» Archive for September, 2006

The Art of Conducting: Wilhelm Furtwängler

Wednesday, September 20th, 2006 by Martin Hester


The Art of Conducting: Great Conductors of the Past:
Examples of the conducting style of 16 conductors of the 20th Century.
DVD Warner Music: 1993

Last time, we talked about the role of the conductor, and how conductors acknowledged as “great” are so different in style one from another. In this fascinating DVD, one conductor in particular makes an impact, and is frequently referred to: Wilhelm Furtwängler, who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 1922 until his death in 1954.

His conducting
Furtwängler conducted with lots of movement of both arms, in a fluid movement which avoided incisive downstrokes and abrupt gestures. It is not so easy for us non-members of his orchestra to follow what he wanted – but it is clear he was signalling what he wanted way before the music got there. According to Yehudi Menuhin, he treated the music as a living moving fluid, but in his flexibility he was very precise. Furtwängler himself explained the conductor’s role as “the outpouring of spiritual energy into a body of instrumentalists who create the material quality of the sound produced”.

Indeed, the ability which really set him apart was to find meaning in the music, and communicate this to the orchestra, and through them, to the audience. There is a short passage on the DVD which shows this, in a rehearsal of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. He starts the orchestra playing a passage, which sounds fine – except he stops, shakes his head in disappointment, and makes a few comments: “the crescendo is in the middle of the phrase (sings)…. you were too early (to a musician)….. don’t exaggerate….. more melancholy…… a true legato“. Then he starts again, but quickly stops  “you did it again (sings how he wants it)”…. then at the restart, would you believe it, the music is quite different, the musicians capture another spirit of interpretation, and the music grabs your attention, becomes magic.

The opinion of another musician
We commented last time that some musicians refer to the communication between conductor and orchestra becoming telepathic, evidently between people who understand the music profoundly (although the same sort of thing can happen between the musicians of a good group of chorinho or of jazz). But with Furtwängler this was especially pronounced. Werner Thärichen, timpanist of the Berlin Philarmonic for many years, tells of an occasion in rehearsal when the orchestra was running through a piece without the conductor. But suddenly he noted a new and exciting sound in the playing and, searching for a reason, saw that the musicians were looking at the entrance, where Furtwängler was just coming in……. “it was his presence alone that had created this incredibly beautiful sound”. He goes on: “[Furtwängler] carries the sound so strongly within himself that he brings out the sound in others….. the most beautiful thing that an orchestra can experience is when this person is totally open, and you are invited to join him…. that’s when you make this kind of music.” The video clip on the DVD, showing WF conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a 1948 rehearsal in London certainly seems to bear this out. The music is compelling, and the body language of the musicians shows their total commitment and involvement. Very intense.

His life
Furtwängler was born in Berlin in 1886 into a highly cultured family, and quickly showed an interest in music, and a retentive memory. He was more interested in composing than conducting, but began conducting professionally to bring in some income. His extraordinary talent for drawing music from an orchestra was quickly recognized, and his rise was swift, being invited to conduct more and more prestigious orchestras, until in 1922, on the death of Nikisch, he was invited to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, the most traditional in Germany  – and was at the top of his profession. At this time his search for the meaning of the music led to performances steeped in the German tradition and cultural values.

In the 1930s, with the rise of the Nazis and the persecution of Jews, began a series of clashes with the regime. His defence of Hindemith led to his resigning all his posts, a situation that was later patched up. But he did not leave Germany before the War, as did many of his fellow professionals, but stayed conducting the Berlin Philharmonic throughout the War. On the one hand, many small acts of defiance showed his distaste for the regime, and he used his prestige frequently to defend his musicians and families, many of Jewish descent; on the other, the fact he stayed was heavily exploited by Nazi propaganda, and tarnished his reputation for those distant from what was really going on. Some recordings which have survived from these times show the intense strain and agonies of this time, for him and the musicians, and the reaching for solace in music.

By 1945, he was high on the black list of opponents to the Nazi regime, and fled for his life to Switzerland, where he found he had few friends either in Germany or outside. In 1946, he had the chance to defend his actions and with the testimony of those close to him, was fully acquitted of collaboration, and in 1947 reinstated as the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. And in his music “all that had gone before was recast through a hard-won serenity and sense of perspective. The post-war concerts are monumental, the power of the past now embedded in pride and dignity” (Peter Gutmann). Particularly notable is a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the reopening of the Beyreuth festival in 1951 (available as one of the Great Recordings of the Century from EMI, ASIN: B00000GCA7), which is marked by the intimate knowledge by the orchestra and conductor of what is hell and purgatory, and the triumph of faith.

Fortunately, there is an enormous amount of recorded music available with WF conducting – amazon.com lists 637 albums. One of the features of his conducting was to make each interpretation different, as he sought for the deep meaning of the music. And the interpretations differ too because of his life experience. Most of the recordings are live, since he hated the studio, with (in those days) its 4-minute fragments later assembled.

Hearing about Furtwängler, and listening to some of his music, is like stumbling across am immense treasure hidden away. But be careful – according to one critic writing on the 9th at Beyreuth mentioned above: “That first hearing turned my entire view of great orchestral interpretation upside down. Previously, I had felt that Toscanini’s was the finest interpretation. But by the time I reached the first movement’s coda of this live 9th from Bayreuth, my perceptions of musical eloquence had been changed forever. I simply had no idea of what power, breadth, majesty, grandeur and originality this music contained until I heard Furtwangler”.

Good listening!