Towering over 20th-Century Conducting: Wilhelm Furtwängler

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954) towered over 20th-century conducting. Home-educated and socially ill at ease, he became a disciple of the Hungarian conductor Arthur Nikisch and then director of the Berlin

Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus. In 1930 he was invited to work at Bayreuth, a fitting honor for a conductor at the height of his musical career. In Europe, and possibly in the United States as well, he was viewed as a demigod. During the “Third Reich,” Furtwängler made good use of his exalted status to defy the Nazi authorities with acts that no one else could have gotten away with, such as bypassing the Nazi salute before concerts and endeavoring to save the lives of Jewish musicians.

If we have to boil down Furtwängler’s music making to one word, it should be luxury. Furtwängler perceived the beautiful details in all the nooks and crannies of whatever he was conducting and brought them to the attention of the listener before he or she needed to expend the effort to look for them. The most striking example of this finesse is the appearance of Erda in Das Rheingold (all references to the Ring are based on the 1953 Rome RAI recording).  No other conductor seems to have realized the significance of the sustained notes of woodwinds that Furtwängler emphasizes, notes that add a whole new dimension to the music and that, once heard and understood, can come to be seen as having been envisioned by the composer in the same way.

Another prominent feature of Furtwängler’s style of conducting is his powerful lyricism. This manifests itself in his technique of dramatically slowing down or speeding up the tempo, a technique that has met with some criticism.  However, to my ear, the varying tempo does not in any way reduce the sense of rhythm, which is clear from the music itself. For example, I’ve listened to Furtwängler’s conducting of the opening of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony many times (the Vienna Philharmonic, recorded in January 1950). Although Furtwängler doesn’t offer any new harmonic details, the flow of his music is so sweet and melodic, so beautifully fitting to the composed notes, that the first time I heard it, it immediately struck me as the most distinguished rendition of this passage.

It’s perhaps a little strange that during his lifetime, Furtwängler was considered the foremost Wagner authority. As a thoughtful teenager, he had rejected the very idea of program music. And yet the invaluable legacy of his Wagner recordings certainly demonstrates that his style worked well with Wagner’s music. It can be argued that the depth of Wagner’s harmony and polyphony often cries out for a conductor with Furtwängler’s insights to untangle. His treatment of one of the most sublime and complex moments in music, the short passage in the first half of Siegfried’s Funeral March (Götterdämmerung, Act 3), which begins with Sieglinde’s motif, is more illuminating than every stereo and digital recording I have heard. This is Furtwängler at his best, showcasing Wagner at his best.

It must also be emphasized that Furtwängler’s power of illumination generally does not come at the expense of essential detail. Even for those of us who don’t like to see a conductor put too much of his personal stamp on the music, it is obvious that Furtwängler was able to pull it off.

It must have been truly thrilling to hear Furtwängler live, but we must resign ourselves to 1950s recording technology. This means that his grand crescendos don’t come off as well as those in more modern recordings. The recordings that we have are at their glorious best in the quieter and finely detailed passages.  Examples are Siegmund’s monologue after he sees the sword in the tree (Die Walküre, Act 1) and the beginning of “the annunciation of death” scene between Siegmund and Brünnhilde (Die Walküre, Act 2).  Furtwängler’s style also works brilliantly with some of the more overlooked passages, such as the best parts of Wotan’s monologue in Die Walküre (Act 2).  For one of the most striking examples of absolute mastery of musical flow, listen to a few bars of his Tristan und Isolde (recorded in 1953), during Isolde’s long story-telling to Brangäne (Act 1, Scene 3), when Isolde sings “Seines Elendes jammerte mich!” (His wretchedness tormented me!).

Wilhelm Furtwängler was a man with a profound understanding of music.  He believed in music’s redeeming power and clearly did his best to unleash its potential by letting others see it as he did.  His recordings are some of the greatest treasures of humankind.

–Karl Wee

Karl Wee, a member of the Boston Wagner Society and the former Web master, has written numerous reviews for Wagneriana.