The playwright who changed Furtwängler’s tune

The playwright who changed Furtwängler’s tune


norman lebrecht

September 09, 2020

I had several enjoyable conversations with the late Ronald Harwood while he was writing his hugely sucessful play on Wilhelm Furtwängler and his unfortunate flop on Gustav Mahler. Ronnie, who died yesterday aged 85, was a lovely man who lived for theatre and loved the psychology of music and musicians.

His Furtwängler play Taking Sides, directed at its 1995 premiere by Harold Pinter, positively crackled with dramatic tension. I told Ronnie on opening night that the world would never look upon Furtwängler the same way again. This was truer than I imagined. At the time, the conductor was taken at his own estimation as a helpless victim of Nazism who made music for the German people, not its rulers.

We know this today to be untrue. Furtwängler enriched himself under Hitler, enjoyed his status in the Reich and shamelessly abandoned his musicians once it became clear that Germany was collapsing. Ronnie’s play started the process of revealing the truth.

Mahler’s Conversion opened just after 9/11 and played to a half-empty, uncomprehending house, causing him great distress. Ronnie went on to win an Oscar for his script of Roman Polanski’s film, The Pianist. He also wrote a play, Quartet, about a retirement home for musicians.

As a young man, he wrote a novel about César Franck and Augusta Holmès, which I have been meaning to reread.



  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    Of the great musicians who lived willingly under the Third Reich, only Richard Strauss comes out morally largely unscathed. A likeable, down to earth genius , who was caught up in an unfortunate situation. The rest were all tainted to some extent.

    • AngloGerman says:

      ‘The rest were all tainted to some extent’ – simply not true.

    • Stuart says:

      Any objective review of your statement about Strauss would show it to be too simplistic and far from accurate. Do a little research. Start with the 2002 New York Times article “Music; Richard Strauss and Hitler’s Reich: Jupiter in Hell”. Your use of the term “unfortunate situation” isn’t very helpful either.

      • James Inverne says:

        Ronnie actually also wrote an excellent play about Strauss and the Nazis, which ran in tandem with a later revival of Taking Sides (Michael Pennington starred in both). Lovely man, brilliant writer – Taking Sides and The Dresser are his masterpieces. Unfortunately the film of Taking Sides messed with the play’s structure, rather ruining it.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Richard Strauss? Morally unscathed?
      I would suggest that you do some further reading about him, Mr. Kandan.

  • Beinisch says:

    Very good play. At that time the play left everybody with a great enigma about the conductor

  • Bruce says:

    “Quartet” was made into a very sweet movie featuring a cast of wonderful British actors including Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith (and Dame Gwyneth as a bitchy diva). Not the most profound story, but a great opportunity to watch masters of the craft displaying their skills.

  • José Bergher says: “Taking Sides”, the movie. Dubbed in English; Spanish subtitles.

    • Helen Wynn says:

      Thanks for the info on the film. Excellent. Not sure how it differs from the play. I will have to look in to that. But, I did not end up feeling differently about Furtwängler, whom my grandmother sang with (an America, BTW). But I did feel more intensely disgusted with little K, no matter how good he was (or wasnt). Furtwangler’s slow movement of Beethoven’s 9th at the Bayreuth opening in 1951 is one I cherish. Hard to reconcile what the Nazi’s did to the Jews and others who were no “pure”. It is a crushingly painful.

  • Lady Weidenfeld says:

    A huge loss as a writer and a life-enhancing human being. He adored music and loved being with musicians. He used to play 4 hands piano with his beloved wife Natasha who died seven years ago.
    Don’t forget Collaboration, his wonderful play about the relationship between Richard Strauss and Stephan Zweig.
    He was one of those people who always made you feel better for being in his company.

  • Herbie G says:

    Are you for real, NL??? Furtwangler was vociferously opposed to the Nazis and initially refused to sack the Jewish players in the BPO despite increasing pressure from Goebbels and his henchmen. He never joined the Nazi party. He was bold enough to write open provocative polemics excoriating Hitler and Nazism; he refused to give the Nazi salute at this concerts and, when under pressure, he strode on to the podium with his baton held aloft in his right hand. He refused to conduct at Hitler’s birthday concerts (he was diplomatically unwell at these events). When he was warned of the consequences of failing to sack his Jewish players this became inevitable (if he didn’t, someone else would) so he gave the players letters of commendation that enabled them to find work in the countries to which they fled.
    Furtwangler also resigned his state appointments because the Nazis had branded the composer Hindemith (not a Jew) as degenerate and banned the performance of his works.
    The Nazis demanded that Furtwangler swear allegiance to the party, but he refused to do so, merely agreeing that Hitler was in charge of cultural policy – a real no-brainer.
    As for Furtwangler profiting from the Nazis, he reputedly turned down a huge monetary reward offered to him in the form of a pension. He never conducted the Horst-Wessel song and never attended political meetings. Only twice did he conduct in Nazi-occupied territory – in Prague, where he performed Czech nationalist music. He assisted refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany and was friendly with the German Resistance Movement that planned the 20th July assassination plot against Hitler.
    I may have a faulty memory – correct me if need be – but when I saw the play ‘Taking Sides’ it was all about the determination of an obsessive American general deputing Major Steve Arnold to ‘get the bandmaster at all costs’ to make an example of him. During the play Arnold questions Furtwangler, to make sure that he is convicted at his forthcoming denazification hearing, but his subordinates discover, as does he, that there is virtually nothing that can indict him for collaboration in the Nazi machine.
    In these circumstances, I fail to see how NL ‘saw Furtwangler in a different light’ as a result of seeing Harwood’s play. From where I am sitting, he was courageous to the point of recklessness. If one excoriates him and accuses him of ‘collaboration’, then the same applies to every butcher, baker and candlestick-maker who lived in Germany between 1933 and 1945. In fact, he believed that music was the final bastion of sanity in a Germany gone mad and that’s why he remained at his podium until the final months of the Third Reich, when the Gestapo were after him, and he fled to Switzerland. His denazification hearing exonerated him but he was a broken man and died shortly afterwards.
    For my part, I have no axe to grind – I am not that fond of Furtwangler’s performances (although Edwin Fischer’s performance of the slow movement of Furtwangler’s Symphonic Concerto under the composer’s baton is, in my opinion, magnificent) and on the other hand I do like Karl Boehm’s recordings – and he was undoubtedly a collaborator.
    The other side of the coin is Karajan, the Nazi party member who was chosen to succeed Furtwangler. At the end of the war, Walter Legge wanted him to come to London and make recordings for EMI, which he did, without having to account for himself in a denazification enquiry.
    I cannot find it in myself to have any kind of ‘view’ of a musician’s artistic endeavours just because he was a pleasant or unpleasant person. What does NL think about Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Legge’s wife, a party member who never accounted for herself up to her death? What about Walter Gieseking and Wilhelm Backhaus? Wolfgang Schneirderhan? Reginald Goodall?

