The German conductor Wilhelm Furtwaengler was born 100 years ago and died in 1954, two years before his arch-rival, Arturo Toscanini. The two men, arguably the most influential conductors of the 20th Century, found a common ground only in their love for Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner. In their musical interpretations, as in their responses to the practical problems of everyday life, the introverted Furtwaengler was a Romantic to the core, the fiery Toscanini the ultimate realist.

Whereas Toscanini’s popularity has steadily declined since his death, Furtwaengler has become the object of cultish veneration--much written about, read (he wrote at least three books dealing with his musical philosophy), listened to on recordings and analyzed.

But Furtwaengler has also been the subject of heated controversy, not only for his highly original interpretive style but for the fact that he lived and worked in Germany through the Nazi era, which to many Americans was tantamount to being a Nazi.

Furtwaengler was the product of politically liberal 19th-Century German intellectualism, his father being a noted archeologist, his mother a successful painter. Papa’s progressive notions precluded a formal education for young Wilhelm. Instead, he was tutored at home and in Italy, his majors, so to speak, being archeology, sculpture and musicology. He began to play the piano at 6 and to compose at 7. Indeed, it was to make his own compositions known that he took up conducting as a teen-ager.


By the end of World War I, he had risen to a position of eminence, succeeding Richard Strauss as music director of the Berlin State Opera. In 1922, he took over two of Europe’s most distinguished musical organizations, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, maintaining a relationship with the latter until the end of his life.

Anyone who played for this awkward podium presence--his physical appearance was most often compared to that of a giraffe--had to believe deeply in the conductor’s musical ideals. When asked how they knew when to enter on Furtwaengler’s vague, spasmodic downbeat, members of the Berlin Philharmonic variously replied, “When we’d finished our coffee,” “after counting to 10--some of us 11,” “when it looked as if we no longer had a choice.” Then, too, problems were caused by his constantly questioning, improvisatory approach to a score, with departures in performance from what had been agreed upon in rehearsal.

Yet, the sounds he drew from orchestras reconciled to his eccentric ways were, according to most listeners, uniquely sumptuous. A respected fellow conductor, Sir Adrian Boult, observed that Furtwaengler’s imprecise beat was a major factor in the fullness of sound his orchestras achieved--a rich sonority because entries were being made a split second apart.

His core repertory consisted of the 19th-Century classics--the symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner and the Wagner operas, with excursions into Haydn, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and the 20th-Century masters whose causes he espoused. Among the premieres he conducted were those of Bartok’s First Piano Concerto (1926) and Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra (1928).


With the advent of Hitler, the Furtwaengler picture becomes clouded. Certainly the German musical world had no stauncher supporter of individual freedom than this otherwise withdrawn man. He was appalled by the concept and practice of anti-Semitism. When the regime harassed Jewish members of the Berlin Philharmonic, his protests forced a temporary truce. When sanctions were later imposed against these same musicians, his influence and often direct assistance helped many to obtain safe passage out of Germany. The Jewish musicians who had worked with Furtwaengler remained among his most ardent supporters during the conductor’s subsequent troubles.

Furtwaengler maintained his belief in art as the ultimate counterforce to intolerance, to brutishness. With this in mind, one can more readily understand why in 1933 Furtwaengler accepted the invitation of Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, to assume office in the Reichsmusikkammer, the music division of the Nazi Ministry of Culture. The post would otherwise have gone to a racist.

In March of 1934, Furtwaengler conducted the first performance of the “Mathis der Maler” Symphony of his friend and fellow political noncomformist, Paul Hindemith (also a non-Jew). The government was outraged. Six months later, a notorious government proclamation branded Hindemith a “Cultural Bolshevik,” whereupon Furtwaengler resigned all his positions--at the Reichsmusikkammer, the Berlin Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic.

In response to this one-man mass resignation, Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi party’s chief ideologue, wrote in a newspaper article: “The Hindemith Affair has grown into the Furtwaengler Affair. We are faced here with two conflicting ideologies. One of them regards everything in a purely artistic light. The other, represented by National Socialism, recognizes that an artist reflects a political situation. So when a man like Hindemith lives, works and feels comfortable with Jews, indeed consorts almost exclusively with Jews and is loved by them; when he commits the foulest perversions of German music, we have a right to reject him. . . . It is a pity that so great an artist as Dr. Furtwaengler has identified himself with Hindemith’s cause. Dr. Furtwaengler clings to his 19th-Century ideas and has manifestly lost all sense of the national struggle of our time.”


Half a year later, he quixotically returned to the Berlin Philharmonic--not to the Opera, where he would have had to share power with Nazis, and not to the governmental agency.

