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Furtwangler and the Nazis — Take Two

I am returning to the topic of Furtwangler because my previous blog produced a minor miracle – a thread of responses that yielded heightened understanding of a complex topic.

I wrote to William Osborne and Stephen Stockwell:

“Thanks so much for this engrossing feedback. Maybe we could summarize that the truth about Furtwangler falls within these two polarities:

“1.He stressed the communal experience of music, felt he couldnt access that outside Germanic lands (I find this credible), so he accommodated the Third Reich insofar as he had to, so long as he didnt have to join the Party and otherwise publicly endorse Nazi ideology, ethnic cleansing, book-burning. At the same time, his conservative cultural/political mindset created some degree of common ground with the Nazis. Think of Mann’s superiority posture in Reflections of a Non-Political Man (worth reading if you don’t know it). I cannot envision WF feeling personally kindred to a Hitler or Gobbels; his breeding was aristocratic.

“2.All of the above – but add to that some degree of actual enthusiasm for what the Third Reich stood for – eg concerts that were patriotic occasions, flaunting German exceptionalism/Kunst. Especially given the passions/exigencies of wartime. In other words: crossing the line Mann refused to cross, and doing so with some degree of fervor.”

Both Osborne and Stockwell seem to think this is a useful perspective on an elusive reality.

(Meanwhile, thanks to Norman Lebrecht, a second thread of responses on tackled another aspect of the Furtwangler phenomenon: his rejection of non-tonal music and its implications for musical interpretation.)

I now feel impelled to revisit Topic A – not Furtwangler the man (B), but Furtwangler the conductor – and see what A and B put together look like today. So I’ve just re-read some of my own Furtwangler writings – from the 1979 New York Times (when I was a Times music critic) and from my most notorious book: Understanding Toscanini (1987).

The basic text for Topic A will always be Wagner’s indispensable booklet “On Conducting” (1869). It may be read as a Furtwangler bible. Everything Wagner here espouses may be found in Furtwangler’s art (and also that of Wagner’s disciple Anton Seidl, the subject of my best book: Wagner Nights: An American History [1994]). I refer to plasticity of tempo, extremes of tempo and dynamics, and other activist strategies rejecting mere adherence to the score. There is also in Wagner, as in Seidl or Furtwangler, an insistence on interiority in the experience and performance of symphonic music.

Whence this interiority? Most obviously: harmonic subcurrents felt, explored, and shaped. This “hidden” foundational content is what the music theorist Heinrich Schenker – paramount for Furtwangler – extrapolated in new ways.

The occasion of my 1979 New York Times piece was the release of a live 1943 performance of Furtwangler conducting Schubert’s C major Symphony. I decided to compare it with his famous studio recording of 1951 to see whether these readings, which seem so impulsive and personal, shared a fundamental groundplan. Here’s what I found:

“The fearless absorption Furtwängler stood for found its most obvious expression in interpolated changes of pulse, both as momentary rubatos and sustained alterations of a basic tempo. . . . In his book, ‘Concerning Music,’ he defined rubato as ‘a temporary relaxation of rhythm under the stress of emotion,’ and went on to say that, without ‘inward veracity,’ any rubato would wind up sounding calculated and exaggerated.

“Though the difference between good rubatos and bad is partly a matter of taste, the mastery of rubato evident in Furtwangler’s best recordings is impressive by any reasonable standard. His Wagner performances, in particular, handle fluctuating tempos in manner that never seems to draw attention to itself. If in his Schubert’s Ninth the tempo changes are more debatable, their clear intention, and frequent result, is to capitalize on the expressive potential of individual moments without losing sight of the whole.

“A couple of comparisons may help clarify the point. If one wishes to investigate the consequences of unbridled subjectivity in this music, there is 1939‐40 recording by Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra that moves in Dionysian fits. . . .

