Furtwängler was the first musical existentialist

Furtwängler was the first musical existentialist


norman lebrecht

October 10, 2019

In the second of the videos I have made to accompany DG’s complete Wilhelm Furtwängler set, I discuss the conductor’s idea about living in the moment and how it endowed his music with a special character.

Watch here:


And here’s the next:


  • SoCal Peter says:

    The earlier conductor who evoked the aura of uniqueness was, perhaps, Nikisch. Were there players who had played under both him and Furtwaengler, whose recollections were recorded? Did Nikisch’s approach provide any sort of antecedent for Furtwaengler’s?

    • John Borstlap says:

      In one of his reviews, Debussy made fun of Nikish’ ultra-romantic style of conducting, describing his generous hairdo as participating in the interpretation: its mop drooping sadly during the adagio, rising fiercily at the heroic tutti. Also he related the general performing style of conductors to the antics of toreadors.

      • SoCal Peter says:

        Ah, but since posting my query, I found out that Nikisch was one of the few conductors Furtwaengler admired; he said something to the effect that Nikisch could make the orchestra sing, which was a real rarity among conductors. Of course, I rather doubt that Debussy would have had much complimentary to say about Furtwaengler’s conducting, either…

  • Tamino says:

    I’m rather sure, the first musical existentialist was a composer, not a wealthy conductor.

    • Mike Schachter says:

      I am not sure what wealth has to do with it. More to the point conductors and composers have rather different roles. and only a very few(eg Mahler) have been at the top of both professions.

  • Furtwängler says:

    he was the greatest 😉 ..

  • John Dalkas says:

    If you thought you’d already seen this video, you have because Norman posted it, the second in the series, on Oct. 2. The third is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3nPR16ytUI

  • M McAlpine says:

    “a sound picture which Beethoven didn’t put into his score…” Pardon? Sorry, this is fanciful talk. The only notes they are playing are those in the score.

  • Evan Tucker says:

    There were other conductors who had a similar clarity of the moment, the vision and the zeitgeist may have been very different, but it’s difficult to hear a whole host of other conductors:, Celibidache, Bernstein, Harnoncourt, Barenboim, Gergiev, and not realize that there is a similar philosophy of ‘becoming’, or an awareness of a performance’s transience and ephemerality, which drives what they try to do in performance. Not to create anything definitive, but create a performance true to the circumstances of exactly that time and place.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    This “existentialism” explains why it is worth having different performances of the same work conducted by Furtwängler.
    (Amongst others, I have four performances of Beethoven’s third, fifth and Ninth and three of Schubert’s ninth. Each performance is markedly different and unique.)
    I can’t think of any other conductor capable of such a feat.
    Comparing his recordings of Brahms 2 (BPO 1952 and VPO 1945) is fascinating as the BPO recording demonstrates a flexibility and freedom that Furtwängler may have felt unable to achieve with the VPO.(Carlos Kleiber’s is the only performance of the work I know of that comes close in that respect).