Furtwangler, Wilhelm

Furtwangler, Wilhelm
   conductor and composer; succeeded Arthur Nikisch as director of Berlin's Philharmonic Orchestra. Born in Berlin,* he was raised in the artistically charged atmosphere of his parents' Munich home. Instructed by three highly educated and cultivated teachers, he was composing at age seven. By seventeen he had written a dozen solid works, including a symphony, a seventeen-movement setting to Goethe's Walpurgis-nacht, and several quartets. Although the symphony was performed during the 1903-1904 season in Breslau, he was already contemplating conducting. His musing was prompted by interest in the art of interpretation, particularly where it concerned the music of Beethoven, and a desire to conduct his own music. But it was his father's sudden death in 1907 that finally pressured him to con-duct.
   Although Furtwangler composed for several more years, by 1914 he was irrevocably committed to conducting. After he held subordinate positions from Breslau to Strassburg, he became director of the Lübeck Opera in 1911. After four years in Lübeck and another five with the Mannheim Opera, he emerged as Germany's leading young conductor. In 1919 he began a long relationship with the Viennese theorist Heinrich Schenker; until the Austrian's death in 1935, Furtwangler routinely consulted with him on the music he was to conduct. In 1920 he succeeded Richard Strauss* as director of Berlin's Staatsoper; in 1922 he became permanent conductor of both the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra (he led the latter until 1928). Few contemporaries were his rival. Yehudi Menuhin, an ardent admirer, called him "an inspired mystic in the medieval German tradition... with the certainty and assurance of one who has seen visions and followed them" (Schonberg).
   Furtwangler's chief focus for the remainder of his career was the Berlin or-chestra. He took it on a series of European tours while at the same time con-ducting several orchestras outside of Germany. Three tours during 1925-1927 as guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic sparked a conflict with critics whose devotion to strict objectivity allowed no room for his individualistic in-terpretations of the German masters. Neville Cardus said of Furtwangler, "He did not regard the printed notes as a final statement but rather as so many symbols in an imaginative conception, ever changing and always to be felt and realized subjectively" (New Grove).
   Politically naïve, Furtwangler failed to take Hitler* seriously until he was Chancellor. He never approved of the Nazis; indeed, in November 1934 he temporarily resigned his positions when the Nazi Kulturgemeinde banned per-formances of the works of Hindemith.* But he believed it his duty to stay in Germany, which he did until he fled to Switzerland in January 1945—hours before his planned arrest. Friedelind Wagner, granddaughter of the composer, wrote in 1944 that Furtwaïngler's tragedy "was and is the fact that inside Ger-many he is branded and despised as an anti-Nazi, while beyond Germany's borders he is being condemned as a Nazi" (Schonberg). After a controversial period of denazification, he resumed conducting in 1947.
   REFERENCES:Benz and Graml, Biographisches Lexikon; NDB, vol. 5; New Grove, vol. 7; Schonberg, Great Conductors.

A Historical dictionary of Germany's Weimar Republic, 1918-1933. .

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