“Toscanini’s 1941 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a wonderful performance about as famous as Furtwangler’s, is an entirely different affair from Mengelberg’s. In the outer movements, the steadily pounding rhythms accumulate tremendous force. At the very end of the finale, however, where Schubert has the orchestra hammer out four repeated C’s, Toscanini adopts a much slower speed in order to weight the strokes. With the pulse so rock‐solid everywhere else, such a conspicuous shift sounds doubly conspicuous.

“It so happens that the four‐note figure Toscanini stresses is the same figure that is elongated by Mengelberg’s big ritard at the beginning of the second movement — it is one of the score’s basic ingredients. Furtwangler slows down in both places, but more subtly . . . In fact, the gear‐changes are so slight that, unless you listen for them, only their effects will be apparent: the lyric breadth of the oboe phrase, the extra intensity of the hammer blows. It is not merely that Furtwangler reduces speed less than Mengelberg or Toscanini; by establishing an overall pulse that is firmer than Mengelberg’s, but more plastic than Toscanini’s, he establishes a foil for his rubatos — they are absorbed into the rhythmic flow without disrupting it.

“Not all of Furtwangler’s rubatos are so moderate. In fact, there are places where the change of speed is far more drastic than anything Mengelberg attempts. One example stands out, a spot in the Andante just before the main reprise of the oboe melody. Robert Schumann’s description is nearly as famous as the passage itself: “A horn is calling as from a distance. . . .  everything else is hushed, as though listening to some heavenly visitant hovering around the orchestra.”

“It would be impossible to imagine a more rarefied affirmation of Schumann’s imagery than the music Furtwangler conjures up [go to 20:50 here]. . . . the horn, shrouded and remote, speaks as from a void.

“The chief catalyst here is a huge rubato: For a full minute, Furtwangler cuts the pulse by about 90 percent, folding open the space out of which the horn‐call materializes. Such an interpolation would derail any normal performance of a Schubert symphony, yet Furtwangler manages to integrate it. How?

“Partly, he relies on transitions: A massive ritard prepares the horn entry; afterwards, when the horn finishes, the oboe returns with the principle theme slightly under tempo, as if recuperating from a trance. More important, the entire movement is shaped with an ear toward accommodating the interruption. Not only does Furtwangler introduce grand ritards at comparable structural junctures, he anticipates the serenity of the horn‐call passage in the manner he phrases and articulates the second subject, dovetailing its four‐measure phrases into long, lofty spans of 13 and 19 measures. This may not satisfy everybody’s notion of how the movement should go — to most conductors, it is a steadier, more propulsive Andante con moto — but it is a unified approach, and it incorporates breathtaking stretches of repose.

“Throughout the symphony, in fact, Furtwangler’s approach is unified by feats of planning based on long‐range structural divisions and harmonic tensions. It is one of the trademarks of his art that the interpretation sounds spontaneous, even impulsive. To a certain degree, of course, it is. But anyone who doubts the existence of an encompassing master plan might compare the present Schubert’s Ninth with Furtwangler’s 1943 in‐concert recording with the Vienna Philharmonic  — though the range of tempos is wider in the 1943 performance, the overall scheme of tempo relationships is the same.”

So that’s what I wrote in 1979 (when such things could be written for a newspaper readership).

And here’s part of what I wrote in 1987 in Understanding Toscanini, undertaking a detailed comparison of Furtwangler and Toscanini in Wagner’s Prelude to Lohengrin:

