Furtwangler, Hitler and Beethoven- Hard questions on YouTube

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.

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American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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12 comments on “Furtwangler, Hitler and Beethoven- Hard questions on YouTube”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » The Furtwangler Problem

  2. Jeff White

    Yet, by staying in Germany, Furtwangler saved 80+ people from certain death.

    Are all Germans guilty of their inability or cowardice to get rid of a monster like Hitler?

    Karajan had no problem hanging out with Hitler and gang. He should be demonized. Yet, no one seems to condemn his blatant sleeping in bed with the enemy. What kind of man is that?

    It begs the question of whether we should flee from evil or fight it in our own way. Furtwangler was a good man in a sick and twisted society.

  3. Ralph Steinberg

    @Jeff White
    More like 108 people. And yes, why pick on Furtwangler, when even Otto Klemperer approved of the Nazis (unlike Furtwangler) until the axe fell on him? I’m sick of the hypocritical double standards!

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Ralph-

    Thanks for the comment. I’m glad people are still reading and discussing this post.

    I hope it didn’t sound like I was being too hard on Furtwangler, a musician I admire enormously. There ought to be a wide range of possible responses to someone’s actions between naive forgiveness and un-relenting condemnation. Furtwangler paid a huge price in his own lifetime for his affiliations during the war, but has largely been forgiven by history. It seems like we can still lionize him as a musician while continuing to ask if he could have done more in those years. It ought to make us uncomfortable to see such a humane artist performing in such monstrous circumstances.


  5. Peter

    The problem in judging the behaviour of artists is that what makes them great artists is also what makes them so gullible. Human beings in general have a great capacity to believe what it suits them to believe, and if their survival or status is a stake, they will easily create a self-serving myth to protect themselves from uncomfortable truths.

    I have been reading about the Wagner dynasty and their relationship with Hitler, which can only be described as intimate; justified by a degree of blind hero-worship. Yet you can also say that Hitler’s admiration for Wagner was equally selective, and not based on the deeper message of the music or its texts. Hitler, if he had been smart, would have seen that the whole Nazi debacle was prophesied in The Ring.

    People invent stories for themselves that justify their prejudices. When they have their backs to the wall, they may say and do whatever it takes to survive or retain the status quo. If you are a patriot, you don’t find it so easy just to walk away. Shostakovitch could have emigrated, so could Furtwangler – but both loved their countries and their culture, perhaps to the point of blind faith in them. Perhaps both just considered the hypocrisies of powerful people something inevitable.

    We have the moral luxury of living in very liberal societies where we are unlikely to be faced with such tough dilemmas as Furtwangler and Shostakovich. It’s easy to point the finger. In little ways we all go along with things that are morally dubious, because making a stand seems rather pointless. There’s a whole heap of injustices and dubious practicesin western societies, but we end up saying – better to participate than stand in the background complaining sanctimoniously. Moral compromise is the stuff of life, and since high culture needs money and privilege to sustain it, it cannot afford to be too “holier-than-thou” about how that money and privilege are accrued.

    That said, there must be limits to tolerance; a point where clearly a line has been crossed and open resistance is the only moral stance. But for most people in totalitarian systems, survival is all that counts – and heroism is a privilege of those with nothing to lose.

    Ken asks, how is it possible to love Beethoven and then carry out acts of terrible inhumanity. The answer is quite easy – when the mind is split, it doesn’t make or need to make the connection. Because the music exists in an abstract realm where its idealism has no practical consequences, we can have the satisfaction of feeling morally idealistic without having to pay its true price. We let Tristan and Isolde or Brunnhilde pay the price for us and then applaud them loudly for doing it, so that when we leave the theatre we can forget. Phew – glad that was art and not real life.

    Alex Ross suggests that Hitler may have modelled his public speaking on Mahler’s conducting technique. That is a mind-boggling idea, but shows how power is about illusion as art often is. Where there is illusion, there is also often self-deception. Hitler wanted to be an artist, and one argument says that had he done so, he would not have become embroiled in politics etc etc. His capacity for fantasy and manipulation suggest a high degree of vision and imagination, but his creativity was made evil by its frustration and turned to the pursuit of political power. Late-Romanticism with its limitless ambition and theatricality encouraged Hitler to believe in his vile dreams and warped idealism.

    Furtwangler was no Hitler, but he was a symptom of the climate that allowed art to exist in a bubble of unreality while its prestige was hijacked by a bunch of cyncial megalomaniacs and opportunists.

    Little point in getting too worked up about all of this – it is human nature writ large, and very few are courageous and perceptive enough to get beyond narrow self-interest. Moral goodness is not the product of abstract idealism or art, but grows from practical ethical judgements.


  6. Kenneth Woods

    Well said, Peter.

