Why Furtwängler fans are so touchy

Why Furtwängler fans are so touchy


norman lebrecht

October 21, 2018

Over nearly 40 years of writing about music I have learned that one subject will bring readers clamouring for my head.

Wilhelm Furtwängler is the touchiest subject in classical music.

Not because there is any doubt about his status – he was one of the most interesting and important conductors of all time – but because of his role in Nazi Germany, a role over which he played dumb, or maybe genuinely failed to understand.

Furtwängler, as has been shown time and again, was in denial about Hitler and the Nazis.

He claimed to serve the German nation while he was actually boosting the prestige of the Nazi regime.

His moral stance was, at best, ambivalent. His fans, however, can see only whiter than white.

That perceptual difference will never be resolved, but it will not stop me commenting when new evidence arrives of the conductor’s uniquely compromised situation.



  • The new format with thumb up and down symbols will add a new level of tribalism to the vociferous group of oddly reactionary commentators on this site. One wonders if they are representative of the classical music fan base, or if they are something particular to this blog.

    • Alex Davies says:

      Based on personal experience, I think they are particular to this blog.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      For all their downsides, the thumbs up and down symbols may help call out trolls and extreme viewpoints, without paying to them undeserved attention by responding.

      • Brettermeier says:

        “For all their downsides, the thumbs up and down symbols may help call out trolls and extreme viewpoints, without paying to them undeserved attention by responding.”

        That’s so adorable! You also could ask the trolls nicely to identify as such by adding [troll] to their usernames!

        If I’d want your comment to have +100 votes, you’d have it. If I’d want your comment to have -1000 votes, you’d have it. There’s no protection here against that.

        That would be funny, wouldn’t it? Your comments would seemingly have “extreme viewpoints”. (Fun fact: That’s how Russian media does it.)

        Trolls do chaos. And they have indefinitely more thumbs than you could grow in a lifetime. Don’t invite them to a war of thumbs.

  • Pedro says:

    Furtwängler was much worse than Karajan regarding his participation in the Nazi regime namely because he was 22 years older and he kept the top job during all those years. Each time I watch the Meistersingers ouverture on YouTube with all those swastikas on the back, I also think of Fritz Busch and Erich Kleiber who left the country as soon as they could.

    • Jack says:

      Of Kleiber, you are correct. Busch was fired from his post by the Nazis and had no future in Germany.

    • Tamino says:

      Please educate yourself better, before you participate in public discussions.
      Furtwängler didn’t “keep the top job during all this years”
      Fritz Busch didn’t leave “as soon as he could”. He left after he was driven out by a Nazi mob, not because he wanted to, but because he had to.

  • Tamino says:

    Not much critical self reflection, Sir? You just missed a good opportunity for that.
    If you would understand something as basic as the difference between ‘hearsay’ and ‘evidence’, we wouldn’t even be talking here.
    What is this? A 1st grader’s blog about classical music?
    What is your authority and competence to talk about any of these subjects? It certainly isn’t self evident. Your standards are below anything that is acceptable anywhere for a debate, academia, journalism, musicology. Nobody in the biz wants to be associated with you anymore.

  • Alexander says:

    Ars longa vita brevis or something in a way
    just my opinion , of course …..

  • Alexander says:

    Ars longa vita brevis or something in a way
    just my opinion of course

  • Radames says:

    Furtwängler’s motivation was to keep the great things alive, the art, and to help the people recognise those and the values associated with them. This is an incredibly noble goal and came at considerable personal sacrifice. Furthermore, he saved a considerable number of “undesired” colleagues, at considerable personal risk. The argument that he was thereby “supporting the system” is in my view beside the point. His motivation was not to support the system but to support the arts, the culture and the people. The balance he had to strike was whether supporting those was more important than the perception that he was supporting the system at the same time. He was intelligent enough to recognise that the system didn’t “need” his support and certainly didn’t rely on it, that therefore his other motivations outweighed.

    We may in retrospect discuss whether we personally would have decided differently, but I find it a long shot to criticise him for it. Unlike several well known colleagues, he was never any member of the party or took on any propaganda appointments nor tried to further his personal career.