“From the start, Toscanini has his [NBC Symphony] vocalize the melodic lines. Furtwangler, in his 1954 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, prefers a shimmery, incorporeal sound, with less string vibrato. Toscanini’s tempo, while not hasty, is always distinctly mobile. Furtwangler is much slower (his performance takes 9’50” to Toscanini’s 7’35”) and initially much more relaxed: he makes little of swells Toscanini italicizes, preferring to let the music build cumulatively. Toscanini’s pacing is steadier, with many downbeats perceptibly marked. Furtwangler’s fluid pacing erases Wagner’s bar lines. The downbeats he marks are long-range stresspoints: unlike Toscanini, for  instance, he articulates a series of eight-bar phrases beginning with measures 20, 28, and 36. Toscanini accelerates into the prelude’s climax, the whole of which moves at a new, faster tempo. His shiny trumpets, which enter only at this point, dominate the sound [5:20 here]. Furtwangler retards into the climax, the whole of which moves at a new, slower tempo. His trumpets are darker, making the prelude’s crest less sonically distinct [5:58 here]. Postclimax, Toscanini resumes his earlier, slower tempo; Furtwangler, his earlier, faster one. Toscanini retards for the full cadence eight measures from the end. So does Furtwangler, but more drastically – rather than a local event, this unprecedented punctuation point registers the harmonic resolution of the prelude’s entire, arcing span. . . .

“No difference between the two performances is more crucial than the contradictory tempo changes at the climax. Toscanini, sensing one-bar units and relying on surface tension to keep the music whole, holds the line with a relatively tight rein. At moments of peak arousal, he grips harder and speeds up. Furtwangler’s reliance on four-bar units (or multiples thereof) and sustained harmonic tension allows for more play in the line. At moments of peak arousal, he slows down to give the harmonic tensions space in which to expand and resolve. He can also let the line go slack without stopping longterm musical flow; unlike Toscanini’s, Furtwangler’s climaxes pre-empt repose and lead to exhaustion. Their slow, weighted pulse might be likened to that of a pendulum swinging with greater force as it spans ever longer arcs. Their visceral impact bears some relation to the Hollywood convention of shooting moments of crisis or ecstasy in slow motion. Inner turmoil produces a sensation of temporal dislocation. Time ‘slows down,’ even ‘stands still.’ In the Prelude to Lohengrin, Furtwangler’s slow-motion climax seems to exist outside time.” (pp. 364-365)

It’s been a long time since I listened to Furtwangler’s Schubert 9 and I have no particular desire to revisit it in any detail. Beyond a doubt, I would today regard it more as an acquired taste than I did in 1979. In this work, Furtwangler’s antipode is not Toscanini. For me, it is Josef Krips (1902-1974). Krips’ name is today mainly forgotten – but back in the days of High Fidelity LP reviews, his Schubert 9 with the London Symphony was a basic frame of reference. (I remember in 1979 receiving a note from a Times reader advising me to listen to Krips.)

Krips was born in Vienna and I would summarize his art as “Viennese.” He cherished moderation, clarity, and song. His Strauss waltzes are the best I know. His Schubert is gemutlich – Schubertian. The demons Furtwangler discovers in Schubert – I am thinking especially of the astounding Cyclopean intensity of the central climax in the Schubert 9 Andante a la Furtwangler [24:20 here]– are not for Krips. Schubert, assuredly, can be demonic. Furtwangler’s Schubert demons, however, are massive Wagnerian demons.

I would also call Furtwangler an acquired taste in Beethoven’s Ninth (a Bruckner/Wagner reading, unforgettable in the first movement coda). He even has a live recording of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements wholly un-Stravinskian but (for me) readily acquirable. What I find I cannot acquire a taste for is Furtwangler in Bach, Mozart, or Haydn. And I cannot imagine liking his approach in my favorite Beethoven symphony: No. 8, with its Olympian coda (another intoxicating Krips recording with the London Symphony, once a benchmark).

One thing that’s missing in those Furtwangler readings, and tangible in Krips, is a quality of wholesomeness. Furtwangler’s art – and here we circle back to Topic B – is dangerous. The subcurrents he exhumes are unknowable, inchoate – and uncontrollable. This is the “barbaric” dimension of Romantic art that Thomas Mann extolled and worried about. In the world of conductors, Wilhelm Furtwangler was its last great embodiment.











