The controversy surrounding the career of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) refuses to die. Just this past year, a detailed and fascinating biography by the writer and film-maker Sam H. Shirakawa appeared in this country, and the year before saw the publication in England of a collection of Furtwängler’s more important writings and speeches, edited by the Germanic scholar Ronald Taylor, as well as an English translation of the historian Fred K. Prieberg’s massive 1986 chronicle of the relations between Furtwängler and the Nazis. In 1990, a quasi-official biography came out, written by the conductor and musicologist Hans-Hubert Schönzeler with the help of the Furtwängler family; in the previous year there was a translation of an abridgment of Furtwängler’s musico-philosophical notebooks.

And these are only the most recent books: among the older publications of importance about Furtwängler are the gossipy yet discreet memoirs of his long-time secretary, Berta Geissmar, which originally appeared in London in 1944; and two editions, the first brought out in 1970, of an invaluable discography of Furtwängler’s recorded performances by Henning Smidth Olsen. The conductor’s own obviously staged but revealing 1938 “conversations” about music were published in English in 1953. Mention too must be made here of Prieberg’s important 1982 history in German of music under Hitler, unfortunately never translated into English.1

Aside from the discography and Furtwängler’s writings about music, the books I have listed deal not with art but with the politics, great and petty, of the second quarter of the century. A vanishingly small part of the Furtwängler controversy is musical; even his artistic detractors, who frequently turn out to be fans of his great rival and polar opposite Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), recognize Furtwängler’s powerful personality and his almost unparalleled ability to bend an orchestra—and the public—to his will.

Indeed, I am tempted to say that the Furtwängler controversy is not about music at all. It is not about his hyper-romantic performances, or about his almost total rejection of the music written after World War I. The controversy instead is about Furtwängler the man, or, to put it more precisely, Furtwängler the citizen. For just as he has won undying fame through his many recorded performances, so has he won undying notoriety as the most famous, and by all odds the most important, performer to remain in Germany, working and seemingly thriving, under Adolf Hitler.



It is worthwhile to look for a moment at the situation of music just before and after Hitler came to power. The 1920’s had been a silver age of music in Weimar Germany. While one can hardly pretend that musical composition was then in the sublimely flourishing state in which it had been during so much of the 19th century, nevertheless the work of Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, Hans Pfitzner, and of course the still-productive Richard Strauss seemed important and perhaps even of lasting value. To this day there is still interest, fitful but real, in Weimar composition.

Be that as it may, however, the strength of musical life in Weimar Germany was not in composition, it was in performance, or, more precisely, in performers.

Some of these performers were instrumentalists and vocalists: one thinks immediately of the pianists Artur Schnabel and Edwin Fischer, of the violinists Carl Flesch and Adolf Busch, of the cellist Emanuel Feuermann, of such great singers as Friedrich Schorr, Frida Leider, Maria Ivogün, and (shared with Vienna) Lotte Lehmann, Elisabeth Schumann, and Richard Mayr. But even more than in instrumentalists and vocalists, the strength of German music in the 1920’s lay in conductors. To mention merely the most famous names—Furtwängler, Karl Muck, Bruno Walter, Fritz Busch, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, and George Szell—is to name a substantial percentage of the greatest conductors in history. It is also to ignore such lesser names as Hans Knappertsbusch, Robert Heger, Leo Blech, Karl Elmendorff, Hans Rosbaud, Artur Rother, William Steinberg, Jascha Horenstein, Fritz Zweig, and Fritz Stiedry, all of whom would today be superstars on the international circuit. Taken together, these musicians made up the most remarkable array of conductors ever to have been active in one place at one time.

