How Furtwängler rebuilt his myth after 1945

How Furtwängler rebuilt his myth after 1945


norman lebrecht

November 06, 2019

In the latest of my videocasts for the DG box set, I look at the conductor’s careful reconstruction of history and image – his own and that of the Berlin Philharmonic. ‘The players forgave him for abandoning them.’


  • Tamino says:

    Furtwängler’s death in particular is chilling.
    It’s a mentally induced suicide. The will to live had left him.
    It was triggered by his rapid loss of hearing over the year 1954. That made him loose his purpose in life, music.
    The legend goes that after the last unsuccessful rehearsal, that was only scheduled to try a rather clumsy hearing aid for him, he took the train back to his southern German home, he opened the window fully on the train, on a chilly late fall day with the intention to catch a lung infection. He was successful and the disease took his life, only after his mind had given up to the will to live. How much the Nazi and war related traumata have to do with this final act of his life, we will never know for sure.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      That’s an interesting description. He was certainly depressed.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Interesting but inaccurate. Furtwaengler was treated with Streptomycin for a pneumonia, a medication that can provoke transitory or permanent hearing loss as side effect. His hearing loss was not severe, but it was surely distressing for him. WF had a recidive of his pneumonia and declined treatment, since he could no stand the idea of becoming deaf.

      • Tamino says:

        My description is based on testimonies of those Berlin Phil musicians, who were in that rehearsal.
        Furtwängler had shown symptoms of severe deterioration of his hearing over the year 1954.
        A rehearsal was scheduled in the late fall to try a hearing aid. Basically a microphone in front of him and headphones.
        Apparently it didn’t work for him. After a while he threw the headphones down on the stand in frustration and muttered a melancholic “Das war’s meine Herren.” and left the building.
        How much of the above open train window episode is truth or legend I don’t know. IIRC that’s based on WF himself telling it that way on his death bed.

    • pageturner says:

      Alas, I think you have a point. I have seen this a few times when a person experiences the loss of the one thing they truly lived for. There is no doubting that for Furtwängler, aside from his family, this was music – it was in his very DNA as a still much under-rated composer (which he considered his true calling), a fine pianist and immortal conductor.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Karajan gave a precise beat? Funny the musicians who played under him said the opposite!

    • Jack says:

      Perhaps compared to WF?

    • Hilary says:

      the beat certainly looks imprecise to me, and he was prepared to let fluffed notes appear on the final master.
      “Picture postcard covers” hmmm…again, i beg to differ. Some quite innovative/artful designs feature : Bruckner and Mahler Symphonies and 2nd Viennese School spring to mind.

      Whatever the case, it’s fair to say HvK was the antipode of WF and this is a nicely made, often perceptive videocast.

      • Novagerio says:

        Hilary, have you even listened to these “postcard-cover” recordings?…

        • Hilary says:

          “The Alpine Symphony” cover fits that description I suppose. Very much HvK territory.
          As for the cover artwork which deviates from this supposed norm. :2nd Viennese School is a milestone set, Bruckner 4 , 2nd subject of 1st mvt has no spring in its step and Mahler 4 is unidiomatic.

    • LudwigvanKlauss says:

      My colleagues who worked with him told me that when he needed to be precise and clear was a perfect beating machine, particularly in opera. Otherwise his gestures were just directed to the quality of the sound.

  • Furtwängler is a fascinating case.
    Furtwängler’s legend overshadows his pure conducting talent (something he shares with C.Kleiber, in my opinion). People forget that the art( the technique and actual profession as such) of the conductor is relatively new in the grand scheme of classical music. Furtwängler represented the beginning of a new kind of conducting; one that didn’t have the experience as a player in the orchestra, nor- as far as I know- was a virtuoso pianist like the rock star Hans von Bülow at the time.
    But he also didn’t want to be part of the pure Kapellmeister who “beat” ( what an ugly word to use for conducting) the bars like Toscanini, or even Nikisch. Obviously both of the latter maestros contributed in their own way to the development of conducting and orchestral music; but it was Furtwängler who pushed the envelope first ( followed perhaps in that line only by Mitropoulos, whose life was also cut short).
    The thing is that if the conductor must find the balance between deep knowledge of the composer’s work, and what really does justice artistically for the orchestra and the music per se. For example if one focuses 100% on every note, every line, every punctuation mark, you end up having a very dead piece of music. The Berlin Philharmonic of Furtwängler’s time were luckier to have him than they even could have suspected; for he was much more than the “paternal figure”, as Mr. Lebrecht rightly mentions, or the man to take the orchestra for a tour and show them off: he was the first true Orchestral conductor.
    It would take me several thousand words to express what Furtwängler’s orchestra directing and efforts for interpretation have meant for orchestral music, and for what is worth, to me personally as a conductor, always looking out for the evolution of my chosen field. The psychological turmoil started inside him as an artist first. But the psychological terror of this man’s existence before, during and ( even worst) after the Nazi Era , even after the tribunals of “De-nazification”, took a heavy toll on him. His ending was tragic as many endings are. His music, his conducting: uniquely legendary.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Dear Stamatia Karampini,
      Your post is quite interesting and informative. And I completly agree with your opinion of WF’s “conducting talent”, as you put it. I would not hesitate to append the word genius to that statement.
      But I shall disagree with you on a couple of points.
      Stokowski was really the man who first “represented the beginning of a new kind of conducting”. Furtwangler, although he was unique in his way, was actually a traditionalist, following in the ways of Wagner, von Bülow, and Nikisch.
      And Toscanini was infinitely greater that just a man who “beat the bars”. Just listen to his incandescent recordings of Wagner and Beethoven and you will hear the (equally great) other side of the coin to Furtwangler.
      Mitropoulos, also a genius, seemed to be a synthesis of sorts – amalgamating Furtwangler’s sense of inevitability with Toscanini’s passion and drive and Stokowski’s sense of orchestral color.
      All were wonderful!
      – regards, G.B.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Sorry but Furtwangler was not the “first true orchestra conductor”. The first full-time conductors had appeared by the middle of the 19th century. Both von Bulow and Nikisch preceded Furtwangler at the Berlin Philharmonic. They have faded from memory since we don’t have anything much from them in turns of a recording legacy. Furtwangler is the first major conductor for whom we do have recordings (or rather, lots of recordings).

