War and the agony of the artist; or, Furtwangler plays Beethoven’s 9th three times

January 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.

London, 1937
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!

Berlin, 1942
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:

Bayreuth, 1951
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.



  1. Schiller’s original poem didn’t have the line “All men shall be brothers”. Beethoven added it.

  2. OK, I didn’t know that, LZ. Thanks.

  3. I loved reading what you wrote. More commentary anon.

    Have you heard this?


  4. “I loved reading what you wrote.” Only for good reasons, I hope 🙂 Thanks for the link.

    I look forward to your further comments.

    Right now I’m watching Kolchak: The Night Stalker as an antidote to Furtwangler. Or maybe not.

  5. “Only for good reasons, I hope.” Of course.

    But now I am in despair that I will never experience or have any real idea what it must have felt like at that Berlin concert in 1942 – for the audience, conductor or orchestra. Nor will I ever have the equally to-die-for experience of retrospectively eyewitnessing the public performance where a deaf, demonic Beethoven oversaw and conducted its first outing over a century before.

    I also feel regret, if not sorrow, that these two men never met and reflect that they were roughly the same age – mid-50s – at its first performance in 1824 and at Furtwangler’s 1942 Berlin concert and that each event occurred during comparable political conjunctures that built on or followed the preceding historical periods – much like Beethoven’s music did, well, musically.

    You inspired me to seek out some of Furtwangler’s own words about Beethoven’s 9th, which has been a little like going down a rabbit hole, in the most pleasurable way, but which also highlights certain contradictions in your thesis about the external political world’s impact on his interpretation of the 9th on these three different occasions at three different stages of his life.

  6. A sensitive, anguished interpretation. Very affecting.

    Interesting facts: for 9 months preceding the 1942 concert Furtwangler was not able to conduct at all due to serious injuries from a skiing accident in Austria. And the concert for Hitler’s birthday was preceded by a long speech by Goebbels about Hitler’s “stupendous visionary plans”.

  7. To continue (apologies, for the previous truncated comment – too steamy last night). Sorry, too, for the length.

    I think of Beethoven as a Romantic composer who was equally influenced by the Enlightenment. All biographical details I know of point to both these profoundly influencing his personal and political views and being intrinsic to and intentionally expressed in his music.

    I’ve always associated this symphony, in particular intellectually, rather more with the latter. But then as Balzac said, “everyone interprets music according to his own sorrow or joy, his hopes or his despair”. It is impossible to account for the emotional properties of music without accepting the experiences of listeners, including the way in which music is ultimately experienced as about them and their emotional life and pre-occupations.

    I first encountered this symphony in the context of youthful political idealism, though it would be fair to say I have a deeper appreciation of it today. Movement is all. Furthermore, it is still a quite mysterious work of art.

    I don’t think, though, it can be seriously argued that Beethoven’s music can be fully appreciated or understood without understanding the role of the French and American Revolutions in the gestation of his art. Marxist-influenced writings have argued that Beethoven’s symphonies create an overwhelming sense of the process of struggle and development through contradiction; that they exhibit a sublime example of the dialectical unity of form and content. And Furtwangler said much the same thing, in different words, but almost identical in content.

    The 9th symphony is full of violent music, of terror, emotional suffering, spiritual struggle, telling of an inner journey from primordial darkness to ethereal light, wresting meaning out of chaos through the application of sheer iron, but oh so human, Will.

    This struggle, which doesn’t follow an absolutely linear course, does conclude, as it necessarily must, with a triumphal and transcendent affirmation of joy and an emphatic ‘no’ to intolerance and hate. Some say it was really freedom or liberty that was being proclaimed in the last movement. But I don’t see how any of the elements can be separated. And life and history show they aren’t. Joy is experienced through and from suffering and its resolution or abatement through optimism of the will which itself leads to freedom and liberty.

    Because suffering and joy are inextricably linked, this process involves embracing all that life offers. For if one is the precondition of the other then in a sense we really have no choice. We may as well swoon in ecstasy at life’s feet. Joy has everything to do with the personal, the intimate, and everything to do, too, with the political and the social. Beethoven’s genius was to weave all these together musically.

    Your interpretation, what you were looking for and heard in these three concerts is marvellous. But I wonder whether for a great part of his career Furtwangler didn’t have (as some argue and which does seem to be a predominant approach or value system in some of his writings about music) a “purist” concept of art that overestimated the power of music and which in fact ended up being undermined in the face of brutal reality. Your impressions would seem to suggest this too.

    It is not so easy after all, and as he found, to live in a self-contained universe of music and not be shaken by the storms raging in the broader physical world we inhabit. Apart from leaving an artist such as himself open to manipulation by political elites, such an approach denies the undeniable role of social life and historical development in the creation and experience of music.

    At the end of his post-war trial Furtwangler declared, “Art has nothing to do with politics”. If your interpretation is valid then either he still naively misunderstood the impossibility of this or was in deep denial about influences that in reality contributed to the magnificence, emotionality and complexity of his own performances of Beethoven’s masterpiece.

    Daniel Barenboim described Furtwangler as “the anti-ideologue par excellence” and Furtwangler said that “with Beethoven, too, ‘ideas’ are not the essential but the way in which he *realizes* them musically”. He added that for Beethoven “texts” were not important.

    But this surely cannot be true, not least about this symphony whose conception and inspiration was integrally connected to Schiller’s revolutionary and pantheistic text.

    Emotions, and the 9th symphony is replete with conflicting emotions, are at least partly manifestations of beliefs and concepts. Music can therefore indeed contain, possibly even cause, or reinforce, ideas or beliefs. All of which too surely must account for the universal fascination, reverence and love felt for this symphony today.

  8. Thanks, LZ. Interesting commentary. My internet connection is very up and down at the moment, but I’ll get back to you with some more reflections when I can.

  9. There is a recent German bio of Furtwangler, untranslated, and it seems the discussion about him, his place in music and history, continues ferociously apace, not least among musicologists.

    I listened to the 1951 concert, have yet to hear the 1942, and compared it to the two other recordings of this that I know. Yes, it is qualitatively better, not even comparable, floating in a quite different cosmic realm. I’m glad that this blog helped me find him.

    It would be good to see a bio that did him justice. He seems to have been a German patrician thoroughly steeped in high German culture and his tragedy was that he found himself, not totally inadvertently, in the position he did through the Nazi period.

    Incontestable seems to his divine interpretations which sprung in great part from his individual suffering soul. But then all great art comes from much the same starting point.

  10. “He seems to have been a German patrician thoroughly steeped in high German culture and his tragedy was that he found himself, not totally inadvertently, in the position he did through the Nazi period.”

    That’s actually a pretty good summation, LZ, I think. There’s no way you can dress Furtangler up as a ‘progressive’, in modern terms. He was irremediably conservative, heir to a tradition that you and I would probably find pretty objectionable in all kinds of ways.

    He fought the Nazis in his own way, but not in the most effective way he could have – by leaving Germany. That he couldn’t do. And it remains the enduring criticism of him – that he could have damaged the Nazis far more had he, the God of the German romantic tradition, renounced Hitler and all his works, and walked, as so many others had done.

    That’s why the debate continues. It’s an existential moral issue. For mine, I think he should have walked. But I wasn’t there, in 1930’s Germany, and frankly, I wouldn’t presume to judge a man of his calibre.

    (But every moral bone in my body says he should have walked.)

  11. It wasn’t just that he stayed, but that his high profile and all that flowed from that meant his relationship with the regime was, and will probably always remain, at the very least, ambiguous. It’s also possible that the German cultural nationalism he so singlemindedly and passionately embraced incorporated a dichotomy that German fascism very much promoted, i.e., between “pure” art, which was said to spring from *das Volk*, and an artificial, foreign, derivative even “polluting” art, including, above all, that of the reviled Jews.

    Still, the subjectivity or Dionysian quality of his performances, nowhere more on display than in 1942, as you say, perhaps does point to the truth about his actual state of mind, which was one of tormented fury.

    Today, countless numbers may enjoy his work and that of the BPO in their heyday. But that doesn’t really help his legacy as an individual. A privileged individual who made a choice that had negative repercussions, not least for himself, and which patently isn’t preventing pertinent ongoing conjecture and analysis around broader cultural-political questions.

  12. Pertinent, too, is the relationship between Furtwangler’s virtual exclusive valuing of and interest in high German culture – a culture under Nazism that also appositely claimed to be universal in its scope and incomparable in its moral worth – and the Nazi racial and national narrative which drew political legitimacy from that very same (justly) celebrated national culture.

    And what does it say about such a sublime national cultural heritage that the gift and legacy of humane gods such as Beethoven, Brahms et al, proved completely defenceless against fascist dictatorship? Germany mid 20th c. – one of the most culturally advanced places in the world – proved beyond any doubt and for ever more that grand, aesthetic feelings for and love of high culture can coexist with barbaric, politically sadistic behaviour in the very same individuals, or groups of individuals. It showed there is no necessary correlation between culture and humane thought or action.

    Isn’t it perhaps true that “within classical and European civilisation itself, literary, artistic and philosophical achievements were in fact always inseparable from the milieu of absolutism, of extreme social injustice, even of gross violence, in which they flourished” [George Steiner – ‘In Bluebeard’s Castle’ ]

    Paradoxes and questions.

  13. I’m not sure about the associations you’re arguing here, LZ. You have to remember that democracy, such as it was, had very shallow roots in German society at the time of the Weimar Republic. Hitler came to power, in Alan Bullock’s famous term, by way of a backstairs intrigue, a fundamental miscalculation by the ‘conventional’ right in Germany, who thought they could use him as the kind of figurehead that Hindenburg had long been. I think it is a mistake to extrapolate too far from individual pathologies to the human condition.

  14. Now you disappoint me. That is not really what I meant or wanted to talk about. But since we are there, Hitler came to power also because of the limitations and failures of social democratic and communist forces – significant and powerful forces in Germany since at least the early 1900s, if not earlier.

