About this Recording
8.223645 - FURTWANGLER: Symphony in D Major / Symphony in B Minor

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954)
Symphony in D Major • Symphony in B Minor


Wilhelm Furtwängler’s exceptional musical gifts were soon apparent. As his mother reported, he had already, as a three-year-old, sung songs in tune, almost without a mistake and made melodies for himself. His parents encouraged his musical training from the beginning, providing piano lessons and later violin lessons for him. He started lessons in music theory in 1897 at the age of eleven with the Munich composer and composition teacher Anton Beer-Walbrunn, continuing later with the composer Joseph von Rheinberger and Max von Schillings.

Furtwängler’s earliest surviving composition comes from his seventh year. There were after this little piano pieces and songs, to which he soon added compositions for larger instrumental ensembles. In 1896 he wrote a sonata for violin and piano, a “little” sonata for cello and piano, a trio for violin, cello and piano and a string quartet. There followed a number of works for piano, solo pieces, or for piano duet or two pianos, a sonata for violin and piano, a string trio (1897), two more piano trios (1900 and 1902) and a fantasy for the same instruments, variations for two violins, viola and cello (1897) and more string quartets, of which only one, undated and in F-sharp minor, survives, and a piano quartet (1899).

The boy undertook orchestral composition with a more complex use of resources for the first time in 1898 with a setting of Goethe’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht for soprano, contralto and bass solo, chorus and orchestra. His first purely orchestral composition, here recorded, was his Overture in E-flat major, completed in December 1899. Soon afterwards he had the opportunity to try this out with the Munich Orchestral Society. Conducting it, as his tutor Walter Riezler recalled, at first caused him great trouble and for some time he was unable to come to an understanding with the orchestra.

The overture opens with a spirited theme played by the full orchestra, leading to a second theme announced by the cellos. This is taken up by the violins and then by the clarinets, which develop the material. Soon a third theme appears, marked lento espressivo, introduced by the cor anglais. This theme is particularly deeply felt, with its upward leap of an augmented fourth. The recapitulation that follows repeats all three themes, sometimes in varied form. A final coda, fading away, in the first theme emphasises once again the closed form of the overture. The different instrumentation of the individual sections produces variety of orchestral colour, at one time with the fuller sound of the orchestra, with the prominence of certain instrumental groups and at others with the solo parts for cor anglais. Furtwängler makes practical use of his knowledge of orchestral instruments and instrumentation newly acquired from his teacher Anton Beer-Walbrunn, choosing first a smaller orchestral complement, with a brass section of two horns and two trumpets, without trombones or tuba.

During his half-year stay in Florence in 1902 Furtwängler worked on some shorter piano pieces and a fugue, which he intended as the last movement of a sextet that has not survived, and on a symphony. He probably wrote here the beginning of his Symphony in D major, of which the first movement, an Allegro, is included in the present recording. As his father recalled, Furtwängler completed this symphony very quickly in spring 1903 at their holiday house Tanneck on the Tegernsee. At the beginning of November in the same year his new composition was given its first performance by Georg Dohrn, a cousin of his mother, in Breslau.

Furtwängler based this symphonic movement, for a full symphony orchestra, with a brass section of four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, on a sonata-form structure. It opens with several fanfare-like bars, marked Allegro, with a general pause. At the beginning of the main part of the movement there is a short slow introduction, moving from pianissimo with timpani, bassoons and lower strings in a crescendo to forte, leading to an Allegro in which the principal theme, framed within an octave, is stated by the full orchestra. The secondary theme is contrasted in dynamics and colour with the main theme. Here oboes, horns and bassoons introduce, pianissimo, a melody with a bright triadic motif. Before the end of the exposition there is a third theme that, in contrast to the foregoing with its preponderant gradually progressing legato, has a more cantabile character. The following development makes use of the first theme both in full and in a form reduced to an octave leap. From this fixed interval a new motif soon appears, imitated in turn by different instruments and instrumental groups. Furtwängler nevertheless takes not only the liberty of introducing a new theme into the development, as Beethoven had done, for example, in the first movement of the Eroica Symphony, but also inserts at the end a fugue in which the interval of an octave provides the framework for an energetic fugal subject. In the recapitulation all parts of the exposition are repeated.

In the following years Furtwängler worked on a second symphony, of which only one movement has survived in full, the here included Largo from a Symphony in B minor, the autograph of which is dated 1908. It is not certain from present sources whether this is the slow movement that Furtwängler had already in February 1906 conducted at a concert in Munich with the Kaim Orchestra (with Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, the first performance of which had been given only three years before in Vienna).