    I re-checked the YouTube acct of EnriqueOfterdingen, who had originally posted the clips I was reacting to when I wrote this. He’s removed the Furtwangler clips but still has a clip of Hitler and Eva Braun. Furtwangler was not an evil man, but his actions during the war still give comfort to people like this. The consequences of letting great art serve consummate evil don’t end with the cessation of hostility. We don’t need to demonize people like Richard Strauss or Furtwangler- it’s not helpful. However, thoughtful citizens can do better than to simply forgive and forget. As long as Enrique is dressing up in his SS uniform and watchin Eva Braun films while listening to Furtwangler’s Beethoven, we should remember that we have to live with the consequences of our difficult choices.

    I recently saw an exceptional film on this very subject “THE REICHSORCHESTER—THE BERLIN PHILHARMONIC AND THE THIRD REICH”

    A very poignant and balanced film. Well worth watching.

  7. Peter

    What lessons do we draw from that period?

    I would say the lessons of eternal vigilance and the realisation that art/music relates to life only as much as we allow it. It is easy enough for politicians to appropriate great music and the endorsement of artists of true stature in order to involve them in their hair-brained ideologies. Music is especially vulnerable to nationalism, because music is able to express collective identity better than any other art form.

    We may now largely avoid such mass delusions, but we will no doubt make other mistakes for future generations to say about us – how could they be so naive? Humanity is a slow learner, and largely by trial and error.

  8. Bob

    “There is no Jew, filthy as he may be, for whom Furtwängler does not stretch out a helping hand.” — Heinrich Himmler

  9. sigrid

    Oh, i see how one might be wrong by just accusing and assuming! Yes, I was as well curious for years about Furtwangler, Alfred Corto, Gigli, Fllagstad, Richard Strauss. I read that Funtwangler had had the alternative, to leave like Eric Cleiber and others or- he stayed and saved some Jews and could not save others etc. But I can judge much better about Schostakovich. The story with op.110a and “party membership” is not as easy.
    First, Schostakovich, face to face with Stalin was defending some composers, and few words were price of life. His “official side”…like in North Korea, -the price of life or death and everything in that time was Aesop’s language of course. Everyone knew what is beside official situations. His music was 10000 times more honest comparing to whatever “free” West’ colleagues.There are sources probably already translated by professionals. I can just on my ESL to tell what i wrote after my teacher Alexander benditsky ( Alex Ross mentioned Benditsky’s little book about Schostakovich 5th Symphony”.
    “Schostakovich was invited to compose music for film “5 days,5 nights” about bombing Dresden.
    July 1960: 8th quartet; later was version that it was conceived about Dresden, because of movie by Arnstam,for which the music was ordered.But Dresden–just additional stimul;Schostakovich lived 40 km from Dresden;instead of movie he composed “nobody needed and idea-less quartet”;
    Schostakovich in letter to Glickman:
    “If I will dye,then nobody will write a music to my memory,so I decided myself to write such;it might be written on cover “Dedicated to memory of author of Quartet”;
    “the main theme of Quartet is DEsCH,used also the themes of my(Schostakovich) works and song “Tortured in prison”;my themes:1 symph.,8symph., trio, cello concert,Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,hints on Wagner Gotterdammerung and Tchaikovsky 2nd theme of 6 symph,and my 10 symph.;what a salad,pseudotragedy of Quartet such that I cried while composed,as much as it would be a p e e….after dozen of beer;at home few times tried to play and again cried, but not only because of pseudotragedy, but from thrill of great formes…”
    He wrote, that op.110a–his bio,his requiem,the farewell to life because he was pushed to become Communist party member and D.Schostakovich said,– he cried when was pushed to do so, and 8 quartet –it was the end of life and farewell,
    Lev Libedinsky: he wrote Quartet before attempted suicide from pills.”

  10. Eve Wolf

    I think that we should absolute abhor what Furtwangler did NOT do–that is, he did not leave Germany!!!
    By associating himself with the third Reich and playing under the banners with swastikas, he became a guilty man.
    One need only to look at another conductor to see how someone in a position of artistic power can make an important political statement–TOSCANINI !!
    Toscanini refused to conduct when Mussolini was in power, would not conduct in Austria once Jews were starting to be removed from orchestras and did not return to Bayreuth to conduct, even though Hitler himself wrote to Toscanini to practically plead with him to come. Toscanini also went to Palestine to conduct (for free!) an orchestra of refugees and was instrumental in the launching of the Palestine Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic). Toscanini also saved Jews and helped people leave Europe. Toscanini publicly condemned fascism at every turn!
    Toscanini is the role model to be lauded and as far as I am concerned Furtwangler is a very guilty figure who should be reviled.

  11. Ralph Steinberg

    And how many Jews and non-jews did Toscanini save from the camps? And was Toscanini present at a dinner at which the German Resistance plotted the assassination of Hitler? No, but FURTWANGLER WAS!!!!!!!!

  12. Ralph Steinberg

    And for that matter, did the nazis threaten Toscanini with imprisonment of his mother if he left Germany? NO, but they did threaten FURTWANGLER!

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