Wilhelm Furtwängler
October 5, 2005 4:15 PM   Subscribe

The Wartime Ninth. "Berlin. October 7, 1944. In the Beethovensaal a concert is about to begin, but the theater is empty, relieved of its usual audience studded with Nazi elite. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is on stage, awaiting its cue. Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler stands awkwardly on the podium. The vague meandering of his baton summons the first shadowy note of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. A Radio Berlin engineer starts his Magnetophon. The most extraordinary orchestral recording of the century has just begun". More inside.
posted by matteo (21 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

Now, rewind.

Fifteen years earlier, a banquet in Berlin, summer of 1929. The Big Five
are photographed together: Bruno Walter (conductor of the Berlin City Opera), Arturo Toscanini (at the time departing from the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, about to become co-director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra), Erich Kleiber (conductor of the Berlin State Opera), Otto Klemperer (conductor of the Berlin State Opera's subsidiary at the Kroll Theater), and Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra).
When Hitler took power, Walter, Klemperer and Kleiber – Furtwängler's chief rivals – all left. Some fled as a matter of conscience, but others had no choice; as Jews, they were barred by the new racial laws from performing, teaching and, ultimately, living. Furtwängler was the only notable conductor left. Nearly all Furtwängler's former associates begged him to take a stand and join them; when he refused to leave, they branded him a traitor to humanity and shunned further contact.
Technically, Furtwängler -- unlike Herbert von Karajan and others -- refused to join the Nazi party. But he enjoyed official favour, honours, and earned more money than any other German musician of his day. The crucial question which would plague Furtwängler for the rest of his life was why he stayed behind when all the other great artists fled.

Bonus: Furtwängler on Brahms
posted by matteo at 4:16 PM on October 5, 2005

"I own nearly sixty Bruckner Ninths."
(scroll down to Feb 17 review)
posted by matteo at 4:25 PM on October 5, 2005

Do you have a link to the recording? I realize that it's not technically public domain yet, but I'd imagine that the owners of Nazi copyrights have little ability to enforce them... (Great post, by the way.)
posted by klangklangston at 4:29 PM on October 5, 2005

There is a more recent recording of Furtwangler's #2 than the ones they mention. It's better than you'd think from the somewhat disparaging tone of the article.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:38 PM on October 5, 2005

no, but the Music&Arts cd is excellent, and very cheap. it's probably all over the P2P networks, too
posted by matteo at 4:38 PM on October 5, 2005

my comment above is an answer to klangklangston's, obviously. and thanks wolfdog
posted by matteo at 4:39 PM on October 5, 2005

klangklangston writes "I'd imagine that the owners of Nazi copyrights have little ability to enforce them..."

Oh, I don't know that the RIAA wouldn't jump down people's throats for sharing the recording...
posted by clevershark at 5:37 PM on October 5, 2005

Whew, lots of info to absorb in those articles.

The story of how artists deal with severe political turmoil is always fascinating. (And yes, I know describing Nazi Germany as "servere political turmoil" is still the understatement of the day. But I'm also thinking of other times/places.)

Not only do I not know some of the Furtwangler recordings mentioned, I'm really not that intimate with Bruckner's music at all. (After all these years, I'm only just getting into Mahler too.) Note to self to seek these out.
posted by NorthernLite at 5:40 PM on October 5, 2005

That is a fascinating story which I've never heard, thanks! It reminds me of the Istvan Szabo film about the actor in Nazi Germany - "Mephisto" IIRC?
posted by freebird at 5:59 PM on October 5, 2005

Very interesting, thank you.
posted by interrobang at 6:00 PM on October 5, 2005

Very interesting, the Brahms essay. F. makes somewhat heavy weather of expressing what could be said more simply: Brahms was a Classical composer stuck in High Romantic times--much more of a contrapuntalist than others of his period, utterly unlike Wagner in this (Dvorak sometimes comes close, in the quartets.) He was indeed a man of his times in the sense that he benefits from having some of the sentimental juice squeezed out of him, which Toscanini could do and, oh, Bruno Walter emphatically could not. But the contrast between Brahms' music and the main thrust of his musical times is fundamental. He had, one notes, some hard things to say about the Bruckner symphonies. "Vast formless snakes," to pick one.
posted by jfuller at 6:19 PM on October 5, 2005

The beauty of Bruckner is that it takes repeated hearings and active listening to appreciate it all. Yes, they are grandiose in scale, but if you listen carefully, there are some astounding subtleties to be found.

If you can find a good recording of Bruckner's 6th, listen carefully to the opening- the violins tease the listener with a soft staccato rhythm that will set the tone and tempo, and the basses enter with the main theme in an ominous and growling undertone- the wide gap between the violins chattering and the basses at the bottom of their range gets filled, little by little, by echoes in the woodwinds and horns. The entrance of the full orchestra with the main theme is nothing less than emotionally shattering and stunning, because of the suspense and tension brought about by the opening.

I pick on the 6th, even though it is one of the least recorded and hardest to find in print, because it is a great exposition of what Bruckner is about, and yet is a little unapproachable to many people without musical training of one sort of another. It's an acquired taste thing, I think. It has to grow on you, and it sort of makes you grow along with it.

Bombastic, yes. Loud, yes. But it will get your pulse going, and you'll want to shout when it's done.
posted by pjern at 7:11 PM on October 5, 2005

are you familiar with Celibidache's Sixth, solopsist?
posted by matteo at 7:41 PM on October 5, 2005

Don't think I've heard that particular recording, no.
posted by pjern at 8:14 PM on October 5, 2005

it's the most interesting recording of it that I've ever listened to -- you can find on EMI classics. I so love Celibidache. (and re: Bruckner, I love Giulini's Eight and Ninth, out on DG)
posted by matteo at 8:36 PM on October 5, 2005

posted by blue_beetle at 9:39 PM on October 5, 2005

And the Nazis intended to keep it that way by poisoning Furtwängler's image abroad... when Furtwängler refused to join the Nazi party, he was [given] an official-sounding but honorary title he could not legally refuse and which Nazi news releases often invoked to brand him with a rank outside his choice. When he refused to salute Hitler at a concert, the crafty Führer leaped to the stage and warmly grasped Furtwängler's hand, a moment captured by photographers and circulated worldwide as alleged evidence of capitulation.

I found it odd -- Rovean, even -- to suggest the Nazis saw this as poisoning his image. I imagine it was more a case of burnishing their own.
posted by dhartung at 1:14 AM on October 6, 2005

I know I have some of these Beethovens on mp3; I'm pretty certain that they came from emusic. Yes.

posted by alloneword at 1:30 AM on October 6, 2005

See also Stellan Skarsgård as Furtwängler in Taking Sides
posted by mitocan at 6:24 AM on October 6, 2005

Great post.
posted by longdaysjourney at 7:08 AM on October 6, 2005

Amazing post.

...matteo, you have provided me with hours of reading (and giggling) on the legacy of Furtwängler and the Ninth. This is so cool.

posted by naxosaxur at 7:40 AM on October 6, 2005

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