Wilhelm Furtwängler’: The debate continues

Wilhelm Furtwängler’: The debate continues


norman lebrecht

October 01, 2019

Having kicked off last week with the first of my Furtwängler videocasts, DG have issued another by my former BBC colleague Rob Cowan, who talks about the conductor’s Schenkerian approach to music and about the difficulty of appraising his wartime tapes:

‘As a Jew,’ says Rob, ‘how can I reconcile myself to listening to something that would have been impossible for me to hear?’

Highly intelligent, well worth eight minutes of your time.

The next Lebrecht videocast goes up tomorrow.




  • Jack says:

    Rob mentions Barenboim and his view of WF. To expand on that, here is DB’s article “Why Furtwangler Still Moves Us”.

  • Rob says:

    What did this conductor think of Mahler and his music? Did he leave any thoughts? Perhaps he even saw Mahler, live in person?

    • Alexander Tarak says:

      He wasn’t entirely convinced that Mahler’s music was worth the effort.

      • Joel Lazar says:

        Sybille Werner’s exhaustive researches on Mahler performances before the “big bang” indicate 42 performances from 1912 through January 1932 [!], of
        Symphonies 1-4 and Lieder. After WW II, another 11 performances, either Wayfarer or Kindertotenlieder, with Zareska, Poell and of course DFD.

      • Ken says:

        Nevertheless, he did conduct M3 in Berlin in the 20s. And recorded LeFG with DFD in the 50s.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Tarak writes: “He wasn’t entirely convinced that Mahler’s music was worth the effort.”

        That was actually the mainstream view of Mahler at the time. His music was only on the edge of the repertoire in the 1920s. His ascent to popularity really only began in the 1960s. His reputation now is the highest it has ever been, and would have genuinely shocked conductors a century ago.

    • B. Stephen Stockwell says:

      According to a comprehensive catalog of WF performances, he gave – surprisingly – dozens of performances of Mahler’s works until the Nazis banned performances. Furtwängler gave a performance of the “Kindertotenlieder” in 1912 – the year after Mahler’s death – and a performance of “Das Lied von Der Erde.” Furtwängler seemed to lean towards the early “Wunderhorn” works, particularly the First and Fourth symphonies. Of course, we have no recordings, just performing dates. My feeling is that, had Furtwängler attended a performance by Mahler, he would’ve mentioned or written about it. It seems he didn’t.

    • Illio says:

      Furtie conducted quite a bit of Mahler before the 2nd World War.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    I think if nothing else, Rob Cowan’s excellent assessment of Furtwängler as a musician will underline why making moral judgements about interpreters is always fraught with difficulty. There have already been many voices attempting to secure the high ground for themselves by criticising Dudamel’s stance vis-à-vis the Venezuelan regime. The simple fact is that in wartime and under dictatorships many ordinary people yearn for an escape from hard political realities and retreat into another inner world where they can be at peace with themselves. If all artists had chosen to emigrate during periods of national adversity – and there were many who suffered at great personal cost in Stalinist Russia – we would have been deprived of their inspiration born in those special moments when risk and external danger act as a vital additional stimulus. Not everybody who stays and makes inevitable compromises with an oppressive regime has the right to be accused of moral cowardice by those who have never experienced tyranny. As Shostakovich once said when being told that Picasso was a communist, “It’s easy to be a communist if you don’t live under communism.”

    • john Borstlap says:


      Curious and telling is the fact that Shostakovich’s music, so much inspired by an awful reality, has become also very popular in the West where no totalitarian regime is crushing people’s lives. But something else has a rather comparable influence: the ‘modern world’ with its indirect but strong pressures. Western listeners recognize a certain life experience in S’s music.

  • Luis says:

    Terrific, dear Norman!

  • Edgar Self says:

    foodI understand what Rob Cowan is saying even though I do not share the honor. But such a good critic and reviewer as he is will, I hope, be able to appraise Furtwaengler’s war-time tapes as the musical artifacts that they are. There were still Jews among the players, perhaps even in the audiences, until tthe very last nths of the war when Furtwaengler himself had to flee under the threat of arrest by Himmler.

    The circumstances and conditions in which those tapes were made make it impossible for many to hear them now, but collectors persist in listening to something it would have been impossible for them to hear for whateverer reason.