  • Tod Verklärung says:

    Furtwängler’s departure from the BPO came toward the war’s end, only when Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and War Production, informed him that he would be assassinated by the Nazis if he returned to Germany from an engagement in Vienna.

    The resumption of a career with his orchestra following the war depended on a formal denazification. I’d be interested in any evidence that might support the belief that he “abandoned” the Berlin Philharmonic.

  • Edgar Self says:

    He certainly died of pneumonia in Baden-Baden on November 30, 1954, aged 68, and was bouried on December 7 in Heidelberg, where I happened to be.

    The Berlin Philharmonic flew in for his funeral in the Heiliggeist Kirche, followed by a procession through the streets, across the Karlstor bridge over the Neckar to the Philosophenweg up the hillside to the Ehrenfriedhof to lie beside his mother.

    I saw some of this. It was if the president had died, black bunting and black-bordered photos along the way. I never saw him conduct but missed him once in Bayreuth and once in Mannheim. His recordings have been one of the strongest experiences of my life.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      I love his recordings (most of them, anyway) too, Edgar!
      The wartime Beethoven 3rd (with the VPO) and 9th (with the BPO) are two of the greatest statements ever of those scores. And the Bruckner 9 (also wartime, also BPO) has never been equaled.
      Plus the pre-war Beethoven 5, Tchaikovsky 6, and Tristan and Parsifal “excerpts” with the BPO – they are all superb.
      But I’m also a big fan of a number of postwar studio recordings: the Schumann 4 and Schubert 9 on DGG (BPO), and the Schubert 8, Beethoven 5 and 6, and the Haydn “Surprise” and Mozart 40, all with the VPO.
      But two of my most beloved WF recordings are with the Philharmonia: The Bartok Violin Concerto #2 with Menuhin (it’s so melancholy, like Ormandy’s final recording of Concerto for Orchestra), and the Mahler “Songs of a Wayfarer” with FiDi.
      All of the above mentioned are desert island material!

  • Aaron Herschel says:

    The archetypical German: irrational, rightwing, “cultural”.
    FW was a typical representative of this country, performing in front of Hitler’s henchmen instead of protesting against them, as any decent and upright human being would have done.

  • Dennis says:

    How did he “abandon” them? Wasn’t he forced out shortly before the National Socialist regime fell? And wasn’t he then prevented from conducting for about 5 years due to onerous limitations put on him by “de-Nazification” tribunals (even though he had never actually been one)?

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    In relation to Karajan, I think it was the management that appointed him. I remember reading that the players were initially not happy that he was appointed for life.

    • Tamino says:

      That’s probably incorrect. There are interviews with the orchestra musicians at that time, and they describe how the orchestra majority leaned toward Karajan, rather than Celibidache, as Furtwängler’s successor.

  • Nick2 says:

    I believe it was John Amis on the long-running BBC Radio programme My Music who told a story allegedly told him by a musician who had just joined the Berlin Phil as Second Clarinet. At the first rehearsal watching Furtwangler’s very erratic beat, the poor man had no idea when to start playing. Consequently, he was late entering. Furtwangler started the work again, and once again the player missed the start. Yet again, Furtwangler stopped and restarted. Beforehand, the new musician turned to his Principal in desperation seeking guidance on when to start playing.

    “It’s simple, “ he was informed. “When the third button on his waistcoat pops open, that’s when we start!”

    • Nik says:

      There are a few different versions of this anecdote. One of the more popular ones recounts a conversation between members of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic, where the Viennese asks the Berliner how they know when to start with WF and the Berliner launches into some overly technical explanation like “we start precisely one and a half seconds after his baton passes the upper edge of the score at a 30° angle”. Then the Berliner asks the Viennese the same question, and the Viennese responds, “wenn’s uns z’blöd wird, fang ma an” (roughly, “wenn we get bored, we start”).

  • Jerome Hoberman says:

    Igor Markevitch, when I studied with him, said that by chance he was conducting the Symphony of the Air (formerly NBC Symphony) when Toscanini died, and the Berlin Philharmonic when Furtwaengler died. The New York players were shocked but matter-of-fact about it; the Berlin players were in tears. (Of course this may say more about Germans vs. Americans than it does about Furtwaengler vs. Toscanini.)

    • Tamino says:

      It might more say something about Toscanini dying almost 90 years old after a full life, not unexpectedly, and Furtwängler aged 68 more tragically and too soon. (see above)

  • Edgar Self says:

    Greg Bottini names many of Furtwaengler’s best records. Let me add the live Brahms symphonies on EMI, Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave”, “Fidelio”, and all the other Bruckners.

    He conducted Bruckner’s Ninth at his very first concert, aged about 20, with an orchestra hird by his father, archaeologist Adolf Furtwaengler. The 1944 VPO “Eroic” is a miracle; rhey all are.