LvB 9- Furtwangler 1942

“A unique personality whose fatal flaw lay in his uncompromising belief that music and art must be kept apart from politics, a conviction that transformed him into a tragic figure.”

Publisher’s blurb for The Devil’s Music Master: The Controversial Life and Career of Wilhelm Furtwängler

It will probably come as no surprise to readers that I have quite a few records of Beethoven 9- CDs, airchecks, DVDs, recordings of my own performances and those of several of my friends. The range of interpretations, standards, approaches and results is pretty staggering. It would be absurd to try to pick the best, and probably pointless to try to pick my favorite.

Out of all of those performances, there is one that stands out from the rest as something more. Something bigger, more important, more unsettling, more powerful and more troubling. Something that makes it more than just another Beethoven 9. I’m not sure I like it as much as I slightly fear it.

Wilhelm Furtwangler is at or near the top of many people’s lists of “all-time greatest conductors,” and there was no composer more important to him than Beethoven. So, it’s probably not surprising to know that this most extraordinary recording is his.

Why this recording? Well, Furtwangler performed the 9th often, and recorded it several times. His post-War recordings instantly achieved “classic” status and have remained in the catalogue ever since they were made, while his pre-War recordings remain cherished by collectors of historical recordings everywhere. Furtwangler was a big artistic personality, and it’s easy to hear the same master’s hand at work in these performances, whether they be from the 20’s, 30’s or 50’s.  All are fiery, dramatic, very flexible, combining his improvisatory flair with a strong sense of architecture, and all have their shortcomings in ensemble and textual fidelity. Though they are all different and distinctive, they are all the work of the same personality.

Then, there is this extraordinary live radio recording from 1942. Yes, it is still clearly the same conductor and orchestra, but this is an entirely different performance.  To me, Furtwangler and the BPO’s reading of the first movement brings to mind words like “terror” and “rage.” It is a performance of apocalyptic intensity and genuinely unsettling violence.  Just listen to the savage intensity of the final chords at the end of the first major tutti statement.

The strings play with a searing, even screaming sound, and the timpanist, well, what can one say- to call his playing “volcanic” seems to be under-selling it. Listen to the recapitulation of the first movement-  the timpani no longer sound like a musical instrument, but like an elemental force.

This is not a unique document- Furtwangler’s War-era performances of the Marche Funebre from the Eroica and the first movement of the 5th are similarly more radical, more violent and more devastating than his peacetime Beethoven recordings. These performances are more unsettling than just about any other performances of anything I can think of. Compelling as Furtwangler’s War-era Beethoven is (especially minor-key Beethoven. He did not excel at the Pastoral, or the 4th at any time in his career), it still makes me uncomfortable to listen to it. The circumstances of these historic performances can’t help but make one’s skin crawl:

I’m inclined to a sympathetic view of Furtwangler, (it’s worth reading the biography “The Devils’ Music Master”) based partly on what my chamber music teacher, Henry Meyer had to say about him. Henry, a survivor of Auschwitz, had been a child-prodigy soloist before the War, and had played many concerti with Furtwangler as a young man. Henry said Furtwangler was a fundamentally decent and compassionate person, but not a brave man. He felt that Furtwangler tried to stand up for what he believed was right through music, but lacked the personal courage to make a stand professionally or politically.

Frankly, it seems absurd to me to try to absolve or indict a man I never met. I would like to think that the apocalyptic fury and violence of Furtwangler’s War-era Beethoven was his cry of existential protest at a society that had collapsed into murderous insanity, but I can never know that for certain, and we must remember who paid for these concerts, and who cheered for his performances.

What seems clear to me, though, is that Furtwangler’s approach to this music was deeply affected and informed by what was happening around him. Whatever his motivations, these performances don’t sound like anything else in his output- they don’t really sound like anything else in the history of recording. When I hear them, they seem utterly part of their time, for good and ill- they’re almost like newsreels, but a thousand times more affecting.

Of course, in the dark and violent years between 1933 and 1945, Furtwangler was far from the only artist whose work came to reflect the times. Shostakovich’s music underwent a massive shift in style in the 1930’s, after which his music came to be ever-more informed by and reflective of the many tragedies of his time. The slow movement of the 5th Symphony was immediately recognized by many listeners as a requiem for those exterminated in the Stalinist Terrors. Shostakovich himself said that the 7th Symphony was a memorial for the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off. The irony in all of this was that Shostakovich was the most private man imaginable, and yet his life’s work became such a powerful public statement.