When Hitler seized power in 1933, the musical scene in Germany was quick to change. The Jewish instrumentalists and singers quickly left. Before many months had passed, the conductors followed. Walter, Klemperer, Szell, Steinberg, Horenstein, Zweig, and Stiedry, all Jews, either left voluntarily or were bullied into leaving; the non-Jews Kleiber and Fritz Busch left on principle. Muck retired in 1933, but Knappertsbusch and Heger and all the other innumerable highly-qualified Kapellmeisters, joined by the distinguished Austrians Karl Böhm and Clemens Krauss, stayed behind to keep the level of German music-making high. Curiously, the Jewish Leo Blech, a noted opera conductor, was protected for several years—it is said by Reich Marshal Hermann Goering—and then spirited out to Riga and later to Sweden; Blech was alleged to be the subject of Goering’s well-known remark (when he was attacked for being insufficiently anti-Semitic), “Wer Jude ist, bestimme ich!” (Who is a Jew, I determine!).

Fine musicians as they were, none of the conductors who stayed behind in Nazi Germany was in the class of Furtwängler, either as a celebrity or as a musical force. It is the fact of his staying behind that has produced the Furtwängler “problem”—the problem not simply of a musician but rather of an avatar of German culture. To understand why this should be so, we must begin by noting briefly, through a sketch of his life, just how completely he was the very embodiment of German Bildung (cultural formation) and the primacy of music, the beau idéal of the cultivated German intellectual and artist.



Wilhelm Furtwänler was the son of the great classical archeologist Adolf Furtwängler, an early figure in the development of Greek studies in Germany, director of the Museum of Antiquities in Berlin until 1894, and thereafter professor of archeology at the University of Munich. His mother was a painter; her father, according to Shirakawa, had been a friend of Brahms. The young Furtwängler was educated privately; his tutors, apparently while he was still in his early teens, were the archeologist Ludwig Curtius, the sculptor Adolf Hildebrand, and the art historian and musicologist Walter Riezler. In his youth he traveled in Italy and Greece and read extensively in both the ancient Greeks and in Shakespeare.

For a time he wanted to be, like his father, an archeologist. But music called: as a tiny child, he began to study the piano, and soon he was composing as well, working with the then-well-known composers Joseph Rheinberger and Max von Schillings. It seems to have been the study of the late quartets of Beethoven, while Furtwängler was still in his mid-teens, that turned his thoughts away not just from archeology but from musical composition and toward performance.

In 1906, at the age of twenty, he conducted his first concert, a program with the Kaim Orchestra in Munich that included the Bruckner Symphony no. 9, the Beethoven Consecration of the House Overture, and his own Largo in Bminor. By 1905, he had already become a rehearsal pianist at the City Theater in Breslau; in 1906, he became an assistant conductor at the Zurich Opera House. After 1907, he spent two years at the Munich Court Opera under the eminent Wagnerian Felix Mottl, and then became third conductor in Strasbourg, where the composer Pfitzner was music director. At the age of twenty-five, he became director of the Lübeck Opera and conductor of the orchestra’s subscription series. He then went to the Mannheim Opera, spending a period there variously described as five years (1915-20) and three years (1915-18). In Mannheim, he conducted such heavyweights of the operatic repertory as Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Weber’s Der Freischütz, and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and the Ring.

The pace of his rise was quickening. In 1917, he first conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, and returned as a guest several times the next year. In 1919, he began to appear regularly with what later became the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra and is now the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. In 1920 he replaced Willem Mengelberg at the Frankfurt Museum concerts and Richard Strauss at the concerts of the Berlin State Opera. Finally, in 1922, he succeeded the legendary Arthur Nikisch as conductor of both the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic; in the same year he began his lifelong association with the Vienna Philharmonic. In 1924 he started conducting in London, and from 1925 to 1927 was a very successful guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic. His New York appearances, though enthusiastically received by the public and (initially) by the press, failed to produce an invitation to become the leader of the orchestra. Furtwängler’s invincible competition was Toscanini, and in this battle he was hindered, as has often been noted, by his unwillingness to spend time fulfilling the numerous social duties required by board and patrons.



