Furtwängler had it so good in Hitler’s Berlin

Furtwängler had it so good in Hitler’s Berlin


norman lebrecht

February 23, 2019

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

…..Musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra had been spared from military service and their conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, was known to be the Führer’s favourite Wagner interpreter. The musicians lived well and Furtwängler, for all his post-War self-pity, was making an absolute fortune. A note in the book accompanying these 22 CDs finds that he received an extra 1,000 Reichsmarks for each broadcast, at the very least. For one concert he was paid RM 17,000 — equivalent in today’s terms to more than 60,000 Euros….

Read on here.

And here.


  • Michael says:

    I received my copy of this set in the mail yesterday and am currently in the process of listening to it. Indeed, an important and remarkable set of recordings.

    The Beethoven 6 from March 1944 is extremely slow at times, but very beautiful. En Saga is gripping.

    I have not had a chance yet to compare the sound quality to prior releases, but I imagine there was only so much that could be done. The book that is included is entertaining and informative. The box is high-quality and sturdy. I’m glad I purchased this.

    • BrianB says:

      Comments on other websites suggest the sound has been transformed well above previous releases, even DG. WF is hardly my favorite conductor but it seems to be an essential purchase. About $10 a disc and shipping is very reasonable to the States.

  • aj says:

    Perhaps someone can explain why this preoccupation over
    a dead conductor,a dead orchestra,millions dead since
    he last conducted ,how much he made in euros …..
    on and on .When does it end.Who in their right mind cares anymore…he is dead,the orchestra is dead.,should we not be more concerned with the mess the world is in to-day?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Obviously the subject bears on today’s world, including the rubbing of musicians’ shoulders with highly suspect regimes. The difficulties of classical music as a genre is that it needs to be politically neutral, but if / when the environment becomes toxic, it can no longer maintain such position, otherwise the art form becomes compromised. In Europe classical music is heavily funded by the state, and in most cases there are no strings attached, but it still creates a dependency upon politics: will the government maintain a politically-neutral attitude towards the arts, would the concert world not be compromised by the support? Classical music is not a business, in spite of its treatment as commerce as is often the case. To be entirely independent, classical music has to be funded either purely by the box office (which turns it into a financial elite interest) or by individual donors – but in the latter case, it is difficult to establish to which extent politics are not involved in one way or another. So, the relation between classical music and politics is a tricky and complex one. Probably Furtwängler tried to square the circle and made the hughe mistake to let himself be exploited. That he was generously paid for this relationship, made it easier to accept, no doubt. He was bought, and he dressed it up as a necessary compromise to save the music in hard times.

      Another such case is that of R Strauss, which is less clear than Furtwängler’s:


      • aj says:

        What you call “classical “music is and has
        always been a business , Name any composer
        at any time period who did not hustle for the buck. Whether that buck came as a court
        position, or to our day as recipients of grants
        and commissions the composer wants to be paid in kind.Bach was paid , Mozart was paid
        Chopin was paid , Verdi was paid.Some better
        paid than others.Orchestral members want to be paid, soloists demand payment and on and on..
        To drag out these penny dreadfuls Furtwangler
        and Strauss whenever things are slow is so
        pointless considering the world to-day .

        • John Borstlap says:

          That artists are paid does not, in itself, mean that they are practicing a business. The difference is that the aim of a business is to make money, and that of an art is to offer artistic enlightenment. That is why there existed, and still exist, artists being prepared to put-up with poverty to be able to create. In art, payments are merely symbolical.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        Brilliant comments. And it also applies to the listeners who praise the music of dreadful individuals like Richard Wagner. All part of the same paradigm. But people are imperfect and great music is not. That paradox will never be resolved to anybody’s satisfaction.

    • Amos says:

      Because in the words of Santayana those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Ever watch our current American President spout a lie from a podium, take a step back, turn his head 90 degrees and do his best Mussolini impersonation?

  • John Dalkas says:

    Just to be clear, many if not all of these recordings were already available on LP if not CD. See: http://lee.classite.com/music/Furtwangler/furtwangler-discography.htm.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Some, by no means all. And never with such wealth of documentation.

      • BrianB says:

        However, there is one problematical item, an incomplete Daphnis & Chloe Suite No. 1 which Furtwängler never conducted and is certainly bogus.

    • hanshopf says:

      Hi John, that’s correct, but non of these former publications (except Testament‘s Bruckner 5) used direct digital transfers from the orginal sources.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Just might have to add this to the collection. But SACD? Have you tried to buy a player capable of SACD lately? One that’s not a Blu Ray player and affordable?

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    It is difficult to listen to these performances without thinking of the totally depraved historical context. What sort of people were in the audience? It is difficult to admire people who chose to benefit from the most disgusting regime in world history. The modern Germany, thankfully, has no relation to that era and is definitely my favourite country.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed. The only thing that gravely shows its historic neurosis is the country’s clinging to and subsidizing of Klangkunst and the idea that modernity in music means transgression of boundaries, to show its full commitment to the free, democratic, western world, and its definitive farewell to totalitarian ideas:


    • Amos says:

      Agreed! Ever time I read a review of a wartime WF recording as “white hot” I shudder. Invariably the reviewer follows-up that this is proof of F’s “artist opposition”. Sorry 1 newspaper article defending Hindemith and keeping your baton in the right hand to avoid shaking hands does not justify giving cover to murderers.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    “How, you wonder, could they play a hymn to brotherhood when Berlin citizens were being sent to Auschwitz?”

    Sadly, all it takes is a different definition of brotherhood and who counts as a human. Sadly, it still happens.

