Wilhelm Furtwängler

The work of the controversial conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler

Younger readers will be less familiar with this conductor who died in 1954.  Part of the problem is that he was not keen on studio recordings so those recordings that survive are concert performances.  The other problems are his involvement with the Nazi regime and that he was admired by Hitler.

The Society was delighted to welcome Dr Roger Allen who has written a book on this controversial conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler: Art and the Politics of the Unpolitical (Boydell Press 2018).   Roger is a fellow of St Peter’s College, Oxford.  The conductor left a legacy of recordings made during the turbulent period of the early part of the 20th century culminating in the Third Reich.

The first piece was the third movement of JS Bach’s Bradenburg Concerto No. 3 made in 1930.  It had an unusually large number of players, compared that is with today’s pared down recordings made with period instruments.  Yet the sound was not ‘mushy’ and the parts could be heard distinctly despite it being a mono recording.

Roger then went on to discuss the different approaches between Toscanini

Wilhelm Furtwangler. Pic: larouchepac.com

and Furtwangler illustrated with the first movement of the Eroica Symphony.  Toscanini came to Berlin in 1930 and his arrival was not welcomed by the German.  Beethoven was seen as ‘home territory’ and Toscanini was criticised for not recognising the ‘organic growth’ of the work – a theory propounded by Heinrich Schenker.    I am not sure any of us fully grasped the full import of Schenker’s theory as it applied here, but we were able to distinguish the different approach between the two conductors.  As Roger explained it, Toscanini played what was in the score – seen as being rather un-German – whereas there was a distinct sense of being ‘ushered in’ to the symphony by Furtwangler.

At Bayreuth he performed a production of Lohengrin in the presence of Hitler a keen Wagner fan.   During the war he became a kind of figurehead for the Nazi regime which led to problems when the war ended.  He was part of the denazification programme after the war and did not perform for two years.

Other pieces Roger played included part of Bruckner’s 8th and the whole of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo stringsAnton Bruckner was also popular with Hitler and he had a bust made and exhibited in Walhalla.  Again, Bruckner was much admired by the Third Reich as being an example of ‘blood and soil’ as well as being an Austrian.

Furtwängler poses difficult questions for listeners, similar to those with Wagner, an avid anti-Semite.  His close association with, and support for, the Nazis makes uncomfortable listening.  Many artists had to flee Germany and the occupied lands because of persecution so it was not some kind of passive thing.

The presentation was extremely interesting going beyond the normal music centred evenings we usually enjoy.  In two hours there was not time to explore all aspects and unfortunately we were unable to get the screen to link to his laptop.  Nevertheless, the considerable contribution Furtwangler made to the musical world was well explained.  His legacy of recordings is revered by many.  Peter Horwood, the chair of SRMS, said it had been a ‘fantastic evening’.

This was the last evening before the Christmas break and we shall be back for the second half of the season on 4 February 2019.  We wish all our supporters and members a happy Christmas and we look forward to seeing you again in the new year.

Peter Curbishley

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