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A Conductor’s Impossible Legacy

We live in a time of intense scrutiny of the moral failings of artists — even, or perhaps especially, those whose creations we admire. And in few classical musicians is the gap between sublime work and shameful actions greater than the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler.

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, as if he alone could reveal their deepest psychological, even spiritual, secrets.

Sometimes it sounds like he could. With his expressive, flexible approach to tempo and dynamics, Furtwängler breathed the structure of a whole piece into each of its measures, while making each measure sound as if improvised. Ask me to show you what the point of a conductor is — 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.

The complications are many. 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, not least over its racial policies. 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.

“At Furtwängler’s concerts, we all become one family of resistance fighters,” one opponent of the Nazis said.

Joseph Goebbels nevertheless had little doubt that Furtwängler was, as he put it, “worth the trouble.” Furtwängler avoided conducting in occupied countries, but, for example, led the Berlin Philharmonic in Oslo one week before the German invasion of Norway in April 1940. He declined to conduct during the Nuremberg rallies, but was satisfied to appear just before them — including, in 1938, with the forces of the Vienna State Opera, immediately after the Anschluss.

Whatever considerable aid Furtwängler may have offered to some in need, he was stained. Given the cover he had offered the “regime of the devil,” the émigré conductor Bruno Walter asked him after the Second World War, “of what significance is your assistance in the isolated cases of a few Jews?”

Acrimonious enough in Furtwängler’s lifetime — when protests forced him to withdraw from posts he had been offered at the New York Philharmonic, in 1936, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in 1949 — the debate raged on after his death, in 1954.

Time brought distance, reconciliation and research. Musicians took up Furtwängler’s cause, with Daniel Barenboim in the lead. Books rehabilitated the erstwhile collaborator. One, by Fred Prieberg, declared Furtwängler a “double agent”; another, by Sam Shirakawa, described him, absurdly, as doing more to thwart the Nazis than anyone else, as if he were Dietrich Bonhoeffer with a baton.

Recording after recording emerged — mostly archived radio broadcasts, some of extraordinary quality. Distressingly, Furtwängler turned out to have been at his most intensely visionary during the war, performing for an Aryanized audience at the helm of a purged Berlin Philharmonic.

Those wartime tapes only added to the Furtwängler riddle, though. Was the frenzied Beethoven Ninth he gave in Berlin in March 1942 an act of resistance, scorched in sound? Or was it more proof that “the fate of the Germans” was to “unify things that appear impossible to unify,” as he put it in 1937?

“German music proves,” he had continued then, “that the Germans have achieved such victories before.” Hitler evidently thought so. Furtwängler was filmed shaking Goebbels’s hand after having been maneuvered into reprising the symphony for the Führer’s birthday, one month later.

Despite our current climate, the temptation remains to move past these difficulties, rather than confront them yet again. That seems to be the thinking behind a new set from Warner Classics, 55 CDs that announce themselves as the “The Complete Wilhelm Furtwängler on Record.”

Compiled with the aid of Stéphane Topakian, a former vice president of the Société Wilhelm Furtwängler, a French organization founded in 1969, the box represents a rare sharing of the back catalogs of Warner and Universal. It takes listeners from Furtwängler’s first, timid recordings of Weber and Beethoven, in 1926, through classic accounts like his Tchaikovsky Sixth from 1938 and his Beethoven Ninth from 1951, to the towering “Die Walküre” he taped a month before his death.

Listen to the box, and if you’re left wondering whether microphones ever truly captured Furtwängler’s carefully calibrated dynamics and his as-if-from-the-depths sound, you still find ample, glorious evidence of his famous long line, his ability to make scores cohere. You also find that he was not at all the invariably slow, monumental conductor he is often remembered as. There is touching warmth in his “Siegfried Idyll,” delicacy and charm in his Haydn, dignity in his vivacious Mozart.

Throughout, there is a sense of hearing a world lost, of a conducting style dating back to Richard Wagner that, with its deliberate imprecisions and its privileging of the perceived spirit behind the music over its textual details, aims at something quite different than maestros do today.

What Warner’s box is not, however, is the complete Furtwängler on record. His discography has always been the subject of debate, as has his conflicted attitude to the medium, but Warner has limited itself to his studio efforts and the live recordings he made with an express view to commercial sale.