The formal structure of this movement is not so immediately intelligible as the earlier Allegro. At once at the beginning the principal theme is heard in a dramatic fortissimo: two descending steps of a second, broadening into a revolving motif and at the end a final trill from the whole orchestra. Then, again in a contrast of colour and dynamics, that is pianissimo and played by individual instruments, a short second theme is suggested that leads to a third theme. In what follows these two themes are treated. Perhaps here the development has already started or possibly it begins in w hat follows, with the somewhat expanded repetition of the principal theme. From the final long drawn-out diminuendo to a pianissimo (pppp), in which the third theme once more briefly appears, there develops a new cantabile theme that is first played by the horns in the background, pp sempre e espressivo, to be taken up in turn by other instruments. The climax of this treatment of the material is heard in a flute solo in which the theme undergoes a slight expansion in the upper register. Its further development through larger instrumental groups with increasingly loud dynamics, in which the theme takes on a new character with intensified rhythm, occurs finally in the recapitulation, where the principal theme is once more worked out. The dynamic range of this movement is in contrast to the Allegro of 1903, the instrumentation now expanded by the addition of a fifth and sixth horn and a third trumpet.

The next instrumental works of Furtwängler first appear after a long interval, occasioned by his activity as a conductor. There were two violin sonatas, one in D minor in 1935 and the second in D major in 1939, and a Quintet for two violins, viola, cello and piano in 1935, a Symphonic Concerto for piano and orchestra in B minor, first appearing in 1935 and in a second version in 1954, and three full Symphonies, No.1 in B minor in 1941, No.2 in E minor in 1945 and No.3 in C sharp minor in 1954. Furtwängler took the principal theme of the Largo of the early Symphony in B minor as the leading theme in the first movement, also a Largo, of his 1941 Symphony No.1.

The very free treatment of classical sonata form in the early Largo, in which the elements of development are not limited to the development section, but encroach on the exposition and recapitulation, is retained by Furtwängler in his later instrumental works. This corresponds to his later stated conviction that it is not the formal scheme but the fruitfulness of opposites that is the essence of a sonata. He meant the fruitful juxtaposition of contrasting elements, as, for example, the first and second themes in the classical sonata movement, which are as a rule of contrasting character. One of the principal requirements of “true symphonic music” is “the formation of organic development, of the living organic growth of melody, rhythm and harmony from what has gone before”. But what constitutes the living element of a “symphonic theme” (Furtwängler understands by that a1so a sonata theme) must be its quality, always to change, in contrast to the constant nature of a fugal subject. “The sonata theme can never appear twice, without being completely changed. The fugal theme helps the development of the piece, the sonata theme has from and in itself its own development.” (In that respect the treatment of the horn theme in the development of the Largo may be recalled, in which the transformation of the theme is particularly noticeable). And this constant “becoming and fading” of the theme constitutes the forward motion, the “striving for an aim” of the symphony that only can be created “through real laws of nature” that in music is the “law of tonality”. “Only in the observation of the profounder laws of tonality—laws that are exceptionally profound—can one succeed in achieving that complete relaxation of tension, the antithesis and prerequisite on a large scale that brings about overall symphonic tension. Without tonality symphonic music is unthinkable. All attempts by modern atonal or polytonal means (or by means of tonal ‘islands’) to write symphonies are condemned from the first to failure, since they are undertaken with unsuitable means. Real masters—Reger, Hindemith -have never tried to do this.” The early orchestral works here presented are clear evidence of where Furtwängler saw his principal task as a composer, in the further development of the tradition of symphonic music inherited from Beethoven and Brahms and within the bounds of tonality , because without this no symphony can have the necessary “natural evolution”. Furtwängler believed strongly in the continuance of tonality and the symphony—proved by the important place that it still occupies in modern concert life.

(Quotations are translated from Furtwängler, Wilhelm: Aufteichnungen 1924–1954, Wiesbaden: Brockhaus, 1980, entries for the years 1930, 1939 and 1946)

The orchestral works of Wilhelm Furtwängler on the present compact disc have not been published. The manuscript sources are in the Central Library, Zürich, as follows:
Ouvertüre in Es-Dur: Nachlass W. Furtwängler 16
Sinfonie in D-Dur, 1. Satz, Allegro: Nachlass W. Furtwängler 24a
Sinfonie in h-Moll, 1. Satz, Largo: Nachlass W. Furtwängler 25

Mireille Geering
English version by Keith Anderson

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