Aaron Copland abandoned the bracing modernism of his early music for the populism of his “Americana” pieces like Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid because he felt an America sunk in the depths of a great Depression needed a vision of itself to comfort it and to aspire to. The cellist Pablo Casals stopped performing in public in protest of Franco’s fascist government, and Toscanini similarly left Italy in protest of the rise of Mussolini.

However, to me, Toscanini’s action, however symbolically important, didn’t really translate into his music making. To me, the first movement of Furtwangler’s Beethoven 9 says more about war, about violence and about the true cost of fascism, than Toscanini’s personal stand, public statements or his recorded performances.

In my lifetime, it has become an accepted orthodoxy that music and politics don’t mix. Generally speaking, I largely agree- music should help foster mutual understanding and empathy, not incite division and debate. As a conductor, I’m keenly aware that if I let my political values come between me and a listener, we all suffer. As a music director, I know that a similar conflict in political ideals can drive away desperately needed sponsors and valuable strategic partners.

But what about fundamental questions of right and wrong? One of the most pernicious trends in contemporary society is the way in which cynics have learned to make questions of basic universal ethics into “political” issues. Ten years ago, torture was not a political issue, but a moral one. No credible leader of any political movement thought it was anything but an abomination. Once it became a political issue, it was no longer something artists could speak about. This pattern has played out with issue after issue- a malevolent minority of politicizes turns a moral issue into a political one, and in doing so silences many of the majority.  Those who broke this code of silence, like the conductor Gerd Albrecht, who infamously spoke against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 (the headline says it all: Conductor Gerd Albrecht Forced to Apologize for Anti-War Statement”), are harshly sanctioned in the media. In recent weeks, members of the London Philharmonic have been suspended for participating in pro-Palestinian advocacy and the American classical music broadcaster Lisa Simeone has also been sanctioned for her role in the Occupy Wall Street protests.

It’s entirely reasonable to see these developments as chilling examples of a narrowing of our social discourse. Why shouldn’t a conductor be allowed to decry war, or a broadcaster to join a movement that advocates for economic fairness and social justice. Are those really political issues anyway? In 1961, Benjamin Britten could produce an explicitly anti-war work like the War Requiem, but now a musician can’t even say that war is bad?

But, perhaps these developments also show us what blunt tools public statements and symbolic acts are. Just as actions speak louder than words, art can surely speak louder than actions. Both Shostakovich and Furtwangler have paid a heavy historic price for not taking a political stand, and yet I think Furtwangler’s Beethoven 9 and Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony both say more about the human cost of war and the evils of totalitarianism than Toscanini’s emigration or Casals’ self-enforced silence. Would you trade the Leningrad Symphony for a nice letter to the editor of Pravda from Shostakovich in which he went on record calling Stalin a murdering bastard? To me, hearing Furtwangler’s Marcia Funebre or Beethoven 9 is like listening to a primal cry of anguished protest at the violence and madness overwhelming the world. It is like hearing the loudest, most emphatic possible “no” imaginable.

The question for our time seems an urgent one- are we saying anything similarly essential, universal and important with our music making, or are we just note spinning?  Does classical music still have the power to say “no” or to ask “why?” Are we too grown up and too tied up in notions of authenticity, audience appeal or marketing to expect a performance of a Beethoven symphony to say something really fundamental about our lives and the many crises and outrages of our times? Could a composer today find a voice, language and audience for a statement like the Leningrad Symphony, or would it fall on deaf ears for lack of being a manifestation of an “ism?” We obsess about the relevance (or lack thereof) of classical music, but I wonder if most classical musicians an institutions still have the nerve to make relevant statements, whether as composers or performers.

At the end of the day, I think Beethoven, who was himself so passionate about freedom and human dignity, and so engaged with the politics of his time would have approved of and appreciated the way in which Furtwangler’s performances of his music seemed to speak for individuals in an age of the State, for victims in the age of villains.  Much as I’m sure Beethoven would have taken Furtwangler to task for willfully ignoring several important details in the score, and would probably have encouraged Furtwangler to take a public stand on fundamental issues of good and evil in society, I think he would still have preferred his music being played as if the future of humanity was in the balance to Toscanini’s more textually faithful but ultimately safer and less relevant performances. Are we now at the point where we have become so cautious, so afraid of engagement and so politically correct that there is no room in our musical discourse for a modern-day Shostakovich, Ullmann, Copland, Furtwangler or Krasa?

