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Furtwängler was born in Berlin. His father Adolf was an archaeologist, his mother a painter, and his brother Phillip a mathematician. Most of his childhood was spent in Munich, where his father taught at the university. He was given a musical education from an early age, and developed an early love of Beethoven, a composer he remained closely associated with throughout his life.
By the time of Furtwängler's conducting debut at the age of twenty, he had written several pieces of music. However, they were not well received, and that combined with the financial insecurity a career as a composer would provide led him to concentrate on conducting. At his first concert, he led the Kaim Orchestra in Anton Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. He subsequently held posts at Munich, Lübeck, Mannheim, Frankfurt, and Vienna, before securing a job at the Berlin Staatskapelle in 1920, and, in 1922, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (where he succeeded Arthur Nikisch) and concurrently at the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Later he became music director of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Salzburg Festival and the Bayreuth Festival, which was regarded as the greatest post a conductor could hold in Germany at the time.
Furtwängler was famous for his exceptional inarticulacy. His pupil Sergiu Celibidache remembered that the best he could say was "Well, just listen" (to the music). Carl Brinitzer from the German BBC service tried to interview him, and thought he had an imbecile before him. A live recording of a rehearsal with a Stockholm orchestra documents hardly anything intelligible, only hums and mumbling. Still, Furtwängler remained highly respected amongst musicians.
Furtwängler's relationship with and attitude towards Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party was a matter of much controversy. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Furtwängler was highly critical of them. In 1934, he was banned from conducting the premiere of Paul Hindemith's opera Mathis der Maler , and Furtwängler resigned from his post at the Berlin Opera in protest. In 1936, with Furtwängler becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the regime, he was offered the principal conductor's post at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, where he would succeed Arturo Toscanini. There is every possibility that Furtwängler would have accepted the post, but a report from the Berlin branch of the Associated Press, possibly ordered by Hermann Göring, said that he was willing to take up his post at the Berlin Opera once more. This caused the mood in New York to turn against him; from their point of view, it seemed that Furtwängler was now a full supporter of the Nazi Party. Although it is now widely accepted that this was not the case (Furtwängler always refused to give the Nazi salute, for instance), it was a view which prevailed until his death.
Furtwängler was treated relatively well by the Nazis; he had a high profile, and was an important cultural figure. His concerts were often broadcast to German troops to raise morale, and he was limited in what he was allowed to perform by the authorites. His attitude towards Jews remains controversial today. On the one hand, he often lauded Jewish artists such as Artur Schnabel, but on the other he supported boycotts of Jewish goods and was critical of what he saw as Jewish domination of newspapers.
One of Furtwängler's protegés was pianist Karlrobert Kreiten. He was also an important influence on the pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim, of whom Furtwängler's widow, Elisabeth Furtwängler, said, "Er furtwänglere." ("He furtwänglers.") Barenboim recently recorded Furtwängler's 2nd Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Towards the end of the war, under extra pressure from the Nazi Party, Furtwängler fled to Switzerland. He resumed performing and recording following the war and remained a popular conductor in Europe, although he was always under somewhat of a shadow. He died in 1954 in Baden-Baden.
British playwright Ronald Harwood's play Taking Sides (1995), set in 1946 in the American zone of occupied Berlin, is about U.S. accusations against Furtwängler of having served the Nazi regime. In 2001 the play was made into a motion picture starring Harvey Keitel and featuring Stellan Skarsgård in the role of Furtwängler.
As part of his closing remarks at his denazification trial, Furtwängler said,
- "I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like.
- "Does Thomas Mann [who was critical of Furtwängler’s actions] really believe that in 'the Germany of Himmler' one should not be permitted to play Beethoven? Could he not realize, that people never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans, who had to live under Himmler’s terror? I do not regret having stayed with them."
(quoted from John Ardoin 's The Furtwängler record)
Furtwängler is most famous for his performances of Beethoven, Bruckner, and Wagner. However, he was also a champion of modern music, and was known to give performances of thoroughly modern works, such as Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra.
- Wilhelm Furtwängler Society (France)
- Wilhelm Furtwängler Society of America
- Wilhelm Furtwängler at Classicalnotes.net
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