    Call me “touchy” or not – these are pretty rational arguments and every reader may with those aspects in mind go through that thought experiment himself/herself of what they would have done. Think of musician colleagues nowadays who live in totalitarian regimes, would you expect them to flee to earn respect?

    • By supporting the art form, WF let it – and himself – be used by the regime, simply that. So, however one turns that complex knot around, that fact remains. Suppressors are encouraged by such attitude of artists, because such regimes only see the useful tool to acquire respectability.

      • Brettermeier says:

        What he said.

      • Tamino says:

        He let himself be used by the regime. But he also gave hope and a refuge to thousands of people who felt in inner emigration in his concerts. We know from Goebbel’s in writing, that he never felt encouraged by Furtwängler and that he thought WF never fully collaborated. It’s a complex life in very difficult and challenging times. Much more challenging than most of us thankfully ever will have to face.

    • monsoon says:

      He helped normalize a fascist regime by creating the appearance that free expression of the arts existed under the Nazis.

      Every public concert was controlled by the Nazis. The notion that he was “not supporting the system but was supporting the arts” misses the forest for the trees.

      • People living in a closed social system controlled by an evil regime still have their spirit free, as in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and can ‘commune’ with the free part of the music played even in an oppressed and controlled situation. The non-conceptual nature of music makes both annexation by a regime possible but also the sharing of values which cannot be touched by any regime. Thus it is possible that a Beethoven symphony expressing freedom, rebellion, humanist values etc. when performed under a swastika conveys those values to audiences while the authorities think it confirms and approves their control.

  • Caravaggio says:

    The man was indeed and without doubt compromised. After all he knew a Nazi or two or three in his life. However, as another commenter in another recent Furtwängler thread wrote, why not also give some in-depth attention to the case against Karl Bōhm? Or against Herbert von Karajan? Or Willem Mengelberg? Or Hans Knappertsbusch? Or Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whom the British classical musical establishment of her time loved so much? Et.al.

    • Frankster says:

      The young Schwartzkopf sang for conquering troops in the Palais Garnier after Paris fell. It was decades before she ever saw the inside again.

      • Years ago I saw an extensive documentary about her, where she gave herself away as a very neurotic and hard woman, admiring the hardness of her husband, the record producer. But she also exposed an extreme vulnerability which she tried to suppress. My guess is that in the nazi era she was existentially terrified and fought as a harpy to get her singing on the rails, whatever the costs. And of course she was compromised.

  • The frustrations about the erosion of the standing of the ‘German classical tradition’ combined with chaotic politics of the Weimar Republic and increasing cultural internationaism led many artists to believe that the nazis would ‘clear things up’, and help restore German cultural identity, and of course they got into a knot of denial. The same with R Strauss:


  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Let me make the discussion a little more spicy – if you are a touchy WF-fan please disregard my comment, I know that you will argument about my irrefutable, abject ignorance, call me names etc – I think that WF, surely “one of the most interesting and important conductors of all time”, would not be as interesting if we disregard his biography and focus on an unprejudiced listening of his recording legacy.

    • Robin Landseadel says:

      His recording of Bruckner’s 9th symphony encapsulates the horror of the time and place—Berlin, 1944—it was recorded. Can’t separate the music from the zeitgeist from which it emerged.

      • That’s what I always think when listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, how they treated insomnia in the early 18th century, and I always feel guilty that I don’t fall asleep while listening.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        Beethoven’s Symphony Nr. 6 with WF and the Berlin Philharmonic recorded in two concerts, 20th and 22nd March 1944, is for me one of the most exciting interpretations of this work. It raises strong emotions in the listener, and the sound quality is exceptional for 1944 (probably recorded in Magnetophon technique). However, I wonder how much one is impressed by the date and local of the recording resulting in a tension that is more than the music, as if the bombs will fall down at any moment and kill the orchestra, in the tempest episode it is as if you listen to the bombing. And I know of a few other exceptional recordings by him that are rather the exception, not the rule, and the historic bias is unavoidable. On unprejudiced listening, however, WF runs his own race, and systematically disrespects the scores – WF was the ‘Glenn Gould’ of the conductor class.

