About this Recording
8.223546 - FURTWANGLER: Lieder / Te Deum / Religioser Hymnus
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Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954)
Songs and Choral Works


Already in 1889 Wilhelm Furtwängler’s mother Adelheid could report, in a letter to her mother, her three-year-old son’s musical leanings: “…just now Willi sat on his rocking-horse and sang, and actually it was almost faultless and pure in sound, ‘a dappled horse and a shiny rifle’. There is no question for us that he has an ear, and actually a good one, he sings often to himself words that he has made up himself to melodies he has invented and these are always tuneful and rounded off”. His first compositions, up to 1895, were for piano or for voice and piano; the earliest song preserved, Ein Stückchen von den Tieren (“A Little Piece about Animals”), he wrote in 1893, proudly inscribing it as “Opus 1”. After that he turned his attention also to other instruments, to the violin, in which he took lessons after the piano, and to the cello, which his younger brother Walther played, dedicating also a work to him. There followed two violin sonatas, in 1896 and 1899, a small cello sonata in 1896 and works for piano and string trio and for string quartet. Beside the songs to which devoted himself until 1900, he attempted also larger vocal forms. In 1898 there appeared a composition for soprano and contralto solo, chorus and piano, a setting of the poem Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen (“I wandered among the trees”), from Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder, and a setting of Goethe’s ballade Die erste Walpurgisnacht (“The First Walpurgisnight”) for soprano, contralto and bass soloists, two choruses and orchestra. The three choral compositions that followed, Schwindet, ihr dunklen Wölbungen (1902), Religiöser Hymnus (1903) and a Te Deum (1902/1904/1909), which are included on the present recording, make up Furtwängler’s last vocal works. After the long interval away from composition between 1910 and 1934, necessitated by his busy activities as a conductor, he occupied himself with instrumental compositions, a Piano Quintet (1935) and two major Violin Sonatas, one in D minor in 1935 and the second in D major in 1939. These conclude his chamber music, while a Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra (1937/1954) and three great symphonies, the First, in B minor, in 1941, the Second in E minor in 1945 and the Third in C-sharp minor in 1954, appear as evidence of the field with which he was specially familiar, as conductor of major symphony concerts.

That Furtwängler, even when he was very young, was concerned with the poems of Goethe is witnessed not only by two of the eleven songs here recorded, Erinnerung (1897) and Auf dem See (1900) and the two choruses from Faust, but also by a setting of Goethe’s ballade Der Totentanz (“The Dance of Death”), a lively instrumental piece for piano duet (1897).

Furtwängler’s songs show great sensibility towards the verse, conveyed through a natural declamation of the text and vocal melody. The through-composed form that provides the basis of all his songs favours a setting close to the text. He achieves this, moreover, in a convincing and sympathetic way by his use of contrasts of pitch in the vocal melody and by variety in the kind of accompaniment.

The poems and letters of Goethe, and in particular Faust, accompanied Furtwängler also on his journeys to Aegina with his father for archaeological excavations in 1901 and a year later to Florence with his private tutor Ludwig Curtius. There he revised his setting of the Chorus of Spirits, Schwindet ihr dunklen Wölbungen from Goethe’s tragedy, as he told his mother in a letter of 4th April 1902 from Florence: “I am at present still composing the chorus from Faust (Schwindet ihr dunklen Wölbungen droben) or rather I have started on it again. This is already the third time that I have started again. I will interpret it as far as possible in the music, and avoid the distant and ghostly which provides dramatic contrast generally in Goethe, bringing out the rich poetic vividness in thought in the music rather than the mood that is so often simplified. Mainly I have taken out already the eternal minor chords and my music is rather in a powerful major”.

After his return he orchestrated the work in the family country place of Tanneck on the Tegernsee. Georg Dohrn, a cousin of his mother, wanted to perform the work in Breslau, where he was Music Director, but as his father reported in his manuscript notes about the then sixteen-year-old composer, it came to nothing, because the singers found the work too difficult to perform and set too high. Willi, however, had used this high tessitura deliberately. The text of the chorus comes from the first part of the drama. In Faust’s study Mephistopheles, who has just made his appearance from the form of a black dog, offers as entertainment to the old scholar a chorus of spirits, partly devilish, partly divine. With their ethereal and mysterious singing they lull Faust to sleep. The “poetic vividness” that concerned Furtwängler in his setting was, on the one hand, realised through the continuing rhythmic formula in the whole chorus, through which the metrical regularity of the short verses that form a contrast with the longer spoken verses is supported. On the other hand also the many repetitions of the text and the short orchestral interludes bring the words into the foreground. In this way the richness of thought, that is the abundance of dream-pictures conjured up that have an effect on Faust’s senses, is ensured. The most important foundation of this composition is formed by the musical elements of speech, that is the rhythm and the various tone-colours of vowels and consonants in this resonant verse.

