could summarize that the truth about Furtwangler falls within these two polarities:

1.He stressed the communal experience of music, felt he couldnt access that outside Germanic lands (I find this credible), so he accommodated the Third Reich insofar as he had to, so long as he didnt have to join the Party and otherwise publicly endorse Nazi ideology, ethnic cleansing, book-burning. At the same time, his conservative cultural/political mindset created some degree of common ground with the Nazis. Think of Mann’s superiority posture in Reflections of a Non-Political Man (worth reading if you don’t know it). I cannot envision WF feeling personally kindred to a Hitler or Gobbels; his breeding was aristocratic.

2.All of the above – but add to that some degree of actual enthusiasm for what the Third Reich stood for – eg concerts that were patriotic occasions, flaunting German exceptionalism/Kunst. Especially given the passions/exigencies of wartime. In other words: crossing the line Mann refused to cross, and doing so with some degree of fervor….

Meanwhile, thanks to Norman Lebrecht, a second thread of responses on slippedisc.com tackled another aspect of the Furtwangler phenomenon: his rejection of non-tonal music and its implications for musical interpretation.

I now feel impelled to revisit Topic A – not Furtwangler the man (B), but Furtwangler the conductor – and see what A and B put together look like today. …

Read on here.



  • Novagerio says:

    “Rejection of non-tonal music and its implications for musical interpretation” ‘
    – He did however premier the Schönberg opus 31 Orchestral Variations in December 1928 (- greeted by a tumultuous scandal!)…

    Maybe Furtwängler, like later Karajan didn’t exactly appreciate booing and havoc in the hall after a world premiere – in Karajan’s case with Henze’s Antifone in 1963.

  • Tamino says:

    „At the same time, his conservative cultural/political mindset created some degree of common ground with the Nazis.“

    Total uneducated nonsense.

    • John Borstlap says:

      No – the nazis had annexed the classical tradition within which German music is a highlight, as an argument to be able to condemn ‘entartete Kunst’ and murder its artists. They needed such thing, with its deep historical respectability, to give some gloss of legitimacy of the regime. That is why people like WF and R Strauss, and many others, were taken-in. German musicians were, in the 1st half of the last century, very politicized, and often suffering from superiority complexes: Schoenberg thought in the twenties that his 12-tone system would garantee the dominance of German music for the next hundred years, the famous theorist Heinrich Schenker was convinced that German music provided the standards by which ALL music should be measured, Webern was an enthusiastic nazi fan even through the war years, Adorno and Hindemith were early nazi enthusiasts until they found that actually the regime was hostile to them, etc. etc. WF must have felt, partly, that the nazis were ‘right’ in their assessment of German music and he took it seriously.

      But is it true? Is German music superior? That depends upon what would be considered ‘German music’ and what would be meant by ‘superior’. It is a naive and pointless question like which vegetable is the most tasty. Ironically, most of the best German musicologists, writing-up the German tradition, emigrated to the USA because of being ‘Jewish’, where they continued to influence the field. The developments in schenkerian analysis, which began in America, was the fruit of this influx. The nazis chased a group out of the country which they could have used for their plans – the most expert and trustworthy academics for the German cultural identity cause, and they were Jews.

      • Tamino says:

        „WF must have felt, partly, that the nazis were ‘right’ in their assessment of German music and he took it seriously.“


        Why should he? He despised the Nazis.

        „Is German music superior?“

        That‘s a straw man. A reductionist view through a keyhole from an detached outside position.
        German culture, German music, was never defined within clear cut borders. It‘s an excercise in transcendence to understand that.
        But it‘s typical for people from small nations to not get that blurry vastness, that global outreach.

        • John Borstlap says:

          One can despise other people and still think that they are right.

          I know, it’s all quite difficult, but with some patience it is not altogether impossible that limitations which hinder insights, can be overcome. Keep courage! Maybe this helps:


          • Tamino says:

            It was 12 years out of many hundreds of years of cultural history. Admittedly very bad 12 years. But let’s put it also a bit more in perspective.
            Even for one man’s short life, like Furtwängler’s, those were fortunately ‘only’ 12 years of his life and professional career.
            Furtwängler rightfully knew, that his human cultural history he grew up in, where he practiced and got inspired from, was so much larger and infinite compared to the fly shit the Nazis were in the bigger context.
            It’s so annoying that in classical music too many of the non-germans succumb to their cultural inferiority complexes, feeling the need to distort the history, overblow certain phenomena that put the middle European cultural history into a bad light.