Strangely, those criteria have led to the inclusion of recordings that Furtwängler decided not to release, like the “Walküre” and “Götterdämmerung” from a “Ring” he led in London in 1937. And myriad live recordings are left out, even those that have previously appeared on Warner and Universal labels, including his rampage through Strauss’s “Metamorphosen” in 1947; his astounding “Ring” for Italian radio in 1953; his destructive, distraught accounts of Brahms’s Third and Fourth; and almost all of his mystical Bruckner.

Perhaps that decision isn’t so baffling when you consider that omitting all but a few live tapes means dedicating fewer than two discs to the war, the defining period of Furtwängler’s life. The timeline provided in the notes coyly states, in the present tense, that he “limits his activities” during the war years, though finds himself “obliged to participate in certain official events.” Topakian, the box’s curator, writes that a postwar Beethoven Seventh in Vienna represents Furtwängler “at his purest,” while the intensity of his Berlin account from 1942 was “nothing to do with the work.” Some amnesia is at play here.

But however often Furtwängler declared himself an apolitical artist, his conservative, nationalistic worldview was never separable from his conducting, as the musicologist Roger Allen has shown — not even after 1945, when most of the recordings in the Warner box were made.

Born to an archaeology professor and a painter in 1886, Furtwängler grew up thinking of himself as a Beethoven in waiting. But the reviews of his early compositions were savage; he did not return to composing in earnest, the historian Chris Walton has found, until the mid-1930s, when Nazi cultural policy savaged modernism and made room for his interminable, quasi-Brucknerian wanderings.

Furtwängler met no such resistance as a conductor. After a series of minor posts, notably in Mannheim, he became chief conductor of both the Berlin Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1922, later dropping the Leipzig position for one with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Through this period, Furtwängler set out an aesthetic that has uncomfortable resonances today. His promotion of the indomitable supremacy of German art was a major part of this — even if he conducted Schoenberg despite his hatred of modernism. But his methods of analyzing scores and even his theory of conducting were expressed in chauvinistic language. He wrote that music should not be banned — that is, “unless it is a clear case either of rubbish or kitsch or of anti-state cultural Bolshevism.”

The rise of conducting styles that challenged his — above all the textual literalism of his rival, Arturo Toscanini — confirmed for him that the Weimar Republic was a Germany in crisis. Despite his differences with the Nazis, it seems likely that he, like most conservatives, welcomed their takeover as a return to an authoritarian, Wilhelmine past — a process through which the art he perceived as lesser would be excised.

Even after Furtwängler fled Germany early in 1945, following a warning from Albert Speer of threats to his safety, and after he was cleared in a denazification trial in 1946, this worldview lingered. As late as 1947, he was still hailing the “organic superiority” of the German symphonists; two years later, he decried the “biological insufficiency” of atonality.

Nor did Furtwängler step back from grandiose claims about the power of music, and his role as its savior. Astonishingly, he thought it wise to write to colleagues in 1947 that “a single performance of a truly great German musical composition was by its nature a more powerful, more essential negation of the spirit of Buchenwald and Auschwitz than all words could be.”

Warner’s box makes clear that he made marvels in the postwar years, including the pained formalism of his Gluck overtures; the utter revelation of his Schumann Fourth; a heaven-storming “Fidelio”; and a “Tristan und Isolde” that remains unsurpassed since its recording in 1953.

But just as Furtwängler was naïve to claim toward the end of the war that he was proof that a “completely unbroken nation” was still alive and well, that he had carried Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner through the conflict unscathed, so it would be naïve to think of those later interpretations as somehow separate from what had come before.

And dangers from Furtwängler’s legacy still linger in classical music today: the myth he perpetuated of the singular genius; the idea that Beethoven or Brahms are frictionlessly “universal” in their art and impact; the false ideal that music floats, perpetually unsullied, above politics. As for the man himself, it speaks to the lasting power of Furtwängler’s artistry that we still demand so much of him morally — more, for example, than of Herbert von Karajan, who joined the Nazi party, or Karl Böhm, who hailed Hitler from the podium.

Chris Walton, the historian, has suggested that, given all of his intellectual and aesthetic affinities with the Nazis, perhaps the question to ask is not, as it used to be, why he stayed in Germany. Rather, it might be why this man who was “all but ‘predestined’ to become a model Nazi,” as Walton writes, did not — not quite. In that, there remains a glimmer of light, for him and for us.