In the 1930’s Furtwängler began touring widely in Europe with the Berlin Philharmonic, visiting London and Paris on a regular basis. With Toscanini securely ensconced in New York, Furtwängler, not yet fifty, was now undoubtedly the leading conductor on the Continent. Like most cultivated Germans, Furtwängler was hardly interested in politics; one of the major tragedies of German history has been the tendency of German Dichter and Denker (poets and thinkers) to look at politics as a dirty affair of power, conducted by street-types in back rooms. Yet Weimar had been an intensely political time, full of recurrent crises and struggles, with economic life affected both by hyperinflation and, latterly, depression.

Then there were the Nazis. By January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power, politics could no longer be ignored even by the supremely cultured Furtwängler. It seems plain from all the printed material now available that Furtwängler’s quarrels with the Nazis—and he had many of them—had nothing to do with economic policy, rearmament, or the place of Germany in the world; there is no doubt that Furtwängler was something of a German nationalist. There was only one thing that this great conductor would truly fight for: his ability to make music, unimpeded by outside pressures.

And so Furtwängler ran headlong into Hitler and his fellow thugs. The cornerstone of Hitler’s ideology and praxis was anti-Semitism: Jews were to be eliminated, in ever more brutal ways, from any participation in German life. But Furtwängler saw matters differently. It was not that he liked Jews, though we have no evidence that he disliked them, either. Regardless of his personal preferences, however, Jews were important, and perhaps even vital, in German musical life.

Above all, they played, and played well, in Furtwängler’s orchestras. In the Berlin Philharmonic alone, for example, his concertmaster was the twenty-three-year-old Szymon Goldberg, and his two principal cellists were Nikolai Graudan and Joseph Schuster. Furtwängler had no intention of giving up some of his favorite players, and his response to the demand that he do so—via an open letter, dated April 12, 1933, to the infamous Dr. Joseph Goebbels—was swift if in a sense carefully circumscribed.

After mentioning his ties to Germany, Furtwängler alludes in this letter to

certain events which have recently taken place in the musical life of our country and which, in my view, have no necessary connection with the restoration of our national honor, which we all welcome with great joy and gratitude.

He then remarks that the “political conduct” of the Jews now affected “has not given any ground for complaint,” and goes on to defend his musicians, though hardly to attack all anti-Semitism:

If the campaign against the Jews is directed principally against those rootless and sterile performers who are out to impress through Kitsch, empty virtuosity, and the like, then it is entirely justified. One cannot be too rigorous in one’s opposition to such people and the spirit they represent—a spirit, incidentally, which is by no means confined to them. . . . But if this campaign is aimed against genuine artists, it is against the interests of our cultural life. . . . It must therefore be firmly stated that men like Bruno Walter, Klemperer, . . . and others must be allowed to continue to express themselves through their art.

The words must have seemed disloyal, but the Nazis were unwilling to give up their investment in the world-famous cultural property that Furtwängler represented. In July 1933, Goering appointed him a Prussian Staatsrat (state councillor); the duties were evanescent, but the honor—or, in the eyes of the outside world, the dishonor—was to dog Furtwängler for the rest of his life.



Then, toward the end of 1933, Goebbels set up the Reichsmusikkammer (National Chamber of Music) to integrate all of German musical life under his control. Richard Strauss was made president, and Furtwängler vice president. Again the duties were trifling, and the international odium great. Strauss was forced to resign in 1935 after the Gestapo had intercepted an incriminating letter he wrote to his Jewish librettist, Stefan Zweig, attacking Nazi anti-Semitism. And as for Furtwängler, his foray into Nazi cultural politics did not last even quite so long.

He came a cropper over his defense not of a Jew but of the racially pure composer Paul Hindemith. For it was not just Jewish musicians who bore the brunt of the Nazi onslaught: “Aryan” composers who defied the Nazi strictures against modern-sounding music were also anathematized. Hindemith’s crime (aside from the fact that his wife was half-Jewish and her brother-in-law completely so) seems to have been several mocking operatic pieces written in the avant-garde and iconoclastic mood of Weimar culture.