  1. Richard Garmise says:

    I am joining the conversation late, but hope you’ll let me retrace some ground. I find that correspondence so far somewhat frustrating – people are, I think, talking past each other and are so intent on civility that they are willing to compromise their positions. We thus end up at this point with a Hegelian synthesis not really founded on a truly opposing thesis and antithesis, but rather a kind of Marxian – Groucho, not his cousin Karl – miasma of murky German duck soup.

    I start from the position that I admire the Allen far more than Mr Horowitz. It can be repetitious, and it is considerably weaker post 1945, for all kinds of reasons, than it is for the pre-war period. But it is a very successful, I think, attempt to trace the line between Furtwangler’s intellectual and philosophic views and his compatibility with the Nazi world, and it does so by looking at evidence, not ad- (or pro-) hominem arguments

    In particular, Allen documents Furtwangler’s anti-Semitism, which is entirely missing in this discussion so far, and I think may have been missing in Mr Horowitz’ review, although I can’t access the original review from where I am (I’m in Nurnberg at the moment for the Festival, so I hope my own Wagner credentials are considered to be in order).

    This is a remarkable omission.

    It doesn’t take much to come to the conclusion that Furtwangler (whom I very deeply admire as an artist) was an anti-Semite Even a cursory reading of The Hindemith case is chilling as much as elevating. Brigitte Hanann had amplified on this, pointing out conversations when Furtwangler was at Wahnfried, but didn’t cite chapter and verse. Allen does, and that this should be unremarked I find odd, to say the least

    Mr Osborne initially makes some telling points, but falls back in response to Brad’s comments, without, I think, any real reason other than a vague urge to compromise. Bradley and I have crossed swords on this topic before, but I’m afraid I still find his “defense” of Furtwangler entirely personal in nature, and largely irrelevant. A series of straw men are set up seriatim: people say Furtwangler was a Nazi (really? Who?), Furtwangler saved lives, he (Bradley) has done his own research.

    But the issue isn’t whether Furtwangler saved 50 lives or 5,000 lives. Eichmann, for a price, saved more Jewish lives in Romania. Furtwangler’s cooperation with the regime isn’t dependent on his being an eliminationist. Even Wagner wasn’t this, except when he was feeling particularly humorous (according to Cosima). There isn’t any doubt in my mind that Furtwangler had the typical upper-class Wilhelmine contempt to the baseness of the Nazi movement; that he refused to give the salute may comfort some, but that’s not the point of the book. It Is that as a philosophy, as a world-view, his outlook was consonant with, and not at all uncomfortable with, the Nazi cultural mission and its impact on German life generally. He undoubtedly found certain means deplorable; less certain is it that he disputed the ends

    As to research done, Mr Allen presents his in a work with scholarly apparatus, published by a major publisher. He’s been allowed almost unprecedented access to papers not generally available, and he frequently cites chapter and verse (again, simply by way of example, he shows how, after and even before the war, Furtwangler’s essay on Hindemith was repeatedly sanitized, as were other writings if his). Mr Prieberg may be a justly great hero, but at least in the correspondence thus far all we have are appeals to authority, and though I don’t doubt that Brad has done his own research, at this point none of us can evaluate that other than by his say-so.

    Mr Horowitz has every right to be disappointed by Allen’s work, although, as a great admirer of Mr Horowitz’ Toscanini, I am disappointed he didn’t see more in this. I personally regret that this isn’t the kind of topic Mr Taruskin is more at home with; I’d value his level of insight applied to this topic. We may not be able to stand in someone else’s shoes historically, but let’s stick with evidence and close readings wherever we can.

    Sent from my IPhone. I assume no responsibility for spellcheck.

    • Interesting comments. I had no “vague urge to compromise.” As I repeatedly mention in my comments, Furtwangler’s situation was extremely complex, and it can only be understood by viewing it from multiple and seemingly contradictory perspectives — hence the value of Joseph’s thoughts. A simple binary approach to right and wrong seldom successfully explains the behavior of people living under terror regimes.

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