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January 25, 2010

Blast from the past: conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler

Some listeners and even some musicians (they're usually the ones in the back stands) wonder why orchestras need conductors. The players know how the stuff goes anyway, don't they? All they have to do is start and end at the same time, and they could do that just fine on their own, right, even in the biggest, most complex symphonies? Yeah, sure. Good luck with that.

Some conductors never rise above the level of traffic cop, to be sure; they keep everything flowing in the right direction and avoid collisions, but they don't bring the music alive. A great conductor inspires musicians and audiences alike, and takes all of us out of ordinary existence and into some other, higher plane. To me, when it comes to this level of inspiration, it's hard to beat Wilhelm Furtwangler.

Since Jan. 25 happens to be the anniversary of his birth in 1886 (he died Nov. 30, 1954), I thought he should be the latest in my globally in-demand series of blasts from the past.

Yes, I know that Furtwangler raises very difficult, extra-musical issues, because, unlike some notable artists who fled the Nazis, he stayed behind at the helm of his beloved Berlin Philharmonic during the barbaric Reich. That he was cleared after the war (and championed by the likes of violinist Yehudi Menuhin) has not absolved him in the eyes of some people. But I find Furtwangler's music-making of such nobility that I can accept his argument that he, who never joined the Nazi Party (unlike Karajan), remained on the podium primarily to do what he could to serve and save German art.

There is a considerable recorded legacy of Furtwangler's music-making to choose from. I finally decided to focus just on Brahms -- excerpts from a filmed rehearsal of Symphony No. 4 (you get a great look at his strange, fluttery baton style -- he had to be truly inspiring for players to follow that beat); and an audio-only account of the finale to Symphony No. 2. Here, then, is just a sampling of the individuality, drama and eloquence that made Furtwangler's artistry so indelible:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:49 AM | | Comments (5)


The thing about Furtwangler is that no two performances are alike, though they are instantly recognizable as "furtwanglerian."

That's probably why I can't get enough of that guy's music-making. TIM

It's really time we stopped feeling uncomfortable about Furtwangler's decision to remain in Germany. He was encouraged by Arnold Schoenberg - among others - to remain and aid people in need of money, an exit visa, or any sort of protection. Furtwangler did so. There are dozens of documented cases of his intervening in dozens of ways, of saving dozens and dozens of lives. I'm not stating this as wishful thinking. I'm completing a documentary film and believe me, Furtwangler was a rescuer. If we're finally at the point of accepting that there were Germans who worked within Germany to aid others, then we should be willing to accept Furtwangler as one of those people. If he'd done "the smart thing" and fled in 1933, those people would be dead. For me, this outweighs how, from outside Europe, it looked bad for him to have stayed. I can listen to his music without feeling any ambivalence.

Thanks for the comments. I should have reiterated that I, too, believe the record shows that he did noble, even dangerous deeds, and I'm glad you reminded readers of that here. His art transcends every other issue, IMHO. TIM

Regarding Furtwängler's "extra-musical issues": I am _completely_ on the same page as Bradleigh!

Unlike the seemingly-many folks who tend to demonize every German living in Nazi Deutschland during WWII, I strongly believe that many "normal" people simply tried to lead "normal" lives. Such is the case in every war. I will admit that Nazi activity and attitude pervaded German society to an obviously-substantial degree, but the average human, in or out of the conflict, simply wished the whole mess to be finished.

Maestro Furtwängler was obviously no exception. He was an extraordinary artist who had the severe misfortune of working under (but not serving, at least in the sense of giving body and soul!) one of the most reprehensible regimes in our recent past.

The greatest crime of which I could accuse him: not being born in an age where audio recording could have preserved his legacy in better sound. As a conductor, he is certainly unequalled to this day.

Over all "Er war ein großer Mensch" (He was a great Man), as Werner Thärichen said to the Wilhelm-Furtwängler-Tage 2006's audience in Jena.

Both as a musician and as a man, he was and still is the single greatest. While great in many different composers, he is still unreachable in Beethoven!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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