In 1933, Hindemith had started to work on Mathis der Maler (“Matthias the Painter”), an opera about the creator of the famous Isenheim Altar; the libretto, Hindemith’s own, expressed sympathy both for Luther and for the Peasants’ War (1524-26). Before completing the opera, Hindemith extracted a symphony from it for Furtwängler’s performance in March 1934. Though the premiere was successful, the Nazis began a virulent mobilization against Hindemith. In November of the same year Furtwängler wrote an open letter, published in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, defending the composer.

The defense was carefully crafted so as not to include the objectionable products of Hindemith’s Weimar youth. Instead, Furtwängler praises him for his school music, music which,

tirelessly seeking ways of bridging the deplorable gulf that has opened up between folk music and art music, . . . coincides with trends characteristic of our new National-Socialist Germany.

But the main purpose of Furtwängler’s intervention was to support Mathis der Maler, a work of “profound . . . moral commitment” written by a composer “who has pure Germanic blood in his veins” and is “an out-and-out German type—German in his direct and honest craftsmanship and his open, rugged nature.” Furtwängler ended by rejecting political denunciation as applied to art, and by saying that in a time of paucity of talent, “we cannot afford to turn our backs like this on a man of the caliber of Hindemith.”

Furtwängler’s advocacy of Hindemith was to no avail. In fact his article caused a furor, immediately provoking a speech by Goebbels and an article by the racial ideologist Alfred Rosenberg in the Nazi organ, the Völkischer Beobachter (“The People’s Observer”). Hindemith immediately began to consider emigration, which, after several long visits out of Germany, he finally accomplished in 1937. More immediately, Furtwängler was now publicly broken. Under great pressure, he resigned from all his official posts; Goering accepted all the resignations save that of Staatsrat.

From this time till the end of the war, Furtwängler, the most important musician left in Germany (after the by now very old Richard Strauss), would function entirely as a musical free-lancer. In 1936, Toscanini suggested that Furtwängler succeed him at the New York Philharmonic, but despite Furtwängler’s record of public if only partial opposition to the Nazis, public opinion in New York compelled the withdrawal of an offer that had already been made. At home, though he remained famous, his position was hardly secure, even musically. Goering put much effort into backing the then-young Herbert von Karajan (who joined the Nazi party not once but, it appears, twice) as a rival to Furtwängler. This effort succeeded only too well when the most prestigious review of Karajan’s 1938 performance of Tristan and Isolde at the Berlin Staatsoper was headlined Das Wunder Karajans (“The Karajan Miracle”).



In the years until 1945 that were left to Hitler and the Nazis, Furtwängler embarked on a life of innumerable small compromises, as they must have seemed to him. He conducted concerts with Nazis and even on occasion Hitler in the audience. By carrying his baton in his right hand, he seems to have avoided giving the Hitler salute (the so-called “German Greeting”) at concerts; but once, caught by surprise, he did shake hands with Hitler from the podium at the conclusion of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. He conducted Die Meistersinger in both 1943 and 1944 at Bayreuth. He gave lunchtime concerts at arms factories, and he took the Berlin Philharmonic abroad on tours of neutral countries, though in general—but not invariably—he avoided giving concerts in occupied countries.

