Some years ago a friend (who happens to be both Jewish and one of the most knowledgeable musicologists in the world) told me about a film he had seen of Furtwangler conducting Wagner’s Meistersinger Prelude in a factory during WW II, under the swastika. He described it as one of the most exciting things he’d ever heard, but also as one of the most upsetting things he had seen.Recently, this very film has popped up on YouTube, and it is everything he said it was. There is also an even more upsetting clip of the end of Beethoven 9, complete with shots of the Nazi hierarchy (including Hitler) in the audience. Both embody all of his great qualities as a musician, but also make more tangible to people of my generation just how hard it is to let Furtwangler or Strauss off the hook for their actions during the war.
Henry Meyer, my chamber music mentor at CCM and a survivor of Auschwitz, knew Furtwangler well, having soloed under him many times as a child prodigy violinist. He said that Furtwangler was not a racist nor an anti-Semite, and that he was not in sympathy with National Socialism, but that he was a weak man, politically naïve and conflict avoidant. Seeing Furtwangler conduct so passionately beneath the swastika, I couldn’t help but feel that, much as I admire him, history has let him off the hook too easily.
On the other hand, we (or at least I) allow Shostakovich almost unlimited amnesty for his actions under Soviet totalitarianism. However, he did join the party,he did write music for official functions, and he did speak on behalf of the regime. Is he not responsible for those actions?
One theory of his 8th quartet is that the piece was a suicide note, inspired by his guilt and despair at having finally joined the party. Perhaps DSCH felt he was responsible for his actions, no matter the pressure he had been under.
So, was Furtwangler fiddling while Europe burned? Was he a prisoner of circumstance, simply trying to survive and protect the musical traditions, orchestra and culture that he loved? Was he a willing, or at least complicit, tool of evil? Could he, or should he, have known what he was a part of in these concerts, and could he have chosen a more morally courageous path under the circumstances?
Our love of music and music making compels us to come to try to terms with Wagner’s anti-Semitism, to look for the nobility and humanity in Strauss’s late works, and to see Furtwangler purely as a servant of music and art, and not a servant of Hitler. Perhaps, while making music, those are reasonable actions, but outside the concert hall, perhaps it makes more sense to ask harder questions.
On an interesting/upsetting side note- the Beethoven excerpt was posted by one EnriqueOfterdingen . Often, the identity of a poster can be the key to interesting finds on YouTube, as their search mechanism is somewhat haphazard. You find an interesting clip, see who posted it and see what else they’ve posted. I thought I might find some other interesting historic clips on his sub-page. Imagine my horror, when most of his other posts were other Nazi propaganda clips. The appearance, at least, is that he is a person deeply in sympathy with the Third Reich. How can one love music and hate humanity? How can one listen to Beethoven 9 and condone genocide? I don’t get it. On the comment list for the Beethoven are several interesting and positive musical observations about Furtwangler’s conducting. Interesting that they all seemed to assume that the point was music, when it looks as though the message was infinitely more sinister.