Furtwängler’s composing talent is too small to be measured on any musical scale

Furtwängler’s composing talent is too small to be measured on any musical scale

Album Of The Week

norman lebrecht

July 30, 2021

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

…If Bruckner married Mahler and hired Wagner and Brahms to tutor their backward child, the infant might have doodled something like Furtwängler’s B-minor symphony. This work is not so much composed as collaged. Trademarked themes of other composers are pasted onto a vast canvas of almost ninety minutes, each movement opening with a tune you know you’ve heard before.

The wholesale theft of classical treasures becomes so blatant that, six minutes into the Adagio, Furtwängler starts churning out chunks of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, as if we’d never know…

Read on here.

And here.

En francais ici.

More languages follow.


  • Bill says:

    Be sure to let us know when we can attend a performance or buy a recording of one of your compositions.

  • Tamino says:

    And the relentless and systematic barking up the Germanic classical music tradition tree continues on this site. Hey, we, born later, are very sorry for our predecessors letting those horrific 12 years 33-45 happen. Now everyone watch out, other countries, e.g. the US, are closing in on comparable fascistic situations.

    • Dave T says:

      Oh, come on. I loathe Trump as much as the next guy but your attempt to assuage your German guilt with a, “See, they’re just as bad as we were,” is pathetic, sad, ugly, and just plain wrong.

      Not sure why a critical look at WF’s compositional talents should trigger your nationalistic defensiveness but maybe your issues are deeper than this blog can address.

    • Tom Phillips says:

      As an American Jew, I completely agree with you. And if the Holocaust had happened in the U.S. (and something similar is certainly conceivable with today’s Republican party) there would NEVER be any subsequent political and/or monetary reparations or even mild regrets expressed by the perpetrators, their ideological descendants, and those who voted for and in other ways enabled it. They’d probably just “double down” much like today’s apologists for January 6.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    Furtwangler was just ahead of his time, anticipating Berio’s Sinfonia. 😉

  • Rob says:

    I think the first movement of his 2nd Symphony is pretty good, but then the rest seems to suffer from what he allegedly accused Mahler of, losing its way.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Here it is:


    Apart from possible ‘theft’ of themes and motives – Brahms and Mahler and Stravinsky stole almost everything they wrote – the monstrous amateurish thing is physically unlistenable.

    • Amos says:

      Yes, our lives would be greatly enriched listening to one of your compositions. Perhaps you should consider stealing along the lines of Brahms, Mahler and Stravinsky and creating something of interest and appeal.

  • Wilhelmina says:

    After reading the review, I immediately ordered a copy.

  • J Barcelo says:

    The 2nd Symphony almost redeemed the travesty that was the 1st, at least in the Barenboim recording. But then came the 3rd which confirmed what the 1st hinted at: Furtwangler was no composer.

  • Dan P. says:

    While not everyone (actually only a very few) are gifted enough to create great and original music, the ability of a person to write clear, coherent, and thoughtfully composed compositions is nothing to be sneezed at. When done well, it shows not only skill but a high degree of musical culture. Furtwaengler, like Szell and a number of other great conductors composed music of great skill, if not historical importance, and show this. And, if nothing else, it shows their working understanding of musical structure of varying types. And, by the way, while Furtwaengler’s 1st Symphony may not be as compelling as one would want, the 2nd certainly is. It’s available in a number of recordings, as well as in a live performance by Furtwaengler himself.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Your sound arguments are also true of great pianists. Kempff and Schnabel instantly come to my mind. This must be true for virtuosos of other instruments too. Examples?

    • Amos says:

      It should be noted that Szell never wanted his early compositions discussed much less performed. I recall reading that on one occasion, in conjunction with preparing the next season’s program, associate conductor Louis Lane indicated he wanted to suggest a piece and started to play a piano reduction of an overture that Szell immediately recognized as his. Supposedly he immediately told LL to stop playing and indicated he never wanted to hear it again.
      On the larger point of the benefit(s) of a conductor having a working knowledge of composition on the art of conducting, it seems intuitively obvious that it must be beneficial but I’d argue the results are mixed. In the case of Bernstein, Szell and Furtwangler an argument can be made for a positive correlation but there’s obviously no way of proving it was helpful given that imo much less convincing conductors like Leinsdorf and Maazel were also adept at at least transcriptions/arrangements of pieces if not creating original compositions. I would have thought that somewhere in his writings Bernstein would have discussed this at length.

  • John says:

    Makes me wonder why Daniel Barenboim (and others) have seen fit to record his music.

    To quote maestro Barenboim, “As a composer, Furtwängler was primarily good at generating fantastic dramatic escalations. If his works had not been written in the first half of the twentieth century, but around 1870, the world would have been amazed by these masterworks. In terms of craftsmanship, his music is absolutely perfect: but aesthetically the seams are visible.”

    Mahler or Bruckner? Certainly not. But worthy of hearing? Definitely, according to Daniel.

    This seems good enough an endorsement from someone of considerable knowledge of Furtwängler whose connection goes back to his childhood.

    To Norman, allow me to relate a story that may be apocryphal, but nonetheless makes an apt point.

    Isaac Stern and Fritz Reiner were collaborating on a performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. Reiner said to Stern “This piece stinks.” to which Stern responded “Write one better!”

    • M McAlpine says:

      This always appears a fairly inane argument. I certainly could not write a better symphony than Furtwangler, but that doesn’t stop me regarding his work as a mind-numbing bore.

    • Novagerio says:

      John: I think it was Heifetz, not Stern – apocryphal or not.


    “Furtwängler’s mammoth First Symphony in B minor was withdrawn by the composer after he led the Berlin Philharmonic through the work in a single rehearsal. The conductor/composer’s widow recalled that Furtwängler telephoned her directly after the rehearsal and told her there were too many things wrong with the symphony. He was right. More often than not, Furtwängler’s melodic ideas run into the ground before they have a chance to develop, or prematurely build into mini-climaxes that huff and puff, stop in midair, and say, “Okay, what do we do next?”


    • Peter San Diego says:

      Ergo: when it comes to that symphony, WF shared NL’s opinion. But later he wrote a second symphony that actually works.

  • Frankie Calman says:

    Poor Furtwangler – when interviewed at the end of his life and asked how he would like to be remembered said ‘As a composer’.

  • Rob says:

    What was that thing where he woke up in Switzerland and apparently thought he was Hindemith?

  • Edgar Self says:

    And yet it is the album of the week. Like some of us, Norman might want to like this work but cannot.

    The second symphony is less worse and sounds in parts like Bruckner in Spain. I heard Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony play it and have their CD drawn from those performances, along with Furtwaengler’s two recordings. I get more from the CD from the concert I heard.

    More important than the merits pf the [piece is the fact that F. wrote music and thought of himself as a composer. He once stopped a rehearsal of someone else’s work and said, “I would like to have written this music.”