    I met Rob Cowan 15 years ago at Tower Records in Chicago and told him I turned first to his articles in “Gramophone”. He was pleaed, modest, and we agreed about Bronislaw Hubermann and Georg Szell’s record of Beethoven’s violin concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic, which I had once played for Jacob Krachmalnik, concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony. Jake sat on the floor listening inches from the speaker and missed nothing that Hubermann did.

  • John Dalkas says:

    Thoughtful, sensitive, profound. Thank you, Rob Cowan.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Another Schenkerian performer is the great Murray Perahia.


    I once came across a video interview where Perahia mentions asking widow about the conductor’s relationship to Schenker, to which Elisabeth Furtwängler responded that Wilhelm Furtwängler deeply believed in Schenkerian analysis.

    As far as I know, Schenkerian analysis has been an esoteric domain of music theorists for at least a few decades. Perahia must be the exception. Am I wrong? Was it any different before WW II?

    • Alexander Tarak says:

      You are right. Schenkerian analysis has become something of an esoteric preoccupation for theorists.
      However, it can be an invaluable tool for performers wishing to understand the backbone of some, though not all, musical structures.
      (Which is what, I am pretty sure, it was originally intended for.)

      • john Borstlap says:

        Schenkerian analysis was meant to demonstrate the greatness of the few German classical composers who – as he thought – fitted within Schenker’s system: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. The rest ‘got it wrong’. He wanted to prove what the rules of German greatness are. There is much nonsense in Schenker’s way of analysing music, apart from one: his explanation of background- and foreground structure, sometimes differentiated with a middleground.

      • Mathias Broucek says:

        I always thought Schenkerian analysis a bit daft until I did it to the first movement of the Beethoven opus 109 and I found we never got to the tonic. Which may explain the attacca….

        • john Borstlap says:

          ???? The movement is clearly in E major.

          • Mathias Broucek says:

            John, I mean the Schenkerian analysis never got to E

          • john Borstlap says:

            Aha… does not surprise me.

            One of S’s hobby horses was ‘die Urlinie’, a non-existing melodic line which you could find in any really good music if you eliminated all the notes which did not conform to that line.

          • Mathias Broucek says:

            That’s it! It was thirty five years ago so my memory was hazy.

            Perhaps the significance for Furtwanger wasn’t so much the content of Schenker’s teaching so much as the fact that F was bothered enough to investigate. Many of today’s conductors spend more time in airports and doing Rolex adverts than attempting deep analysis of music…

  • Eric says:

    Whereas I sympathize with Mr. Cowan’s concerns, I have always wondered about the double standard applied to Furtwangler. No one is ever bothered by listening to recordings, wartime or not, by von Karajan, Schwarzkopf, Karl Bohm, Lauritz Melchior, or the many others who were either members of the Nazi party or performed in Germany during that period.

    • Alexander Tarak says:

      I couldn’t agree more.

    • Hilary says:

      “ No one is ever bothered by listening to recordings, wartime or not, by von Karajan…..”
      Not so sure about that. Seems to generate endless controversy and armchair criticism from people who in some (not all) cases wouldn’t have behaved any more admirably given the same circumstances.
      Rob Cowan gives a powerfully argued/impassioned case as regards WF. Mandatory viewing.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      I am afraid I disagree. Every time slipped disc devotes an article to one of the first three artists, it is over-run with internet heroes tediously condemning their wartime behaviour.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Very interesting; thanks for posting. I thought my CD pile was out of control!

  • Esther Cavett says:

    ==conductor’s Schenkerian approach

    Isn’t Schenker where you reduce everything to IV–>V–>I voice leading ? Never been that convinced about it.

    • Alexander Tarak says:

      A bit more to it than that.

      • john Borstlap says:

        There is indeed a strand in Schenker’s thinking that ‘explanation’ means reduction to one simple cadence, as if this would explain the music as such. Could not be more nonsensical, since the music is what is sounding, not what its one single cadence would be.