Even after his disastrous defeat over the Hindemith matter, there was a side other than capitulation to Furtwängler’s behavior. He labored ceaselessly—the evidence on this point is overwhelming—to help Jewish musicians leave Germany, to write letters on their behalf to prospective foreign employers, and to make their lot somewhat easier when they could not escape. On this issue, Prieberg is definitive, listing the names of some 109 individuals who “were in racial or political difficulties” and who received Furtwängler’s help.2

Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, was a dedicated enemy, and begged Hitler (according to Schönzeler) for permission to send the conductor to a concentration camp. But Hitler and Goebbels, no doubt because of their awareness of Furtwängler’s prestige both inside and outside Germany, always blocked the move. After the war, a memo was found in the files of the Ministry of Propaganda, saying, “There is no Jew, filthy as he may be, for whom Furtwängler does not stretch a helping hand.” When, in early 1945, Himmler seemed to be catching up with Furtwängler, another top Nazi, Albert Speer, hinted to the conductor that he should leave immediately for Switzerland. This Furtwängler did, and he was to live there until his death in 1954.



At the end of the war, Furtwängler was a marked man, subject to a long, drawn-out de-Nazification trial by which he was eventually cleared. In his private writings he both blamed Hitler and the Nazis for their crimes and castigated the Allies for attempting to impose the notion of collective guilt on the German people. He was convinced that the true German resistance to Hitler could only have been undertaken by those who, like him, had stayed rather than emigrated.

With the aid of (among others) the great Jewish violinist Yehudi Menuhin, he resumed performing in Europe in 1947, but when he was engaged to conduct the Chicago Symphony in 1949, American public opinion forced the cancellation of the offer. In 1951, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Rudolph Bing (according to Shirakawa), invited Furtwängler to take a leading role there, but once again public opinion foreclosed the issue. In Europe, however, Furtwängler—despite Karajan, of whom he was unrestrainedly envious—reigned supreme.

Since his death, his reputation has continued to soar, sustained by the preservation and continuing availability (now on CD) of a huge number of his broadcast performances dating from the war years and continuing till the very end. Even after due allowance has been made for Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, he remains, with Toscanini, one of the two great conductorial heroes of our musical epoch.



Thus we can take Furtwängler’s musical stature for granted. His commercial recordings of Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner still set the standard; the innumerable pirated broadcast recordings only add to our impression of his greatness. But as I remarked at the outset, the Furtwängler issue is not musical. It is political, it is cultural, and it is human.

Just because Furtwängler was a great musician, and just because he wrote a great deal about what might be called the philosophical aspects of music and its performance, we should not be fooled into believing that he was a great thinker. His writings, though sometimes containing deeply felt and even moving insights, are dense and woolly in their Germanic opacity. But—and the but is of the highest importance—they all testify to the fact that for Furtwängler music was not just an ideal (rather than a craft) but the ideal of his life, of his age, of his nation, and of the world.

The passages in his writings where he takes this position are numerous, but two are especially noteworthy:

Art cannot be placed at the service of public life. It must be left as it is, its materials are the great primal forces: religious content, the fatherland, love. Where these do not somehow show through, no art can develop. To look the facts in the face: if one wants art, one must leave it the way it is. In art, content is always taken for granted as natural. If this content is a part of the age, art will deal with it [Notebooks, 1933].

The feeling of being able to form things organically—that is, as nature itself does—outweighs everything else by far. Failure, lifelong misunderstanding and exclusion, the bitterest thing: separation from people, it provides a replacement for all that. It provides ineffable independence from the age, ineffable peace in nature and in God. Of course, since Brahms, nobody has carried this out in music, only a few did before. This is my aim, an aim that is surely worth a few sacrifices [Notebooks, 1942].

Well, then, what was art, even the greatest art, to do when it came face to face with Hitler? Bruno Walter, a mild-mannered man and once Furtwängler’s friend, wrote to him (as quoted by Shirakawa) in 1949 in answer to a plea for help:

Please consider thus: throughout the years [of the Nazi regime] your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil, that you performed high service to this regime through your prominent image and great talent, that the presence and performance of an artist of your stature abetted every horrible crime against culture and morality, or at least, gave considerable support to them. Consider too that you ultimately have lived for twelve years in the Nazi empire without terror, or fear of it, of what was happening there, and you were never forced into extremity, and that you carried your title and positions during this time. In light of all this, of what significance is your assistance in the isolated cases of a few Jews?