    • Amos says:

      Agreed! I’ve always found it interesting that the supposed intellectual WF rationalized staying to protect German culture until he was tipped off that he would be next & fled, whereas the “idiot” AT (because he watched wrestling on TV) after a single infatuation with Mussolini in the 20’s did all he could to oppose him and after Bologna in 1930 left Italy. It appears that no one in the BPO, including WF, ever questioned using the instruments confiscated from their dismissed colleagues.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Reportedly Furtwängler fell out of favor with the Nazis because of his relations with German resistance, and fled because of his record of helping out Jews.
        As for questioning the confiscation of instruments, what could have been gained from it?
        In a totalitarian regime, the most effective resistance is usually done underground.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    There are no excuses for people like Furtwangler for collaborating with the Nazi regime. Nazis were in power since 1933, and the character of the regime was evident from the beginning. As far as I am concerned, collaborating
    with such a regime is much more serious a crime than current sexual misconduct, as regrettable as it is.

    • Michael says:

      What is your definition of collaborating? Is working with the orchestra in Berlin during the war collaborating? I would be curious to see what all of us would do in the same situation. I am confident that many people who are on their high horse now would have been quick to follow along and be the obedient citizen if they were put in a similar situation.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        It was the educated bien pensant and public servants who so admired and followed Hitler. Sound familiar? I ought to be.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          Huh? The core voter for the Nazi party was a rural or small town Protestant from the North and/or East of Germany. Catholics mainly voted for the Centre Party while urban voters mainly voted for one of the parties on the left.

          Just because you would like something to be true doesn’t change the facts.

    • Rayboy says:

      Then that must apply to all manner of talent… (circus to pop singers) who performed for officials……What about operetta performers and musicians (Lehars “The Merry Widow” was Hitlers favorite and performed especially for the regime)….where should the line be drawn ?

    • Rayboy says:

      What about entertainers (circus to pop singers) who performed for the regime? Lehars “Merry Widow” was Hitlers favorite and performed many times for he and high officials….so should operetta musicians, stagehands, and singers be held accountable ?

  • anon says:

    History teaches that it absolutely pays to collaborate with dictators. Contemporary examples abound.

    Your rivals are made to disappear, you’re made head of the most prestigious music organizations, your recordings are assured, your legacy live on.

    It is the closest thing to a Faustian bargain made on earth, and you don’t even give up your soul for eternity.

  • Simon Hall says:

    Thanks for the ‘heads up’ on this release Norman. Just ordered it. Karajan maybe the Jesus of classical music interpretation, but Furtwangler is God.

  • stefan verbeek says:

    Good work Mr Furtwrangler….

  • Tommy says:

    Did Furtwängler ever conduct a Mahler symphony ?

    • Petros Linardos says:

      “You will sometimes hear it said that Furtwängler never touched Mahler’s music. … In fact, whilst Furtwängler could not be called a Mahlerian in the same way as some of his contemporaries, it is the case that he performed Mahler’s music during his career. Not often and not much, but perform it he did. Between 1916 and 1932 he gave Symphonies 1, 2, 3 and 4, as well as Kindertotenlieder and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. No Mahler during the Nazi era, of course, but after the war more performances of the song cycles. Had he not stayed in Nazi Germany and had he lived longer, maybe Furtwängler would have performed more Mahler. Maybe not. After attending a performance of Mahler’s Fifth by the young Rafael Kubelik Furtwängler went backstage to congratulate his young colleague. “But is it really worth all the effort?” he asked. ”

      Here is a live 1951 recording of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, with the Vienna Philharmonic and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Irresistible.


  • If it’s any consolation, his Reichsmarks weren’t worth much after the war.

    Fun fact: the suggested automatic spelling correction for “Reichsmarks” is “Stretchmarks”.

  • Edoardo says:

    “For one concert he was paid RM 17,000 — equivalent in today’s terms to more than 60,000 Euros….”

    Does this figure refers to the war time? Or post war?

    Abbado cachet in the post Berlin period was >90.000 Euros per concert , so nothing strange in term of total amount of money.

  • fflambeau says:

    You make it sound like he was complicit with the Nazis. That is not true, he was a thorn in their side (if you want someone who fits that bill it was Herbert von karajan).

    Wikipedia notes, “The violinist Yehudi Menuhin was, with Arnold Schoenberg, Bronisław Huberman and Nathan Milstein, among the Jewish musicians who had a positive view of Furtwängler.” Also this: “Furtwängler refused to participate in the propaganda film Philharmoniker. Goebbels wanted Furtwängler to feature in it, but Furtwängler declined to take part. The film was finished in December 1943 showing many conductors connected with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, including Eugen Jochum, Karl Böhm, Hans Knappertsbusch, and Richard Strauss, but not Furtwängler.[114] Goebbels also asked Furtwängler to direct the music in a film about Beethoven, again for propaganda purposes. They quarralled violently about this project. Furtwängler told him “You are wrong, Herr Minister, if you think you can exploit Beethoven in a film.” Goebbels gave up his plans for the film.”

    Was he highly paid? Yes, but he was regarded as the greatest conductor in the world, by most music lovers. So it is hardly surprising.

  • Dan B says:

    What a preposterous blog entry by Lebrecht here. His nation, culture, and life were being destroyed all around him, they threatened to mistreat his beloved mother if he left the third reich, and worse (for Furtwangler the noble man and musician) they threatened to close down the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera and replace him with empty-headed white trash like all the Nazis. He stayed, preserved German culture from being destroyed by the Nazi white trash, and was blacklisted and mistreated for for the rest of his life (and betond)….but its all right because he got paid a lot of money for broadcasts and got to keep the Berlin (and Vienna!) Philharmonics first rate orchestras. Can Norman Lebrecht be this shallow as to really have said this! Remarkable!!!!