Grappling with Furtwängler’s extremely mixed legacy

Posted on: October 18, 2021

“In few classical musicians is the gap between sublime work and shameful actions greater than the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler,” writes David Allen in Thursday’s (10/14) New York Times. “Consumed by an exalted belief in the power of music, and preternaturally able to convince listeners of that power, Furtwängler conducted Beethoven and Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner with proprietary authority…. Ask me to show you what … a conductor can achieve—and I would point you to a Furtwängler recording. The problem is that Adolf Hitler would point to him, too. For Hitler, Furtwängler was the supreme exponent of holy German art; it was to the Nazis’ satisfaction that he served—in effect if not in title— as the chief conductor of the Third Reich…. Furtwängler never joined the Nazi party, and after his initial protests over the expulsions of Jewish musicians and the erosion of his artistic control were resolved in the Nazis’ favor in 1935, he found ways to distance himself from the regime…. His performances with the Berlin Philharmonic and at the Bayreuth Festival at once served the Reich and gave succor to those who sought to survive it, even oppose it…. Dangers from Furtwängler’s legacy still linger in classical music today.”