Walter could not have put the question more clearly: did a great artist, no matter how he tried to help individuals, have the moral right to stay when his staying could be taken as a badge of honor by an immoral regime? And Walter’s answer too was clear: no.



One may grieve that Furtwängler’s noble view of music, so necessary to the creation of art, accords so ill with the reality of our heedless, cruel, evil world. There can be little doubt that Furtwängler’s own immense dedication to music was what made it possible for him to qualify even his strongest utterances against the Nazis with remarks tending to give the impression only that Hitler had got hold of the “wrong” Jews. In Furtwängler’s defense, however, it must be said that his attempts to help Jewish musicians, despite Walter’s easy dismissal of them and his suggestion that Furtwängler was himself never in danger, were courageous, and perhaps sometimes even foolhardy. Yet there can also be no doubt that Furtwängler’s staying did help Hitler and the Nazis by spreading the illusion that the world of Kultur continued to exist under the Third Reich.

Justice requires us to acknowledge here that the moral dilemmas of artists and intellectuals—indeed, of all citizens—in Nazi Germany were not all that different from the problems caused by the realities of existence in Bolshevik Russia. Among the great Russian artists, did not Prokofiev and Shostakovich (despite the evidence of the latter’s private resistance) , Oistrakh and Gilels, Ulanova and Plisetskaya, legitimize Stalin & Co. by continuing to compose and perform, by continuing through their every public action to pay tribute to the tyrant? (The same problems of cooperation and collaboration existed in Eastern Europe, too, and of course still exist in China.)

True, it would have been a great deal easier for Furtwängler, with his numerous foreign travels, to have left Germany than for Soviet artists to have left the Soviet Union during the period of high Stalinism. But did these Soviet artists really need to allow their work to be used as evidence that Russian Kultur continued to exist under Bolshevism? On the other hand, were Sergei Rachmaninov, secure in America and Switzerland, or Thomas Mann, secure in Pacific Palisades, or Toscanini, secure in Riverdale, more moral than someone who actually saved a few Jews in Nazi Germany, or tried to help a few political prisoners in Soviet Russia? And in any case, how harsh can we be, from our comfortable perches in the West, in passing judgment on those who were daily (pace Bruno Walter) faced with the possibility of internment and death?

I have no answer to the great civic questions raised by the behavior of Furtwängler or the other artists I have named. Splendid artists all, they compromised their civic virtue in order to accomplish their art. Those who remained were compromised by their remaining, and those who left were compromised by their leaving. What resistance they offered as human beings to the evil around them must be credited to them; in no case of which I know can it be said that physical survival with full honor was possible under the worst forms of totalitarianism, for the very act of surviving was itself a compromise with evil. The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.

1 Sam H. Shirakawa, The Devil's Music Master: The Controversial Life and Career of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Oxford, 506 pp., $35.00; Ronald Taylor (ed. and trans.), Furtwängler on Music: Essays and Addresses, Scolar Press (1991); Fred K. Prieberg, Trial of Strength: Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Third Reich (Christopher Dolan, trans.), Quartet Books (1991); Hans-Hubert Schönzeler, Furtwängler, Duckworth (1990); Wilhelm Furtwängler, Notebooks 1924-1954, Michael Tanner (ed.) and Shaun Whiteside (trans.), Quartet (1990); Berta Geissmar, The Baton and the Jackboot, Hamish Hamilton (1944), reprinted by Da Capo Press (1975, under the title Two Worlds of Music)—the fuller German-language edition of this book was published in Zurich in 1946 under the title Musik im Schatten der Politik; Wilhelm Furtwängler, Concerning Music (L.J. Lawrence, trans.), Boosey & Hawkes (1953); Fred K. Prieberg, Musik im NS-Staat, Fischer (1982).

2 On this list is Furtwängler's secretary Berta Geissmar, for whom he found congenial employment in London with the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham.

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