  15. I was responding to your quote from Steiner.

    As for Hitler’s rise to power, I still prefer Bullock. We always tend to see history in teleological or at least deterministic, terms. But that’s the historian’s way. He or she starts from the last page of the murder mystery and works backward. History as lived works in the opposite direction. Nazism’s usurpation of German culture was an accident, its accession to power the consequence of an unanticipated collaboration of circumstances beyond the control of any of its participants.

  16. Funny, ain’t it, that it was exactly the same psychological explanation you’ve employed in explaining Hitler’s rise to power, that Isaac Deutscher used in explaining Stalin’s left-of-field rise despite the contempt and dismissal of him by the majority of Bolsheviks.

    Smacks far too much too of the simplistic ‘great man’ theory of history which still weighs today like a nightmare on the brains of all the living.

  17. Yes, I admit to being a late convert to the ‘great man’ theory of history. I think most of what happened in the past – and happens still today – is the result of chance, happenstance, coincidence, rather than design.

  18. “I think most of what happened in the past – and happens still today – is the result of chance, happenstance, coincidence, rather than design.:

    That is an extraordinarily narrow and false dichotomy.

  19. Oh well, I don’t insist on it.

  20. “History as lived works in the opposite direction.”

    Oh, that is a real beauty, Rob. Well done. I’m going to savour that one for a long time. Hah! History is unidirectional. Would’ve thunk it.

  21. Yes, well, enjoy the thought.

  22. What is to enjoy? And that notion negates your river analogy expounded on the Furtwangler thread.

    And natural rivers have currents and flow every which way. And, so, to end and heal the day:

    “To gaze at a river made of time and water
    And remember Time is another river.
    To know we stray like a river
    and our faces vanish like water.

    To feel that waking is another dream
    that dreams of not dreaming and that the death
    we fear in our bones is the death
    that every night we call a dream.

    To see in every day and year a symbol
    of all the days of man and his years,
    and convert the outrage of the years
    into a music, a sound, and a symbol.

    To see in death a dream, in the sunset
    a golden sadness–such is poetry,
    humble and immortal, poetry,
    returning, like dawn and the sunset.

    Sometimes at evening there’s a face
    that sees us from the deeps of a mirror.
    Art must be that sort of mirror,
    disclosing to each of us his face.

    They say Ulysses, wearied of wonders,
    wept with love on seeing Ithaca,
    humble and green. Art is that Ithaca,
    a green eternity, not wonders.

    Art is endless like a river flowing,
    passing, yet remaining, a mirror to the same
    inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
    and yet another, like the river flowing.”

    Jorge Luis Borges

  23. Ah, Borges, master of the fantastic. The only name that deserves to be spoken in the same breath as Furtwangler, except Picasso and Kafka, in the halls on 20th century art.

    Thank you.

  24. Kafka is already present in the above screed. I was deliberately channeling him at one point.

    Kafka: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

    Is Picasso lurking there too, somewhere, do you think?

  25. Believing that time can travel in only one direction makes about as much sense as insisting that the world is flat.

    And it flatly contradicts the possibility of reaching directly into the past, something which has moved beyond the realm of fantasy and has become a matter of growing interest among theoretical physicists, mathematicians and philosophers.

    When one seriously considers the subject of time, within which history is encased, one must inevitably come to terms with the universe predicted by Albert Einstein’s revolutionary theory of relativity, to which W. H. Williams humorously alluded in a poem presented on the occasion of the great physicist’s visit to the California Institute of Technology at Pasadena in 1924:

    “You hold that time is badly warped,
    That even light is bent;
    I think I get the idea there,
    If this is what you meant;
    The mail the postman brings today
    Tomorrow will be sent.

    The shortest line, Einstein replied
    is not the one that’s straight,
    It curves around upon itself,
    Much like a figure eight.
    And if you go too rapidly
    You will arrive too late.”

  26. Rob, you’ve truly sent me off down some wondrous rabbit holes. What joy. I had to share this.

    Seems there is a whole school of thought that says the 4th Movement is a giant raspberry to what went before in the sense of the ascent towards the pure, ordered and noble collective state being deliberately derailed, and then parodied, at the end. It’s also said to be swarming with “unconsummated symbols”.

    And, the best of all. Some dude called Gottfried Frank (?) in 1826, just two years after its first performance, wrote that the 9th’s finale is “a festival of hatred towards all that can be called human joy. With gigantic strength the perilous hoard emerges, tearing hearts asunder and darkening the divine sparks of gods with noisy, monstrous mocking.”

  27. oops, wasn’t me, was transcribing. The translation should have read “horde”.

  28. Rob and LZ – is that where your fascinating, illuminating and hugely enjoyable dialogue ended? In Feb 2009? Say it isn’t so! (P.S. I played Major Steve Arnold in a Melbourne production of “Taking Sides” a few years ago. It’s where I first learned about Furtwangler (although I’m not sure how much about the real Furtwangler I learned. It’s Beethoven who is my real love.)

  29. Just for the sake of historical accuracy the 1942 performance was on the 19th April 1942 , Hitlers birthday was the following day .

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