What do you think? Should critics not just be listening for tempi, tuning , repeats and vibrato (or the lack thereof), but also for whether music is speaking for those whose voices have been silenced? Can a modern interpreter be unselfishly and un-egotistically engaged with the text and the intent of the composer and also be equally engaged with and invested in the events and tensions of his or her own time?

I sure hope so.

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at

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13 comments on “LvB 9- Furtwangler 1942”

  1. Erik K

    I think the artistic creation is the best way to go, for artists. Take, for example, George Clooney or Sean Penn. Like many people, I get mildly annoyed when one of them runs their mouth about politics or morals or anything too much for my taste. But the statements they make through films like Good Night and Good Luck or Milk are deeply resonant and will forever stand as monuments for freedom and equality that future generations will be able to digest better than a status update or sound bite. I fully support taking a stand, but it holds up better when expressed in their artistic area of expertise.

    Epic post, man.

  2. David Galvani

    Enjoyed this Ken. As I read it I began to wonder what LvB would have thought of Furtie reinterpreting his first movement, especially given that the final movement is about Brotherhood. But you convinced me that LvB himself would certainly approve of his work expressing the anguish of Nazi oppression. What an interesting question – would LvB accept a Nazi music directorship like Richard Strauss?
    Keep posting, BW.

  3. Sharon

    Some thoughts regarding: Should our lives inform our
    performances?….very interesting read.

    I would have thought that it depends on the character of the performer.

    For some, the purpose of engaging in a form of entertainment (such as
    music) might be to provide an escape from the every day burdens of
    life, as such the performer might be able to focus entirely on their
    work as a means to have some respite from the events going on around
    them. Hence, the performer would be seen to give a more
    professional-emotional performance.

    On the other hand, not everyone is able to switch off from the events
    around them, as such the events that have an influence on them are
    likely to translate into their performances. This might not
    necessarily be a deliberate expression, but merely a subconscious means for the
    performer to process things. In this case, the performer might be seen
    to give more of a personal-emotional performance.

    I would have thought it more important to perform a piece according to
    how it ought to have been played (based on the performer’s most honest reading of the piece). Would this not be determined from the
    composer’s life events, including those which took place during the
    time the piece was composed? Much like how actors need to set the
    scene for a play before they read the script? No doubt most
    compositions reflect an event (or events) and are expressive enough in
    themselves. In other words, the music should ideally not get tangled up with the
    performers personal-emotions.

    If I understood your blog correctly I think you have the opposite opinion?

  4. Kenneth Woods


    “If I understood your blog correctly I think you have the opposite opinion?”

    You’re on to one of the biggest arguments in music, Sharon, and it’s been raging for 1000 years. Call it subjectivity versus objectivity, call it speaking for yourself verus speaking for the composer, versus simply serving the work of the composer.

    More an more, I find it a false dichotomy, much like the equally contentious “head versus heart” argument. A great performer should be able to reconcile these seemingly contradictory impulses. I’d say 95% of what I write in this blog about interpretation strongly argues that it’s the aesthetic of the composer that counts, not that of the performer. Great performances of written down music can only come through deep engagement with the ideas of the composer as expressed in the score. What I see more and more is that that engagement has to be with head, heart and guts, and that you can be an honest servant of the text but that eventually you’re own identity as a performer comes through, whether by accident or design

  5. Brian

    As a conductor myself, I have to admit that it is often difficult to disengage oneself from whatever is occurring in the world around me, including physical, emotional and even spiritual traumas. But try we must in order to express the “aesthetic of the composer.”

    That being said, I have owned the April 1942 performance of Beethoven 9 for several years and can only state that the first movement is frightening to the nth degree, especially when compared to performances of the same work made only months before. This is a totally different Beethoven, a totally different Furtwangler, who surely is reacting to the events of the world around him (and also the presence of Reichfuhrer Hitler?) Approve of the interpretation or not, this is surely a performance to be experienced if only for the first movement.

  6. Peter

    A very probing post Ken. I think there is no obvious answer to the question you pose, and it depends so much on individual context. In a democratic society we all in theory can have personal opinions and voice them without fear of being persecuted, but we know in practise that it is never that simple. If someone holds “extreme” views or anti-democratic views, the authorities still have the right to silence that person as a threat to society. But today’s extreme view could be tomorrow’s mainstream, and all societies (even democratic ones) have terrible moral blindspots and distorted values. The culture of political correctness for example has been a great stricture on open debate, and it is easy enough to feel ostracised or marginalised just because your face doesn’t fit or your opinions are an embarrassment to others.

