The German conductor Wilhelm Furtwaengler was born 100 years ago and died in 1954, two years before his arch-rival, Arturo Toscanini. The two men, arguably the most influential conductors of the 20th Century, found a common ground only in their love for Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner. In their musical interpretations, as in their responses to the practical problems of everyday life, the introverted Furtwaengler was a Romantic to the core, the fiery Toscanini the ultimate realist.
Whereas Toscanini's popularity has steadily declined since his death, Furtwaengler has become the object of cultish veneration--much written about, read (he wrote at least three books dealing with his musical philosophy), listened to on recordings and analyzed.
But Furtwaengler has also been the subject of heated controversy, not only for his highly original interpretive style but for the fact that he lived and worked in Germany through the Nazi era, which to many Americans was tantamount to being a Nazi.
Furtwaengler was the product of politically liberal 19th-Century German intellectualism, his father being a noted archeologist, his mother a successful painter. Papa's progressive notions precluded a formal education for young Wilhelm. Instead, he was tutored at home and in Italy, his majors, so to speak, being archeology, sculpture and musicology. He began to play the piano at 6 and to compose at 7. Indeed, it was to make his own compositions known that he took up conducting as a teen-ager.
By the end of World War I, he had risen to a position of eminence, succeeding Richard Strauss as music director of the Berlin State Opera. In 1922, he took over two of Europe's most distinguished musical organizations, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, maintaining a relationship with the latter until the end of his life.
Anyone who played for this awkward podium presence--his physical appearance was most often compared to that of a giraffe--had to believe deeply in the conductor's musical ideals. When asked how they knew when to enter on Furtwaengler's vague, spasmodic downbeat, members of the Berlin Philharmonic variously replied, "When we'd finished our coffee," "after counting to 10--some of us 11," "when it looked as if we no longer had a choice." Then, too, problems were caused by his constantly questioning, improvisatory approach to a score, with departures in performance from what had been agreed upon in rehearsal.
Yet, the sounds he drew from orchestras reconciled to his eccentric ways were, according to most listeners, uniquely sumptuous. A respected fellow conductor, Sir Adrian Boult, observed that Furtwaengler's imprecise beat was a major factor in the fullness of sound his orchestras achieved--a rich sonority because entries were being made a split second apart.
His core repertory consisted of the 19th-Century classics--the symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner and the Wagner operas, with excursions into Haydn, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and the 20th-Century masters whose causes he espoused. Among the premieres he conducted were those of Bartok's First Piano Concerto (1926) and Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra (1928).
With the advent of Hitler, the Furtwaengler picture becomes clouded. Certainly the German musical world had no stauncher supporter of individual freedom than this otherwise withdrawn man. He was appalled by the concept and practice of anti-Semitism. When the regime harassed Jewish members of the Berlin Philharmonic, his protests forced a temporary truce. When sanctions were later imposed against these same musicians, his influence and often direct assistance helped many to obtain safe passage out of Germany. The Jewish musicians who had worked with Furtwaengler remained among his most ardent supporters during the conductor's subsequent troubles.
Furtwaengler maintained his belief in art as the ultimate counterforce to intolerance, to brutishness. With this in mind, one can more readily understand why in 1933 Furtwaengler accepted the invitation of Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, to assume office in the Reichsmusikkammer, the music division of the Nazi Ministry of Culture. The post would otherwise have gone to a racist.
In March of 1934, Furtwaengler conducted the first performance of the "Mathis der Maler" Symphony of his friend and fellow political noncomformist, Paul Hindemith (also a non-Jew). The government was outraged. Six months later, a notorious government proclamation branded Hindemith a "Cultural Bolshevik," whereupon Furtwaengler resigned all his positions--at the Reichsmusikkammer, the Berlin Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic.