War and the agony of the artist; or, Furtwangler plays Beethoven’s 9th three timesJanuary 27, 2009
Because I have a new Furtwangler gravatar, and because we’ve been surrounded by the echoes of a war these past weeks, I’ve had occasion, over the past few days (not that I needed an excuse), to listen to three of Furtwangler’s performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, given in 1937, 1942 and 1951. These were in London, Berlin and Bayreuth respectively before, during and after World War II. I was interested to see if I could gauge what he thought of the war that was coming, the war he was part of, and the war he remembered. I think I got something out of the experience which I’d like to share.
But first, some words about Wilhelm Furtwangler, the greatest of all conductors in the age of recorded music. For Furtwangler, the romantic repertoire of symphonies, concertos, songs and operas was like the flow of a great, unending river. Under Furtwangler’s baton, you are carried on its breast, in calm and flood, for an hour or so, until the work comes to an end. Then you are released from it, and it sets you down, but the river flows on, in time and space and memory, until the next of his performances you are privileged to be part of. Once you have heard Furtwangler conduct Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner or Wagner, it is almost impossible to listen to anyone else conduct their works.
So conscious was Furtwangler of his responsibility, and the power he wielded in calling up the passions and poetries of composers long dead, that his hand often trembled before the first downbeat of the baton. A famous story is told of a leader of first violins who looked up to see the conductor tormented by hesitation at the start of a performance, and called out encouragingly, “Coraggio, Maestro!”
For Furtwangler, any performance of Beethoven’s Ninth was a religious ritual. He gave the symphony only on special occasions. The work is, of course, most famous for its chorale, the fourth movement which sets Schiller’s Ode to Joy to music of extraordinary power and force. Furtwangler saw the great finale as the culmination of all that went before it, the dread, the storms of violence, the tearing grief, the hope, the longing, expressed in Schiller’s words: “Alle Menschen werden Bruder, Wo dein sanfter Flugel weilt!”
But Furtwangler knew better than any before or since that in Beethoven’s setting of the Ode the joyful processional and the auto-da-fe go ever together. Human nature walks as readily to an execution as to a wedding, and the grim beat of war compels no less than the gentle words of peace. Each elegant polka masks the Dance of Death. The pipe-and-drum march of the Chorale leads as surely to the death chambers as to the canivale. That is why Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (although perhaps not Schiller’s) is also an Ode to Despair.
All this Furtwangler understood with a perfection never equalled. And because of that, the three statements he left us with these performances of the Ninth might cause us to reflect on how a great artist and a man of good conscience and decent instincts responded through the fragile medium of music to the reality of a war which, with all its ineluctable brutality and inexorable cruelty, tore his treasured dreams to pieces – and those of the German people, who never wanted the war that Hitler forced them into.
The world was poised on the brink of a great war, one which most of Europe regarded as inevitable. Furtwangler stood before the British public in London’s Queen’s Hall with his Berliners and tried to tell them it was not going to happen. He projected a sense of reassurance: the orchestra’s great hammer blows were constrained, the violence contained. He made the Ninth sound almost like Haydn, recalling a Germany so very different to Hitler’s, so different to the Germany of which he was now a reluctant emissary. In the first movements, at quite broad tempi, he seemed to be saying, “Don’t forget – we’re not what you think”. And: “Despite today, please remember…”. There is a sense sometimes of wistful longing for the better times past, especially among the soughing of the strings.
But at the same time, there is the feeling of the calm before the storm. There are portents, vagaries, threats, but Furtwangler pushes them aside. Instead, he takes us back to the Sixth Symphony, with its smiling countryside. The music opens its arms, perhaps in a plea, an invitation to the dance. In the Chorale, it’s the morris dance we hear, not the funeral march. And yet, throughout, despite his mastery of score and orchestra, how uncertain Furtwangler sometimes sounds, how hesitant, as if he himself were not convinced!
What a different world is this. It is the time of Hitler’s birthday, 24th March. Among the audience are Himmler, the chief of the SS, and Goebbels, master propagandist. From the very first bars, the orchestra cries: We are lost! No light hearts, only sad memories. Wildness, abandonment, a sense of being caught up in the sweep of events that no-one could control – almost the hopelessness of being only human. The orchestra gives us jagged edges of violence, but also moments of reflection. The drums roll on, steady, purposeful, heavy with dread. There is a sense of watching unimaginable horror, with stoicism, with numbness. Whilst we’re periodically overwhelmed, there is at other times a sense of frozen, appalled aloofness, of detachment.
