About this Recording
8.223295 - FURTWANGLER: Symphony No. 1

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954)
Symphony No. 1 in B Minor


As a composer Wilhelm Furtwängler was only too well aware of the probable prejudices he would encounter. The “world”, he wrote in his Notebooks, would not take “seriously” the compositions of one known for 35 years as a conductor. He adds his own view of himself as, from the outset of his career, a conducting composer rather than a composing conductor. Another problem arose from criticism that accused him of rejecting wholesale contemporary music, a charge he indignantly rejects, while insisting that the future lay with tonality and consistent atonality, rather than with the eclectic individualism that he certainly found unsatisfactory.

Wilhelm Furtwängler was born in 1886 in Berlin, the son of the archaeologist Adolf Furtwängler and his wife, the painter Adelheid Wendt. The family later moved to Munich, where his father became a professor in 1894, and there he was educated privately under the tutelage of the archaeologist Ludwig Curtius and the sculptor Adolf Hildebrand. His early musical education was with the art historian and musicologist Walter Riezler, continued with Joseph Rheinberger and Max von Schillings.

As an adolescent Furtwängler wrote a great deal of music. By the age of twelve he had completed a choral setting of Die erste Walpurgisnacht from Goethe’s Faust in addition to other compositions of various degrees of complexity. The failure of his Symphony in D, performed in Breslau in the winter of 1903, may have deflected him from a career as a composer and turned his practical attention towards conducting, whatever his private creative ambitions. His early experience as a conductor took him from Breslau to Zurich and to the opera-houses of Munich and Strasbourg, before his appointment to Lubeck, where he remained for four years from 1911 to 1915. There followed a period of five years at the Opera in Mannheim and after the war engagements in Vienna and a chance to study with the influential theorist Heinrich Schenker.

The death of Nikisch in 1922 brought Furtwängler to the position that he was to retain for the rest of his life as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, coupled, for some six years, with direction of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and a continuing association with the Vienna Philharmonic. A brief association with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra from 1925 earned him the respect of musicians and audiences, but the enmity of influential critics, who compared him unfavourably with Toscanini and the latter’s allegedly objective approach to interpretation.

As a conductor Furtwängler had his own idiosyncrasies. He approached his task with the imagination and creative power of a composer, so that some critics castigated his magisterial performances as a distortion of the original composer’s intentions. He himself regarded a slavish adherence to the text as a sign of artistic insecurity, analysing the problem as one of excessive reaction to the subjective and arbitrary individualism of the previous generation of interpreters.

During the years of National Socialism in Germany, Furtwängler occupied a position of some outward ambiguity. While firmly opposed to the new regime, he decided that he should remain in Germany, rather than seek exile, as so many of his colleagues did. The condemnation of Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler in 1934 led him to resign his official positions at the Berlin State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic and in the Reichsmusikkammer, in what threatened to be a cause célèbre particularly damaging to the National Socialist Party, although he was later induced to reach a compromise. Furtwängler himself deeply resented the intrusion of politics into artistic matters. His international reputation at first ensured him a measure of personal safety and he was able to exert some influence in favour of musicians of Jewish extraction, persecuted by the regime. This did not save him, however, from hostility abroad after the war. In January 1945 he escaped imminent arrest in Germany by taking refuge in Switzerland. On his return he was detained by the occupying powers in Innsbruck, before being exonerated in December 1946. Nevertheless ill-informed prejudice against him remained in certain quarters, although this was generally overcome in Europe by the time of his death in 1954.

The period of National Socialist rule in Germany and the restrictions placed upon him by the government allowed Furtwängler to devote more time to composition. In 1938 he started work on what was to be his First Symphony, a successor to the earlier unnumbered Symphony in D of 1903. The work was completed in 1941, to be followed by the Second Symphony in 1945 and the Third during the last seven years of his life. The Symphony No. 1 in B minor makes initial use of a Largo, written in 1908, material on which the slow introduction to the first movement is based. The work is in the tradition of the great German symphonists and essentially and inevitably tonal. Without tonality Furtwängler regarded the symphony as an impossibility, and atonality he saw as a musical aberration. His musical language, firmly rooted in the past, is used to build a massive edifice, with its inevitable internal logic, creating the necessary world-in-itself that he saw as its function. The four movements are closely related and show a marked affinity with Bruckner, a composer he greatly admired, as they unfold.

Keith Anderson

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