“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.