  • fflambeau says:

    I’m not sure this is true or accurate. F was a complicated person who lived in very troubled times, sure he probably made mistakes but who didn’t? There is no question that he was a musical genius: “Furtwängler enriched himself under Hitler, enjoyed his status in the Reich and shamelessly abandoned his musicians once it became clear that Germany was collapsing.”

  • Sharon says:

    A German conductor who we never hear about is Bruno Kittel, a strong Nazi supporter who died in the the 1950s. I believe that his son, also named Bruno Kittel, and a muscian was the Nazi commander who arranged for the liquidation and murder of thousands of Jews in Vilna. I’m very surprised that he was never questioned after the war by the allied troops in denazification about his son who seems to have just disappeared.

  • Barbara says:

    Herbie seems to know what he is talking about. And Bruce mentions that rather lovely little film “Quartet” which is slight but very enjoyable. The film of “Taking Sides” was gripping.

  • Harwood’s Mahler play was not universally thought to be a flop and Ben Okri wrote to the Guardian to that effect. Other factors were also at play as my contemporary letter in the Guardian indicated.
    “Michael Billington is right that international terrorism is not wholly to blame for theatre closures after short runs. But perhaps the days when US tourists filled theatres without any efforts on the part of theatre managers has bred an arrogance needing attention. I tried to book eight seats at £35 each for a reunion of friends to see Mahler’s Conversion. Phoning what I believed to be the theatre’s box office, I was told there was an additional credit card charge and then, that they were a booking agency “and they were not allowed to accept my booking because I refused to give my postal address”. For security reasons I never give my address together with my credit card number.

    Ever-hopeful, my wife tried to book £280 worth of tickets from the theatre box office, only to be told they could only sell tickets on that line to disabled patrons. Unsurprisingly, friends who did go to the show said the theatre was half empty.

    Perhaps Equity should ban its members from acting for managements that do not control their own ticket sales. My friends who saw the play disagreed with Michael Billington, however, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • José Bergher says:

    Here are a few links about Bruno Kittel, the SS man in Vilna.-

    Also in Google there is an article titled
    “The last days of the Vilna ghetto — pages from a diary – Yad Vashem”. – pdf

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    In the film version, US Army major Harvey Keitel (the non-existent single member of a non-existent American tribunal) screams at Stellan Skarsgard (the hapless Furtwangler character), calling him a “f@#%ing piece of s&*t”.

    That probably never happened. . .

  • Alexander T says:

    This obsession with Furtwängler…..
    The Americans were perfectly happy to recruit rocket scientists like Wernher von Braun whose flying bombs killed thousands of Londoners.
    Furtwängler and Gieseking,on the other hand, were denied entry to the US.
    Go figure !! The hypocrisy of it.

  • karajanman says:

    Although I love the music of Richard Strauss, I don’t think that he was “morally largely unscathed” by his association with the Nazis as Mustafa Kandan suggests. Like many German musicians, he was, at the very least, compromised. I know he had to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and his grandchildren from that marriage but, like many others, he did seem to be happy to enjoy the benefits of Nazi patronage. This must have been a terrible time to be an artist in the Third Reich and it is easy for us to be judgemental in our safe cocoons today. “Hold them cheap/May who ne’er hung there” (G.M. Hopkins). The sentiment, though, that “the rest were all tainted” is not quite true. I might offer the example of Karl Amadeus Hartmann who continued to live in the Third Reich but refused to have his works performed publicly there while the Nazis were in power and undertook a sort of musically-celibate hiatus. This can be seen in the decade-long gap between his 1st and 2nd Symphonies. After the war he began a series of concerts in Munich introducing music previously banned by the Nazis. So Richard Strauss, Furtwängler, Karajan, Böhm, etc. might have found ways to avoid being forever tainted.