At the beginning of 1903 Furtwängler, in a letter to his fiancée Bertele Hildebrand, explained his plan to compose a “large orchestral work with chorus and tenor solo” on the text from the conclusion of the second part of Faust. The text is taken from the last scene, after the burial of Faust. Into the mountain ravines various holy fathers, blessed boys, the angel carry the immortal part of Faust and penitents, among them Gretchen, share in Faust’s transformation after his death and the release of his spirit from all material and earthly things. But only eternal love can purify the double nature of man from the last material and earthly things, and this is embodied in the feminine, the earthly Gretchen, who pleaded for her early love, and in the divine Mater gloriosa. Furtwängler set two sections of the part of the highest of the fathers, Doctor Marianus, a saint entirely devoted to the honour of Mary.

His indication of a “large orchestral work with chorus” shows already the important rôle of the orchestra in his Religiöser Hymnus, a choral composition with an extended introduction, in which Furtwängler inserts not only a tenor solo as the first vocal part after the introduction, but also a short soprano solo towards the end of the setting. The powerfully constructed instrumental opening emerges first at its conclusion as a prelude in which one of the motifs from the vocal part, the first choral section (Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinn), is stated expressively through the orchestra. In contrast to the first chorus the text is freer, treated without the restrictions of metre. Certain words and verses are elucidated by differentiated musical treatment. Furtwängler deals with the various choral petitions to Mary, Jungfrau, Mutter, Königin, with forceful motifs, prayers for grace for all gentle penitent souls to look up to the face of the Saviour and follow their heavenly destiny, and the wish that that better sense be ready to serve her, (Werde jeder bessre Sinn dir zum Dienst erbötig). The two solo parts provide, through their still freer rhythm, a particularly dramatic shape to certain words and also motivically independent parts.

Furtwängler’s last and, at the same time, most extensive vocal composition, the Te Deum, demanded the longest period of development of all his choral works. As his father and his tutor Curtius report, he had begun already in 1902 in Florence to sketch the work, under the powerful influence that the Michelangelo figures in the Medici Chapel had on him. He did further work on these in the following years, with the orchestration in 1906, again in Tanneck, bringing the composition to an end.

This time Georg Dorhn succeeded in putting on Furtwängler’s work. In November 1910 the first performance of the Te Deum took place in Breslau under Dorhn’s direction. With this important event in view Furtwängler revised the score, the autograph of which bears the date 1909. Further performances followed, in 1911 in Strasbourg under the composer’s direction, in 1914 in Essen under Hermann Abendroth and in 1915 in Leipzig under Karl Straube. It was not performed again until thirteen years after Furtwängler’s death, on 1st May 1967 in Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic Choir under Hans Chemin-Petit.

The Te Deum is marked by abundance of melodic invention. At the very beginning there is a strong and concise motif that carries through to the end of the composition, contrasted with all new motifs, appearing generally in pairs and in expressive melodic lines (Tibi omnes angeli / incessabili voce …, Dignare Domine / Miserere, In te Domine speravi. Soloists / Contralto solo). The re-appearance of the principal theme leads with an accelerando and a crescendo up to fortissimo or in a still greater climax through short fugato passages (Pleni sunt caeli et terra, and Et rege eos et extolle illos).

The vocal works of Wilhelm Furtwängler here recorded remain unpublished. Manuscript sources are in the Central Library, Zürich, and are listed as follows:

Lieder: Nachlass W. Furtwängler 2a
Schwindet, ihr dunklen Wölbungen: Nachlass W. Furtwängler 22a
Religiöser Hymnus: Nachlass W. Furtwängler 23a
Te Deum: Nachlass W. Furtwängler 26

Mireille Geering
English version by Keith Anderson

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