          • Tamino says:

            And you saying Furtwängler thought the Nazis were right is vile nonsense, the witnesses and documented accounts say the opposite, and you know it.

          • John Borstlap says:

            To Tamino:

            Rude, superficial conclusions resulting from missing the point of complex texts and subjects.

            Ironically, I fully agree with the objection to the dirt being thrown on the German musical tradition as a whole because of those terrible years. But because of the brown period, German new music after the war locked itself up in morally-correct modernism because it had been condemned by the nazis, with the result that destructive nonsense became perfectly acceptable and state-subsidized, not because of being artistically interesting but because of locating itself at ‘the right side of history’:


          • william osborne says:

            Humans are beautiful and ugly, harmonious and dissonant, noble and beastly. All of these characteristic are thus part of the artist’s pallet of observation and expression. Modernists spent about 80 years exploring those darker colors of human nature — along with a lot of counterfeit mimics. Given the context, I’m not sure we should hold that work against them. We take their discoveries for granted now, and forget they were once revelatory and helped humanity better understand itself.

            Tyrants like Hitler and Stalin wanted to suppress the modernist project. It wasn’t because their work was ugly or dissonant, or that there were a good number of phonies mixed into the lot. It was because their work made people think and question. A more discerning and differentiated view that evaluates which works and ideas of the modernist epoch worked and which didn’t might be more fruitful.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      The author of the text writes: “He undoubtedly found certain means deplorable; less certain is it that he disputed the ends ”

      I am afraid this is nonsense. Furtwangler may have been a cultural snob and at perhaps even indifferent to the Jews as a people. But he certainly did not want to eliminate them. He rather had the typical aristocrats hostility to the workers and peasants. But no aristocratic wants to eliminate their peasants, they want them to work in the fields and know their place. The aristocratic life-style requires someone else to do the work.

      This is very different from the right-wing popularism of the Nazi movement: a movement of the small town petty bourgeoisie and peasant farmers that celebrated their ignorance, bigotry and sense of national superiority.

  • Tamino says:

    „In other words: crossing the line Mann refused to cross, and doing so with some degree of fervor….“

    Nonsense again. Mann was a writer, he needed paper and a pen.
    Furtwängler was s conductor. He needed a state funded orchestra, concert hall…

    Apples and oranges

    • John Borstlap says:

      No, because Mann was widely read and famous, what he wrote about politics had influence, and certainly at the time when the cultural elites of both Germany and France were mobilized in the war efforts and for which they were very eager: for them, it was also and foremost a cultural war for domination.

      (Horowitz is an enormously erudite and well-read man, it may be advisable to be a bit cautious in reactions to the writings of such people to avoid exposing one’s profound abyss of ignorance, even under a pseudonime.)

      • Tamino says:

        Being well read doesn‘t save many men from bad intentions, nor does it heal character flaws.

        • John Borstlap says:

          As said elsewhere, the best evidence of WF’s personality can be found in Berta Geissmar’s memoirs ‘The Baton and the Jackboot’.

          From her witness it clearly appears that the war period and aftermath had deeply affected WF and undermined his health – he seemed not to be able to disentangle, to thoroughly understand, the knot of his involvement, however unintentional. And clearly the heart of the matter was that somehow the nazis had touched upon a notion he had held dear himself and which he could not relate to the catastrophes.

          • Tamino says:


            „Meint Thomas Mann wirklich, dass man im Deutschland Himmlers nicht Beethoven musizieren durfte? Konnte er sich nicht denken, dass niemals Menschen es nötiger hatten, es inniger und schmerzlicher ersehnten, Beethoven und seine Botschaft der Freiheit und Menschenliebe zu hören, zu erleben, als gerade die Deutschen, die unter dem Terror Himmlers leben mussten? Ich konnte Deutschland in seiner tiefsten Not nicht verlassen!“

            Is that a man who thinks that the Nazis were right?