        • Simon says:

          Without question a great comparison: both longed to go beyond the composer, to reach somewhere extraordinary in their interpretations. WF’s Tristan & Meistersingers are for me and my students transcendent experiences.

      • So true. It is an utterly unique and captivating recording.

      • So true. It is an utterly unique and captivating performance. The end in particular is especially haunting, which is one reason why I love the uncompleted version.

  • Gerald Stein says:

    As a clinical psychologist, I’d say the following. In treatment (and any serious look into one’s own mirror) one’s observes all sorts of psychological defenses: denial, rationalization, avoidance, compartmentalization, and projection are just a start. We have all seen people who were kind, decent, and thoughtful turn by inches into something less admirable. It is too easy to judge from a different time and place what one might have done in Furtwängler’s position or as a German Jew before WWII or as an average German citizen during it. The Stoic philosophers tell us, however, no one knows who he is until he is tested. I can only be grateful that I was never tested in this way. As to other, less awful tests, I’ve passed some and failed others. We might do better for ourselves in the current fraught political world to spend our time on self-improvement and the action we can take now than on the endless debate over Furtwängler.

  • steven holloway says:

    I’m a touch puzzled as to why you have written a post to say that opposing views will not stop you commenting on F when, of course, no one is trying to stop you writing on this issue or on who just got married or on the latest sex scandal. I cannot but suspect that this present post is simply a combination of your limited capacity for acceptance of opposing viewpoints and your infinite capacity for creating clickbait.

  • Robin Landseadel says:

    I used to have a classical music program, back in the 1990s, on KPFA in Berkeley, California. Managed to interview Furtwängler’s secretary, who insisted that I not record the interview. Have no idea why she would be so paranoid. The big takeaway from this was her saying “He was spineless”, which makes sense on multiple levels.

    Truth to tell, though I found his recordings compelling, they don’t repeat very well, there is so much distortion and bending of the musical line in his performances and so many of his performances are horribly recorded.

    I have similar feelings about the cult of Toscanini as well.

  • Lynn Raley says:

    What about Karajan?

  • Lynn Raley says:

    And Karajan?

  • Ted says:

    Norman Lebrecht mentions Furtwängler, and one of the comments (by Lynn Raley) mentions Karajan. But no one has brought up the big famous German conductor who (likely) had the worst Nazi-problem: Karl Böhm, who is plausibly alleged to have mused, many years after the Third Reich died: “Vell, vee ditn’t kill ahll the Chews, but at least vee tried!”

    • Jack says:

      Key word here: alleged
      It’s well known that Bohm — and Knappertsbusch and others — stayed in Germany and were party members. Gilding the lily with unattributed quotes only demeans your point.

      • Fritz Curzon says:

        One reason some artists stayed in Germany between 33 and 38 was because (as far as Austria is concerned), they were required to pay a 1.000 Reichsmark fine for performing there. NS party members I certainly don’t condone. But my opera-singer mother, who sadly died in 1949, is recently coming under fire for bolstering the Nazis through her art. A historian picked up on the fact that she did not return to the Salzburg Festival between 34 and 38 (the year of the Anschluss) having sung there in 31 to 33. A newspaper report on the 2016 launch of the historian’s book by condensing the gist of the three page chapter, describes her as running off to Germany to profit from colluding with the Nazis- despite the fact that she had lived in Berlin and Dresden since 1929 and been a member of the latter State Opera since 1930. The historian failed to mention that she sang under Bruno Walter in Vienna in 1936 and also took part in a Mahler Anniversary concert- which earned her a very sharp rebuke from Goebbel’s office threatening an end to her career. There do exist a couple of slightly awkward photographs of her and others with the likes of Goebbels-eg at the reception for the first post-Anschluss Salzburger Festspiele- taken at the behest of Goebbels, of course. There is more, but the question of how we would have reacted in those days has to be seen in the context of the fear and repression of that regime of which we have no personal experience though, with modern technology, we can see it developing more clearly and enlist support to fight it -as it must be fought.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Knappertsbusch never joined the Nazi party and was known for his rather open contempt for them (which sometimes got him into trouble). However, he stayed in Germany during the Nazi period.