  • Robert Freeman says:

    Two points on Rob Cowan’s excellent commentary:

    1) Furtwangler’s study with Schenker had at least as much to do with counterpoint as with harmony.
    2) To emigrate from one’s home country is an act of special courage and desperation – as with the people who are trying to get into the United States these days from Central America. Those who stay at home in deeply worrisome circumstances naturally hope, sometimes unreasonably, that things will get better.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Oh, please – enough hand-wringing over Furtwaengler. Like Carlos Kleiber – whom I do very much like – he was good for a relatively narrow bandwidth of repertoire. There were so many other very fine conductors of yesteryear who never get discussed.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    I have a fairly large collection of Furtwängler CDs (around 70).
    At his best he was unsurpassable.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Forgive my cynicism, but these videos are, of course, just a DG advert for their release of Furtwangler broadcasts? I should have thought that most people know the conditions they were made under and can make their own mind up whether it is right to hear them without all this handwringing.

  • JohnG says:

    Great videoblogs, really fascinating. I wonder whether others have tackled Roger Allen’s recent book on Furtwangler which sets out to explore his mental and philosophical world? What I take from it is the sense of how Furtwangler’s conception of German music was rooted in a belief that there was a presiding spirit – literally a ‘genius’ – practically encoded in its tonal language, passed down from composer to composer, Bach through to Wagner, etc. The problem here was that Hitler had cooked up a similar though cruder neo-Darwinian model for German racial identity. That meant that Furtwangler’s musical ideas were less inconsistent with the politics of those who ran Germany than we, or he, might like to think. It didn’t make him a Nazi. He wasn’t one. But it may have made it easier for him to stay, and, if Barenboim is right, try to ‘correct’ the distorted take on German national identity of the Reich.

  • Michael B. says:

    A few comments: (1) I very much doubt if there were any Jews (by any definition of that term) remaining in the Berlin Philharmonic by 1940, much less 1943-1944. It is possible that there may have been a few Jews in the audience, living “underground” as it was called, for some of those concerts, though. (2) Regarding the reference to Lauritz Melchior as a performer who was a member of the Nazi Party or who performed in Germany during that period, that is highly inaccurate. Melchior was never a Nazi Party member and was no fan of the regime, which eventually caused him to leave Germany. His estate in Chossewitz was used to hide Jews and dissidents, and was eventually confiscated by the regime. (It is just possible that Melchior might have had some Jewish relatives or ancestors; the Chief Rabbi in Denmark shortly after the end of the war was named Marcus Melchior, and there are quite a number of other prominent Danish Jews with the surname Melchior.)

    • Eric says:

      I never said that Melchior was a member of the Nazi party but he did perform in Germany during that period. Thank you for your information about his help to the Jewish people, but a similar argument could be applied to Furtwangler.

  • Edgar Self says:

    In the second post here, “Rob” asks about F.’s thoughts on Mahler. I can’t recall anything in his letters or essays. That was Bruno Walter’s job. But he did conduct Mahler’s third, Kindertotenlieder, and Gesellenlieder before 1933.

    After WWII, he recorded the Gesellenlieder with Fischer[Dieskau in time left over from the Tristan sessions. They performed it with the VPO, also recorded.

    Thomas Mann met Mahler, saw him conduct a symphony, and wrote him a letter about it with the gift of a book of his.

  • A big thanks for the excellent comment of Rob Cowan. Among those high profile non-Jewish Germans (and Austrians for that matter) who left Germany in disgust of the Nazis, one name should never be forgotten: ERICH KLEIBER, who was the GMD of the Berlin State Opera (a position, along with the Berlin Philharmonic, second to none in Germany, which Daniel Barenboim is heading now. Kleiber conducted the world premiere of Berg’s “Wozzeck”. When after 1945 he was welcomed to his former position, he again withdrew, refusing to take this job under communist dictatorship. What a character, and what a fantastic musician in his own right!

  • double-sharp says:

    No, Schenkerian Analysis was a nasty little scheme to discredit music which wasn’t tonal. The falsehood in Schenkerian ‘analysis is that it begins from the premise that all music somehow obeys a I-V-I structure. Music which doesn’t do this is ranked as a failure. It’s utter hokum, and was used by the Nazis to justify their ‘Banned Music’ policies.

    • Esther Cavett says:

      ==Schenkerian Analysis was a nasty little scheme …..music somehow obeys a I-V-I structure.

      So how about Mahler IX, starting in D maj and ending in Db major ? How would the Schenkerian hokum cope with that ?

      • john Borstlap says:

        Schenker would have said: Mahler got it all wrong, he made a terrible mistake and that is that. Schenker even conducted an extensive analysis of the 1st mvt of Stravinsky’s neoclassical concerto for piano and winds, to demonstrate that Stravinsky never understood the basics of Bach’s baroque tonalities and structures. (But by doing so, he actually showed what Stravinsky was doing in that piece.)