    The question of working for a corporate body or public institution is difficult too. A music director may have strong personal opinions against a war or some other action carried out by the state, but he/she clearly cannot use their position as a platform for views that do not represent the collective view of their organisation or all of its members and supporters. That means that a person in such a position has a choice – you can either resign and speak out or stay in post and work more discretely to your end. That’s a judgement call, and it is too easy to say every person who stays within an instution is a coward, while every person who flees to speak freely is a hero. It is possible that Furtwangler genuinely believed that living a double-life and tarnishing his reputation were better choices than running away.

    If I understood it correctly, the issue with the LPO players was that while they had free speech as individuals, they could not voice those opinions on behalf of the LPO where presumably there are many diverse shades of opinion about the Israel-Palestine conflict. You can admire their courage, but also have some sympathy with the management who had to deal with a situation where the orchestra collectively was being falsely represented. The price of true freedom is high, and speaking out on contentious issues risks isolation and worse, even in so-called free societies.

    You might also say, if you want to campaign on an issue, using an arts organisation as the platform is inappropriate. Go instead and join a political party or lobby-group. Yet because music speaks so eloquently on spiritual and ethical matters, it is hard to divorce creative expression from moral imperatives, and that issue is no stronger felt that in a work like Beethoven 9. But music is delightfully vague in the details of its idealism and elevated discourse. It does not belong to the practical world of ethical compromise, debate and the ambiguities of daily life. That is is what we like about it!

    Just occasionally, when everyone is shocked by something like 9/11 or the death Princess Diana, music articulates collective feeling with appropriate solemnity and without much controversy. But if you were someone who didn’t share the collective horror or grief, for whatever reason, you would feel very much out in the cold and great music would have been used to make you feel that. The reality is that collective feeling is a rather blunt response to most situations, even if its very weight makes it seem fully legitimised. Listeners to Beethoven 9 feel much the same response to its visionary idealism and exuberance, but when they go home and talk about it, you would find that the uplifting response is interpreted in thousands of ways by people of opposite opinions. Someone will kick the cat, abuse a neighbour or defraud their employer the following day and make no connection with the concert they heard the night before. Each person has to measure themselves against the ethical messages of great music. We would all find ourselves wanting, as there are are no easy answers. We simply must keep asking the questions, which is why we should applaud Ken’s post. Keep asking the questions Ken!

  7. Kenneth Woods


    Many thanks for the comment, Peter! Wise words, as always. At least as performing artists, we have so many works to chose from. Beethoven’s own political and ethical concerns were always front and center in his music, which is why the Nazi’s were so keen to co-opt him, and why his music can make such forceful critique of the same regime. As you say, these are difficult questions, and not ones we can get wrong without causing some discomfort or damage, but I think we need to keep asking them if we want what we do to stay relevant.

    Thanks again

  8. Ralph Steinberg

    It is a mistake to say that Furtwaengler did not take a stand against Nazism. He initally publically attacked Goebbels for dismissing the Jewish conductors Walter and Klemperer, as well as defending Hindemith. After publically resigning from his official posts and not taking them up again after the end of the regime, he quietly made his stand where it counted most-helping people get out of concentration camps and escape. It was easy for someone like Toscanini, who condemned Furtwaengler, to blurt out his disgust for the Nazis; it was far more difficult for someone like Furtwaengler to actually put his beliefs and convictions IN PRACTICE UNDER THE VERY NOSES OF THE NAZIS. As far as I am concerend, this man was not a coward, but a HERO.
    Ralph John Steinberg

  9. Kenneth Woods

    @Ralph Steinberg

    Very interesting and useful comment. I agree with you on basically all counts. On the other hand, the footage of him conducting Meistersinger in front of a giant swastika is deeply troubling in that it reminds us that the Nazi’s did have a great deal of success in co-opting his artistry for propaganda purposes. In retrospect, I think he probably did the best he could in impossible times, taking some huge risks- as you say, heroic risks. But, I also think the image of him conducting at Hitler’s birthday is deeply hurtful, and always will be. Fortunately, like Shostakovich, the content of his music making remained honest, even when the image was being exploited for dark purposes.

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