    • Robert Groen says:

      I don’t think “plausibly alleged” would get you very far in a court of law…

  • Rich C. says:

    Norman, your ‘evidence’ seems to be one person’s testimony without corroboration. Dr. Christine Ford anyone?

  • Robert Manno says:

    “The Gestapo had compiled a huge dossier on Furtwängler, who was near the top of their blacklist; as Himmler so delicately put it, “There is no Jew, filthy as he may be, for whom Furtwängler does not stretch out a helping hand.” Under pretext of complicity in a failed July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, Furtwängler was targeted for liquidation. Albert Speer, chief architect of the Reich and an ardent admirer, warned Furtwängler that he had to flee for his life.

    After conducting in Vienna, Furtwängler claimed to have fallen and suffered a concussion and informed Berlin that his return would have to be delayed until he recuperated. On February 7, 1945 he escaped to Switzerland.”

  • Paul Capon says:

    Furtwängler was undoubtedly a fellow traveler with the Naxi, whether he turned a blind eye or went along with it. Such as the position of those in authority at the time. However, his protestation of wanting to protect German Music always seemed hollow, as it was more to protect his position at the top of the Berlin Philharmonic from Herbert von Karajan than anything altruistic.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Er…Furtwangler, while certainly not heroic in his opposition to the Nazi regime, was definitely not a “fellow-traveller” and I think the claim rather bizarre.

  • Jack says:

    Norman, I think what you have stated above is what most people who know of Furtwangler have always believed, probably since this whole topic started being talked about. I know no-one who recognizes his greatness as a conductor who feels any differently than you have stated. What is the big moment of realization here? I seem to be missing something.

  • Alan says:

    Before you criticise anyone, look deeply within yourself.
    – The Buddha

    • I think the Buddha was wrong on many points. And given his background, he had not much reason to complain about criticism.

      • Alan says:

        Look deeply within yourself, John….

        • That’s what I say all the time here but what do I get? I get criticized! three weeks ago it got so on my nerves I saw a therapist and even she criticized me for being too critical of my employer. I filed a complaint at the Shrink Union but got a put-down saying I should learn to deal with criticism from their members, and that my spelling was faulty at places. All this discouraged me so much that I started reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason but couldn’t get through it, I think it’s badly written. So I got back to work and decided to keep my mouth shut.


    • Ted says:

      “Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, if he gets mad at you for criticizing him, it doesn’t matter, because you’re a mile away from him, and he has no shoes.” –Steve Martin

    • Ted says:

      “Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, if he gets mad at you for criticizing him, he’s a mile away from you, and he has no shoes.” –Steve Martin.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I wreathe Spectator article and the new ‘evidence’ – a letter from Schnabel – does not add much to the debate.

  • professor says:

    This blog post is a nothingburger that serves only for NL to play the role of Victim. His last Furtwängler post was criticized heavily — for significant journalistic and research oversights, and for being pathetically simplistic — and apparently his feeling were hurt. Poor Norman.

  • Simon says:

    Bohm & Knappersyawn you know they were never going to be worth the effort. Just listen to Parsifal…60000 records later and the opera finally grinds to a halt, and Bohm’s B Minor mass -unbearable. I knew they would never be welcome guests in my home. But much to my now, embarrassment and horror WF I welcomed into my listening world.

    • Ted says:

      You’re kidding, right? Parsifal is SUPPOSED to be slow. And Bohm’s RING and COSI FAN TUTTE are utterly fantastic. His RING is one of the grittiest, most taut and action-packed performances there is.

  • Novagerio says:

    Furtwängler-fans get touchy cos his activities as Music Director of the Reichsorchester Nummer Einz during the Evil Empire get far more attention than Karl Böhm’s, Clemens Krauss’ and not forgetting Oswald Kabasta’s ever did…

    • Saxon Broken says:

      While Oswald Kabasta was committed to the Nazi regime, the evidence is, lets say, less clear cut about the other two. Although Karl Bohm was rather more compromised than most by his behaviour during the 1930s. (However, he never actually joined the Nazi party).