    • john Borstlap says:

      As said above, the idea that classical tonal music is multi-layered and has a differentiated depth structure, was a real contribution by Schenker, which offers more insight than the conventional Riemann type of harmonic analysis which is merely categorizing the chords used. For the rest he was a reactionary of the worst kind. Schenkerian analysis became the hobby horse of American postwar musicology since so many German/Jewish musicologists emigrated to the US. Irony! They were carrying the idea of the superiority of ‘the German classical tradition’ into the Anglosaxon sphere. When I studied in Cambride in the eighties, Schenker was the god of the theorists.

  • Iain Simcock says:

    If I never listened to music I couldn’t possibly have heard..! Surely Barenboim won this argument years ago?

  • Michael B. says:

    It is interesting, if true, that the Nazis used Schenkerian analysis to justify their arguments as to the superiority of “true German” (and tonal) music. Heinrich Schenker was Jewish, as was his wife. He died in Vienna in 1935, before the Anschluss, and is buried in the Jewish section of the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna. His wife, Jeanette, was also Jewish, and was eventually sent to Terezin, where she died early in 1945. (I am not conversant enough in the technical aspects of music to determine the worth of Schenkerian analysis.)

    • john Borstlap says:

      Quite ironic.

      Of course ‘tonal music’ is superior to ‘non-tonal music’, but one does not have to be a German, or a musicologist, or a Jew, or a nazi to notice the difference. This difference does not take into account any characteristic of the observer. Therefore, the condemnation of tonal music after WW II as ‘guilt by association’ by the avantgarde was complete bananas.

  • rob says:

    Thank you so much Norman and everyone else who has responded to my little Heath-Robinson video (complete with Steptoe-style backdrop!). My YouTube Channel (at robcowanmusic YouTube) has only been up a week, so a modest beginning which I hope to build on. Best to you all. Rob.

  • Edgar Self says:

    In the next to last post here that I’ve seen, John Borstlap writes
    “Of course tonal music is superior to non-tonal music … ”

    In Chapter 7 of “Conversations on Music”, written after WWII, Furtwaengler disusses this and concludes “… Atonal music is biologically inferior to tonal music.” The words “biologically inferior” are italicized.

    • john Borstlap says:

      Calling some distinction in music ‘biological’ is crazy. There, we have maybe a little spot of nazi infection on F’s mind – using such vocabulary. It suggests a reference to ‘Jewish’ avantgardism – Schoenberg and the lot.

      If one compares tonal music, or music as such, with atonal music, or sound art, then one hears that sound art does not have the depth structure that music has, and hence, Schenkerian analysis is pointless with sound art since everything that sounds, happens on a ‘flat surface’, there is no structural background. Also, the precise location of notes is pointless since they don’t relate to each other. Where sound art is compared with music in terms of cultural / artistic value, i.e.: the range of meaning and aesthetic experience it offers, it is not difficult to see that sound art is inferior to music. But that does not mean that it does not have its own place in culture, so it seems better to avoid comparing the two art forms altogether. The problem only arises where sound art is treated as if it were music.

  • john Borstlap says:

    After some reflection, and with due respect to Mr Cowan’s noble conclusion, I now think that it was wrong of WF to remain in Germany: he let himself be used as a means of legitimizing an evil regime. The listeners who sought spiritual relief through his concerts, could as easily find it in chamber music performances, if needed, at their own home. Also the audiences were appropriated, being part of the scam.

    What should WF have done? He should have left the continent and settle in England or the USA, and from there, using his standing as representative of ‘Heilige Deutsche Kunst’, to explain to the world that he had to leave because of the destructive barbarian regime on German lands, who defiled it greatest cultural asset. The orchestra players, who could not leave, would have left untouched by the regime, and some second- or third-rate conductor would have taken F’s place, but the result of F’s ‘defection’ would have been far more effective than his staying.

  • Edgar Self says:

    It’s worth reading chapter seven of “Conversaations on Music” for WF’s full remarks. I don’t have the German text. By saying that in his view atonal music is biologically inferior to tonal music, WF may have been thinking of the organic effect on human physiology of western harmony and the overtone system.