The Furtwangler Problem

I’ve recently been following a lively discusssion of the fascist beliefs of the conductor Reginald Goodall, which has, predictably, spilled over to discussion of Karajan and Furtwangler. After writing this about Furtwangler, I thought is was interesting enough to repost here. 

The most telling assesment of Furtwangler’s war-year activities and beliefs I’ve heard came from my chamber music teacher, Henry Meyer. Henry was the 2nd violinist of the La Salle Quartet and an Aushwitz survivor (he’d actually survived several different concentration camps).

Henry had been a child-prodigy soloist before the war and had often worked with Furtwangler. Henry told me that Furtwangler was a decent and unpredjudiced man who was sickened by the attitudes of the Nazi movement and who wanted to walk the fine line of protecting the cultural institutions, colleagues and heritage he held dear while maintaining enough power and influence to do so.

Henry felt that Furtwangler’s failing was not that he was naive or evil, but that he was “a very weak man.” His assesment was that Furtwangler would play the holy fool to avoid having to do something he was scared of or felt was too upsetting, and would sometimes blur the line between cowardice and principal.

To me, this rings truer- a weak man is responsible for his actions; while a naive can always claim “I didn’t know,” a weak man has to say “I could have and should have done more.”

It is the myth of an inherently good society that allows nations to fall into such evil outcomes. When one has spent one’s entire life believing that your culture represents the highest values of enlightened conduct and civilized behavior, it is easy to ignore or rationalize away unpleasant truths. Someone like Furtwangler might have feared the worst yet been able to convince himself that the worst couldn’t happen in Germany- that Germany was a special, inherently good and decent culture.

At the risk of going off-topic, one wonders how future listers will look back on musicians, writers and intellectuals of today who have continued to climb the career ladder in a culture that has legalized torture, spied on its own people and abolished habeas corpus. Can we stand up in fifty years and be believed when we say- “I didn’t think we needed habeas corpus, because America is an inherently good and decent society?”

Now, watch this stunning performance of Wagner’s Meistersinger Prelude in front of a swastika from a 1942 propaganda film and see if you can keep from feeling a little sick. Furtwangler said that if he’d left Germany during the war that the humanistic tradition of music making he saw himself as an ambassador of would have crumbled, that only someone of his prestige could protect the Philharmonic and its musicians. Of course, when someone of his prestige, a representative of a great humanistic tradition, stands in front of a giant swastika it gives cover to the very forces of evil he opposed.

For an earlier Vftp post covering much of the same ground, go here. For the most upsetting Beethoven 9 footage you will ever see, go here. It is music making of historically great quality, presented in service of pure evil by a man who opposed that evil but was too weak to fully confront it. This post on Metamorphosen also came to mind as I am conducting the Strauss Oboe Concerto this week, and the late music of Strauss- some of the most sublime music ever written- literally forces us to come to terms with the most painful questions.

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

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.

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3 comments on “The Furtwangler Problem”

  1. composerbastard

    Nice post, and timely to my finishing up Alex Ross’ recent book that explored a great depth of this time period. Not sure I agree with your assessment of internal politics – its much more complicated than simple bashing paragraphs. I do believe that the balance of power does work and is working now, but I don’t believe there is any mature leadership from any party at present to make a difference. Politics has become all media spin and no substance. Enough said.

  2. John

    Someone relayed a story to me of a live “choreographed” performance of Messiah back in the 60s. Yes … choreographed… which for the most part was not very musically inspiring, however, the one part that stuck with him was towards the end of the trio of choruses in Part II (Surely/Sheep/Strips), the choir, after having “gone astray” by wondering around the stage, eventually formed a human swastika on the stage. Apparently there were numerous audible gasps in the audience.

  3. robert berger

    I am not sure as to how “waek” Furtwangler actually was.It is known that he helped
    quite a few Jewish musicians to escape Germany,and even went into prisons to have
    them released,and infuriated tyhe Nazis.

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