Furtwangler in Berlin, 1942

August 30, 2006

Wilhelm Furtwangler, who died in 1954, was the greatest conductor of the era of recorded music. He was at his most volcanic and mercurial during the years of WWII, directing his beloved Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra throughout the war, torn between his love of Germany and its culture and his hatred of what Hitler had made of them. Of all the performances he gave during that time, none were greater than those of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which for searing, towering intensity have never been matched, nor will ever be.

Here is a small taste of the finale of the performance of April 19th, 1942, the day before Hitler’s birthday. At the end of it, you see Furtwangler, his face a stoic mask, shaking the hand of Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. It’s shattering, literally, to see such incomparable art harnessed to such impenetrable evil — to see Furtwangler dance-conducting, in his characteristic way, beside the swastika flag.

Notice the faces of the Nazi top brass, including SS chief Heinrich Himmler (he of the pebble glasses). They don’t look overly moved. Yet one woman — a wife, a daughter, a mistress, who knows what she was — bites her lip and looks down.

This is what the choir was singing:

(from ODE TO JOY by Friedrich Schiller)

Joy, daughter of Elysium
Thy magic reunites those
Whom stern custom has parted;
All men will become brothers
Under thy gentle wing.

Be embraced, O millions!
This kiss for all the world!
Brothers!, above the starry canopy
A loving father must dwell.

Joy, beautiful spark of Gods!,
Daughter of Elysium,
Joy, beautiful spark of Gods!


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