What the Amadeus Quartet learned from Wilhelm Furtwängler

What the Amadeus Quartet learned from Wilhelm Furtwängler


norman lebrecht

June 19, 2021

From a 2005 interview with the late Norbert Brainin, leader of the refugee Amadeus Quartet:

The best example of how an artist can, in the very first instant, “grab” the listener’s attention, and “tune him in” to the way the entire work will proceed before him, was Wilhelm Furtwängler. The tone was there, straight off, and his famous or, if you will, notorious “attack” was the textbook example of how a conductor can awaken that peculiar mixture of emotional tension and lively intelligence in his musicians and in his audience, that is so indispensable if one is to properly interpret a Classical work. (And forget trying to imitate him! One never knows what will come out.)

In general, here is how one could attempt to explain Furtwängler’s brilliant approach to the orchestra: He would seek to bring his musicians to play in the manner he intended them to play (i.e., from the standpoint of the composition as a whole). Never would he allow people to play the way they might have wished to. During rehearsals, by the way, Furtwängler rarely spoke, because words are of little use under such circumstances. Apart from the fact that everyone was expected to know the piece, the musicians were expected to focus entirely on the music, and “listen into” the music; musicians must, in the finest meaning of the word, develop a “feeling” for the music. Through his gestures, and his laconic “Take it again,” Furtwängler succeeded. I knew exactly what he was getting at, and I did the same in my Quartet.




  • Tully Potter says:

    The Trio di Trieste and Quartetto Italiano claimed to have learnt much from evenings spent playing chamber music with WF, but I have always felt that the things they learnt were the worst aspects of their musicianship! Most of the Amadeus Quartet’s performances displayed no sign of his influence, thank goodness! They were also avowedly followers of Adolf Busch, the very antithesis of WF’s meanderings down the vaguer paths of German nationalist romanticism…

    • Heifetz 63 says:

      I appreciate your enormous musical knowledge, but at the same time I am shocked again and again about your disdain of Wilhelm Futwängler. As if he is an amateur…

    • Gabriel Blessing says:

      Unbelievable that you could be so deeply ignorant of the fact that the Busch Quartet’s interpretations were steeped in that “German nationalist [R]omanticism” you so disdain, and were part of the same musical tradition that produced both that legendary quarter along with Furtwängler, among others, including German Jewish musicians like Schnabel and Walter, not to mention Mahler. And Furtwängler, for his part, and by his own repeated admission, was more influenced by Schenker, a Jewish music theorist, than any other single individual. What a shockingly idiotic comment by someone who should know better, but whose brain has been clearly addled by listening to entirely too much Toscanini.

      • E Rand says:

        If there’s one thing Mr. Potter is not ignorant on, it would be the topic of Adolf Busch. He is the author of the greatest biography ever written on any violinist in history.

      • Kenny says:

        Sorry, but there’s no such thing as “too much Toscanini.” Doesn’t exist.

    • Novagerio says:

      Tully: so, what you are saying is that, according to your head, “Nationalist Romanticism” is only about Goebbels and Himmler, and not about Goethe and Schiller, and especially Eichendorff?
      Me thinks you have some reading to do, about Furtwängler and the old cultural Germany in Germany, and those conservative citizens now called reactionaries, and the whole wilhelminian era.
      Yes, National Conservatism lead to the rise of Hitler, but the main sopport came from big corporations that were not only German. But that was 200 years later.

      • Saxon says:

        The main support for Hitler came from rural and small town middle brow Protestant Germans in the North and East of Germany. These are people who previously largely voted National Liberal in Germany before the rise of the Nazi party.

  • Elliott says:

    Nothing to discuss.

  • E Rand says:

    Secular rot and cultural relativism have made commentary such as Brainin’s seem highfalutin or peculiar: “why isn’t Brainin – a Jew- condemning Furtwangler for his political positions?? Reee!!”

    Brainin was a primarius of genius and the type we no longer make. His commentary reminds me of a time when musicians could speak deeply of the metaphysics of music and trust that their audience might understand and respect their language.

    In the age of soul destroying poison-pill music like “WAP” and the culture that celebrates it (NPR named it THE song of 2020) we have fallen so far. So, so far.

  • Jack says:

    There are many pictures of Wilhelm Furtwangler. Why — in an otherwise interesting (if rather minor) post about his impact on the Amadeus quartet — would you publish a picture of him with Adolf Hitler?

    Did you think we didn’t already know this about him? Good heavens, the Furtwangler- Hitler issue has been discussed to death in your blog.

    What is this post really about, Norman? Did you really want us to read the post, or was the picture really just cheap click-bait? I’m thinking the latter.

  • Novagerio says:

    Very flattering picture of Furtwängler with the Führer. You made your personal point now?

  • HugoPreuss says:

    For a moment I was wondering whether this charming and informative little piece would actually be allowed to stand on its own, without any “Furtwängler-was-a-Nazi” addition. And then I saw the picture accompanying it.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Testimony from one who was part of it. “The tone was there straight off … from, the first instant … to the way the whole work will proceed.”

    Examples: Tristan prelude, Leonore Three, Eroica, Brahms I-IV, Brucvkner V and VII, Siegfried’s Funeral Music, Mozart Gran Partita, Pathetique.

  • E says:

    Loved this post, because, it speaks to something that as a listener, I have felt: music that pulls us in from the first note. It’s not my imagination…

  • AL says:

    We all know the history of Furtwangler and the Nazi party. I don’t intend to go into all of that. Why in the world would you choose to include a photo of him with A. Hitler? I think you do things like this to see how people react. Furtwangler did in fact help Jews to get out of Germany. Thank you for mentioning my favorite string quartet – The Amadeus

  • Y says:

    Furtwangler’s second symphony is an underrated work — I would almost call it a masterpiece. It is, however, a work with limited appeal — you really need to be an unabashed Bruckner devotee to enjoy it, because Furtwangler is essentially a Bruckner imitator with all the same faults and idiosyncrasies, only magnified.

    But if you love Bruckner, definitely check out Furtwangler’s second symphony.

  • SMH says:

    Why Hitler? Why? WTF.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    One thing Brainin does, on this occasion or at least in this excerpt, is to discuss the musician and not the political man.

  • FrankInUsa says:

    I’ll just add my voice to why post the picture of Furtwangler with Hitler when the article has nothing to do with the postings pics and actually the commentary in the post is antithetical to the pic. I’m not defending Hitler. The memory of the Amadeus Quartet deserves an apology.

  • microview says:

    Well, Adolf has an audience of three, whilst WF is clearly bored to death and is looking vaguely elsewhere. Says it all.

    • Petros LInardos says:

      To me Furtwängler seems to look at Hitler. I see tension, possibly anger in Furtwängler’s facial expression.
      But photographs are just random snapshots. They can be deceptive. Haven’t we all experienced photographs that grossly misrepresent us?