This is the most perfectly crafted symphonic performance you will ever hear. Indeed, it is not “crafted” at all. It emerges from the roots of experience, the condition of the time. It is a long scream at the world for being the world, broken off at the end of every movement, then taken up again. Ego is forgotten, and art seamlessly reflects the actuality of the real. The orchestra under Furtwangler are responding to something beyond and behind them: the beating of the wings of the angel of death, perched that night on the roof of the Philhamonie, and never to depart.
Time and again the horror breaks through. Time and again, Furtwangler unleashes Beethoven’s fury. The echoes of the Pastoral 6th are there, it is true, but they are swallowed up at once and thrown mockingly aside. We are in the Third Movement now. We see under the sweet pastoral strains to the anguish beneath. Where five years earlier, Beethoven had welcomed us to his world, he now bids us an unforgiving farewell. The abandonment of all promises, conveyed by an orchestra playing with all the delicacy of a string quartet. Hope is recalled, but is no longer believed in.
And then the war drums and the trumpets end it. Here is the tearing anger of the finale, waves of rage over an ocean of anguish, as Furtwangler signalled his farewell to everything he had known and loved of Germany. A metallic drum punctuates the tenor’s first solo. The quartet of soloists sound frantic. The pipe-and-drum march would have fooled no-one: it is a dirge. No calm consolation here: the horror swells, it does not recede. The chorus are not singing “Ode to Joy”, but the Prisoners’ Chorus from Fidelio. This is the song from within the prison.
One wonders what on earth Himmler and Goebbels would have made of it.
You can watch them here:
Six years after the war, Furtwangler gave a performance of the Ninth at the re-opening of the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, designed by Wagner for the performance of his operas. It is probably the most famous of his recordings of the work.
Here Furtwangler has recovered a sense of sureness and affirmation. Musical lines are lucid and vibrant, and the tempi are unhurried. It seems to be a journey over old ground towards some kind of reconciliation, not least, perhaps., with Germany’s own recent past. Memory is a strong impression, with musical figures reflected upon, rather than stated.
Weariness? There is a sense that the symphony – or Furtwangler, perhaps both – are exhausted. There is hope, but also uncertainty, as if Furtwangler wants to advance the cause of hope but falters as he tries to do so, overwhelmed by the weight of memory. Something baleful seems to approach from behind: he shakes his head, trying to dismiss it, but cannot. It is the past.
In the 2nd and 3rd Movements, the work is muted; there is no joy, more a kind of desolation. There is hurrying and scurrying, but nothing pastoral, nothing sweet – rather a sense of anxiety. Figures dance into the foreground, as if defying the future,but they seem somehow unsure of themselves. The pastoral passages seem more personal, more reflective and inward.
This is a tragic Ninth. A weary plod through a countryside once loved, every step now taken in weariness and pain along a familiar road, a road which itself seems to reproach the conductor for travelling it. In the 3rd Movement, there is even a sense that Furtwangler’s heart has failed him, that he can no longer go on. As if he is playing in a kind of agony, numbly doing what the score demands, but no longer able to believe in it. Unlike in the other performances, one cannot wait for this desolate movement to come to an end.
In the Chorale, Furtwangler seems to be saying: can we rise above the burden of memory? There is tension and strain as the strings establish the great central melody. But, oddly, the quartet is not quite right – they sound at odds with the chorus. Hans Hopf, the tenor, is over-bright and over-confident, and the whole quartet sound as though they are in a different performance altogether. They are singing a morris dance, but Furtwangler is playing the auto-da-fe.
And then, in the last few minutes, Furtwangler finally shakes off his lethargy and cuts loose. Tears come to the eyes for the first time. Giving the lie to the quartet’s hollow boastfulness, Furtwangler unleashes the true greatness of these last choral passages as the chorus breathes and weeps the words of Schiller’s Ode. The quartet sound affected and self-conscious, and Furtwangler treats them considerately and well: but then he erases them with the final drumbeats and the ecstasy of the chorus – as if he had at last escaped his melancholy brooding and re-awakened to Beethoven and his message to the world.
Three years later, Furtwangler died, distraught at his growing deafness, but also, according to his widow, heart-broken at what the country to whose art he had given his whole life had found itself capable of at war.