          • John Borstlap says:

            To Tamino:

            I never said that WF thought the nazis ‘were right’, I explained that both the nazis and he put the German musical tradition in the centre of attention, but for entirely different reasons, and that must have been deeply disturbing for him. If you had carefully read my blogpost on the matter, and understood it, that would have been immediately clear.

          • Tamino says:

            Your words:
            „WF must have felt, partly, that the nazis were ‘right’ in their assessment of German music and he took it seriously.“

          • John Borstlap says:

            To Tamino:

            It can be deduced from Berta Geissmar’s memoirs that WF thought that the nazis were partly ‘right’ by giving the German musical tradition importance in terms of cultural identity. That does not diminish the entirely criminal use of it by the regime, but makes it understandable why WF concluded he had to stay and to fight for its ‘right’ function, without realizing that music – being non-conceptual – does not convey a clear ‘message’. What was clear to WF was not necessarily clear to listeners: in a German audience at the time there may have been listeners who knew exactly what the music truly ‘meant’ and drew some consolation from it, and others who listened to the same music in the way the nazis hoped for – like audiences in the Soviet Union ‘understanding’ Shostakovich’s critical ‘message’ in his cynical symphonies, while in the same time the loyal party adherents hearing them as expressions of the ‘right’ communist music. No wonder WF got into a knot about it all.

  • buxtehude says:

    Here’s a late-1940 recording of the 5th Brandenburg, Furtwangler conducting from the keyboard. This interpretation is old-school to the max, and the quality of this “wartime acetate” about the worst you are every likely to hear. It’s also very slow, draggy. “That’s because F could hardly play!” is the obvious response.

    All true, but if you hear anyone else even approaching his playing of the cadenza in the loveliness dept, please let me know. His ability to discover beauty in a score is just remarkable.

    Now any claim that his relationship to the Third Reich is of no matter because he made beautiful music, is a sure sign of low political culture. But I wonder if it might help to see him in the round by comparing his misadventure to Maxim Gorky’s.

    Gorky’s role in obscuring the true nature of the Lenin-Stalin revo among sentimental Rusophiles and the non-crackpot left abroad, was very great; F functioned for Hitler a little along a same lines. Both men despised their respective leaders, protected artists where they could, and tried to keep their homeland tried in some way to world culture.

    The central fact, or sin for both was of blundering into a game that was way above their heads. They were artists, not politicians; they were courted, not hounded; they imagined they were serving the best in their countries; it’s not so easy to know just when it’s time to run, as it is in retrospect. Before they knew it they were trapped.

    Moral: go easy on the moralizing.

  • David H Spence says:

    And today we are potentially stuck with Thielemann, Welser-Most, and Honeck. Kirill Petrenko is no better. Thielemann and Welser-Most I know can fare quite well at times in the opera house, but other times not so well, and I have yet to hear Welser-Most do anything far above what could be called routine in the orchestral repertoire and Thielemann not far more often than that.

    Welser-Most also got the music critic at the Plain Dealer sacked for criticizing him too much. Had this critic been more at least mindlessly so of a pro-German or pro-Teutonic bent, we most likely would not have heard anything greater out of this than just so much acquiescence.

    With Futtwangler, there were likely a few compromises made that perhaps he should not have, but what Joseph Horowitz writes is a low blow and a tedious, already thoroughly assessed one at that. How would have any of the three or four i listed above fared under similar circumstances? Why, as an aside, no mention of Herbert von Karajan, who joined the party out of a motive of sheer opportunism?

    Those folks who both hated the Nazi regime, including both Furtwangler and his wife, and loved German culture and true aesthetic to accompany it, including with their effort to save it from the barbarism that gripped their country (and Europe) during the 1930’s and 1940’s, compared with now, may not have known how lucky they had it, albeit during a time fraught with great difficulties in just about every other conceivable way.

    I fear the prospect of Welser-Most getting on the Concertgebouw list, should Cleveland all of a sudden find themselves weary of him. As an aside, how many of you readers have ever listened to the wartime Brahms First with Concertgebouw and Herbert von Karajan? They do not sound like they want to be playing for him at all. (A Furtwangler broadcast of the same piece with them is much to be preferred). Pardon me should I have engaged in any untoward hyperbole here.

    David H Spence