Early in 1936, the New York Philharmonic announced his engagement as music director. The protests were loud, acrimonious and effective. No one accepted by the Reich, even if somewhat equivocally, was acceptable here.

Furtwaengler bowed out of the New York job with a characteristically naive--and somewhat pompous--statement to the effect that “political controversies” were disagreeable to him and that only when Americans realized that politics and music were “apart” would he deign to conduct in their country.

To those who chastised the conductor for being part of Germany’s politicization of the arts he would respond, no doubt sincerely, that only through an appreciation of its noblest art--"the humanizing art of Beethoven” (his words)--would Germany be diverted from its current, wayward path. In addition, he insisted, his musicians needed him, as children need their father.


He did finally leave Germany for Switzerland early in 1945, at the instigation of his friend Albert Speer, the Reich’s music-loving minister of armaments and, in today’s general estimation, the least culpable member of Hitler’s inner circle. Whether the conductor actually “had to flee,” as his widow stated in a recent interview, has never been made clear. But there can be little doubt that in the disintegrating Reich, idealists of any stripe could not be tolerated.

Be that as it may, Furtwaengler was active musically in Germany during the war years, the years of the most horrendous atrocities-- many committed in the name of preserving German culture--in the history of mankind. But there is no reason to assume that he knew any more about Auschwitz than did the average, non-messianic German.

When, after the war, he was belatedly cleared of “passive complicity” with the regime by one of those grotesque “denazification” tribunals, he made the following statement to the international press: “When Thomas Mann asks, ‘How can Beethoven be played in Himmler’s Germany?,’ I answer, ‘When was the music of Beethoven more needed than in Himmler’s Germany?’ I could not leave Germany in her hour of greatest need, and I have no regrets over having stayed at my post.”

Although the statement satisfied the British and French, America wanted a more fiery protest--an accusatory finger pointed by an icon of German culture who could no longer plead ignorance of his compatriots’ deeds. But that would have amounted to making “a political statement,” which was anathema to Wilhelm Furtwaengler.


When, in 1949, he was again invited to conduct in this country, the cries of outrage were resumed, with Toscanini, the old nemesis and eternal scourge of fascism, lending his voice to the chorus of disapproval. Again, Furtwaengler bowed out.

Blurred as our picture of Furtwaengler the man may be, the artist is there for all to judge via recordings--some of the most intriguing of which have been reissued in honor of his centennial. All date from the five years prior to his death.

In Angel’s Seraphim series there are the nine Beethoven symphonies, recorded--some “live,” others in the studio--with the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic and Stockholm Philharmonic (IF-6146, six LP records; Nos. 5, 6 and 9 available on compact disc); a live “Don Giovanni” from the 1954 Salzburg Festival, with Cesare Siepi in the title role and a cast that also includes Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Erna Berger (IC-6145, three records, LP only); the 1952 studio recording, with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” Ludwig Suthaus and Kirsten Flagstad in the title roles (ID-6147, LP, and CDC 47321, CD, four discs each); and the entire Wagner “Ring,” recorded live in Rome in 1953, with the Italian Radio Orchestra and a cast including Martha Moedl, Margarete Klose, Suthaus, Wolfgang Windgassen, Julius Patzak, Gustav Neidlinger and Ferdinand Frantz (IN-6148, 14 records, LP only).

Deutsche Grammophon’s centennial Furtwaengler-Berlin Philharmonic collection has been issued only in compact-disc format, again a mix of studio and in-concert recordings: Brahms’ First Symphony and “Haydn” Variations (415 662-2); Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies--different performances from those on Angel (415 666-2); Schubert’s “Great” C-major Symphony (415 660-2); a pairing of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony and Haydn’s No. 88 (415 661-2); a program of orchestral Wagner (415 663-2); and, with the Vienna Philharmonic, Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (415 664-2).


In every instance, whether on LP or CD, the reissues are sonically superior to earlier masterings. The performances themselves maintain a consistent level of intensity, of seriousness, of grandeur that every listener should experience, if not necessarily accept. And throughout--whether the orchestra is the great Berlin Philharmonic, the erratic Vienna Philharmonic or the ragged Italian Radio Orchestra--there is that dark, plangent orchestral sonority that managed to impress even the conductor’s die-hard detractors.

These recordings document a monumental, reflective style compounded of flexibility of tempo, rhythmic elasticity, the building of arches and entities rather than mere phrases: an interpretive subjectivity, rooted in the Romantic era, that is again finding adherents among today’s younger musicians and listeners.

The Angel and Deutsche Grammophon Furtwaengler collections are durable souvenirs of a brilliant, enigmatic and still, 30-odd years after his death, controversial man and musician.