I am not a conductor groupie, following every move of a superstar or cult figure on the podium. My priority is always the music and its meaning, not the musician. However, as you might have surmised from my interview with conductor Jose Serebrier in last month’s Crisis, I readily acknowledge the huge difference a conductor can sometimes make in one’s understanding of a composition.
Such was the case with German conductor and composer Wilhelm Furtwangler (1886-1954). This year marks the 50th anniversary of his death, and the occasion demands observance. He was one of the greatest and most controversial conductors of the 20th century. To celebrate, Deutsche Grammophon has issued a memorial release of a five-CD set of live recordings from the 1940s and 1950s of some of Furtwangler’s galvanic performances and a CD of interviews (in German). Another label, Tim, has released a flood of historical Furtwangler recordings in two ten-CD sets, available from Berkshire Record Outlet for the absurdly low price of $2 per CD (www.berkshirerecordoutlet. com). Teldec Classics has provided a two-CD set of a gorgeous rendition of Furtwangler’s Symphony No. 2, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim. And on the less-than-celebratory side, the recent film Taking Sides, based on real events, dramatizes the investigation into Furtwangler’s wartime activities as a possible Nazi collaborator. To prepare for this article, I have also delved into Notebooks: 1924-54, Furtwangler’s private reflections from this period.
Films of Furtwangler conducting reveal a caricaturist’s dream. His elongated figure was capped by a head too small for the length of his neck. On the podium, he moved like a wet strand of vermicelli tugged about by the strings of an unseen puppeteer. His left arm in particular dangled and flapped as if boneless. He jerked around like a seismometer registering disturbances from another world. His almost unseemly physical flexibility was translated into the flexibility of his interpretations that distended or concentrated the music, like long and short contractions in childbirth, according to what he thought the music was trying to say. This interpretive approach may not be to everyone’s liking. Some critics say that he pulled music like taffy. Imprecision was part of his vocabulary because he found it expressive, and he abhorred a regular beat. He once stormed out of a Toscanini concert exclaiming, “Bloody time-beater.”
Whatever his eccentricities, I have been astonished by the extraordinary number of revelations Furtwangler provides in works that I know well, things I have never heard before in pieces like the Brahms Symphony No. 3 and the Schumann Spring Symphony. Nothing passes along by rote. Nothing is routine. Furtwangler is always doing something interesting, often daring, and with the utmost conviction. For Furtwangler, the notes were mere semaphore, only crudely indicating the composer’s intent. He wished to recapture the experience to which the notes were meant to give expression. Perhaps he occasionally invested the music with more passion and drama than it could bear—oh, felix culpa!—but he was always searching for the deeper, transcendent significance hid-den behind the notes. It is no surprise that his approach worked best with composers possessed of a transcendent vision, like Beethoven or Bruckner.
Because Furtwangler was charged with Nazi collaboration, his anniversary may raise questions that are more political than musical. In both Austria and Germany he was found not guilty, but the taint remained. Taking Sides shows that it still does. Furtwangler believed, even throughout the Nazi period, that music was like religion and, if you worshiped at its altar, you could insulate yourself from the political because you had transcended it. In transcending it, you might even trans-form it or at least save what was worth saving. In this he was mistaken, and for it he was condemned by many. He was mistaken because the Nazi ideology was not political. It was metaphysical, bent upon restructuring reality based upon the will. In Nazism, the idea of art transcending this endeavor was absurd by definition, as it was for Stalin in his equally misguided metaphysical endeavor.
However, that is an intellectual, not a moral, error on Furtwangler’s part. The Taking Sides film gets this terribly wrong by reducing him to an egoist who rationalized his decision to stay in Germany merely to serve himself. I do not mind the distortion of historical figures for valid dramatic purposes. For example, the infantilization of Mozart in the superb play Amadeus was a powerful device (albeit ruined in the movie by the same name). Taking Sides, though, reminds me of amateur attempts at drama that do little more than provide the main character with a platform for making a noble speech. The rest is just setup. The main character in this case is Major Steve Arnold, played by a fuming Harvey Keitel, who gets to denounce Nazism (hasn’t this been done before?) and Furtwangler as an accomplice to it. How compelling this is may be discerned from the Chicago Tribune’s praise of the film as a “drama of ideas.” Dra-mas are so much better when they are about people and the ideas about art and politics when they are dealt with by Plato. Perhaps the play on which it is based was better, but Taking Sides is pedantic and polemical.
Condemning Furtwangler is too easy. He made some anti-Semitic re-marks and, despite himself, became a cultural icon for the Nazi regime. There is a film of him, used during the closing credits of the movie as a coup de grace, shaking hands with Goebbels after a concert. Yet Furtwangler never joined the Nazi party, played the party anthem, or gave the Nazi salute, even in Hitler’s presence. For those with little knowledge of totalitarian regimes, this may not seem like much. Yet how many would have dared as much? Furtwangler dared more. He personally saved several hundred Jews. By 1945, he was near the top of the Gestapo’s blacklist for disloyalty to the regime and was slated for execution. SS Chief Heinrich Himmler wrote, “There is no Jew, filthy as he may be, for whom Furtwangler does not stretch out a helping hand.” Albert Speer approached Furtwangler after a concert and warned him to flee. Furtwangler left for Switzerland, where he waited out the war until he returned for his trial for Nazi collaboration.
Furtwangler could have left earlier or chosen seclusion, or what the Germans called “inner emigration”—like Karl Amadeus Hartman, who refused to have his works performed during the Nazi reign, or Walter Braunfels, who courageously refused to compose a Nazi anthem, was stripped of his musical posts, and then retreated to Lake Constance. Choosing to remain active inevitably compromised Furtwangler in many people’s eyes, but it also placed him in a position to act. However tainted, he saved more Jews than anyone who left or emigrated inwardly. That is to his everlasting credit. Could he have done more?
Furtwangler thought he was keeping the best in German culture alive by surviving the Nazi malignancy. The endeavor may have seemed absurd at the time, and certainly did to many after the war, including those American and Jewish musicians who refused to perform with him. Did he fail in his endeavor? One can read his Notebooks or listen to his Second Symphony, written in Switzerland after he fled, to try to find some clues for an answer. The Notebooks show that he did not have a Nazi bone in his body. And the gorgeous Symphony No. 2, steeped in Bruckner, clearly reveals that he thought the solution to the problems of the 20th century was the 19th century. As quixotic as that may seem, 50 years after his death, people still listen to the grainy recordings of the visionary performances conducted by this extraordinary man. They probably always will. Perhaps that is a partial answer.