Unfair to Furtwängler

Nicholas Spice

  • Trial of Strength: Furtwängler and the Third Reich by Fred Prieberg, translated by Christopher Dolan
    Quartet, 394 pp, £30.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 7043 2790 2
  • Menuhin: A Family Portrait by Tony Palmer
    Faber, 207 pp, £15.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 571 16582 6

The special venom we reserve for collaborators has something defensive about it, as though we reviled them so as to separate ourselves from them, warding off the fear that in their situation we might have acted as they did. Trial of Strength is written in the conviction that those who have never known the dilemmas of the subject in an occupied state, are in no position to judge those who have. He that is sure he is free from sin, Prieberg seems to say, let him cast the first stone.

Plenty of stones have been cast in the direction of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. The attacks began in 1933, soon after Hitler took power, and continued until well after Furtwängler’s death in 1954. As late as 1983, the New York Times published a letter making out that Furtwängler had ‘yielded to Hitler’s anti-semitic demands and fired the Jewish members of his orchestra’. Prieberg’s meticulous research quickly disposes of this claim, along with others of that ilk, such as that Furtwängler was a member of the Nazi Party and that he was ‘Hitler’s friend’.

The issue at the heart of this book, however, is not defined by the lies that have been told about Furtwängler, but by the accusations against him which are based in the truth. These differ widely in tone and rhetoric, but in substance they agree. Whether formulated mildly (‘he lent his name to a shameful situation’) or hysterically (‘while synagogues went up in flames around him he did not throw his baton into those flames ... the idol of Nazi arsonists and murderers’) the charge is the same. As Bruno Walter put it in a letter to Furtwängler in 1949: ‘The presence and activity of a musician of your standing in Germany at that time lent those terrible criminals cultural and moral credibility, or at least helped them considerably in its acquisition.’

Three of the elements in Walter’s charge against Furtwängler are beyond dispute: the criminality of the Nazis, the fact that Furtwängler remained in Germany throughout Nazi rule, and the immense status he enjoyed inside and outside Germany during this period. As to the last of these, it would not be unreasonable to claim that Furtwängler was the greatest of all 20th century conductors, not to say – given the short history of conducting before Furtwängler came along – one of the half dozen or so greatest conductors that have ever lived. His finest recorded performances – many from the Nazi period – have a stunning power: inner drive and structural coherence combined in a way that has rarely been matched, and probably by no one since his death. In 1933 Furtwängler was approaching his artistic prime, and with Strauss in his seventies and Karajan just twenty-five, his position as Germany’s leading performing musician was unchallenged.

The story of Furtwängler’s fortunes after 1933 is one of intricate twists and turns, and Prieberg tells it with unflagging attention, a virtue which it is hard for the reader to emulate, since Prieberg is a clumsy writer and his material is dense. Still, this is a book well worth sticking with, whether or not you are interested in Furtwängler. Its focus on a single story gives it real historical depth: after ploughing through the documents Prieberg presents – extracts from newspaper articles, letters, notebooks, official Nazi Party memoranda, diaries – we emerge with the atmosphere of the time clinging about us, and in our minds a vivid picture of the hell through which Furtwängler felt compelled to journey.

To begin with, things went well for Furtwängler. In July 1933, with ten years as artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra behind him, he was appointed by Goering to the Prussian Staatsrat, an advisory body which Goering had created to co-opt potential opponents. In November, he was made vice-president (to Richard Strauss’s president) of the newly created Reichsmusikkammer (Goebbels’s baby), to which henceforth all musicians wishing to work professionally had to belong. In January 1934, he signed a contract as director of the Berlin State Opera. But by the end of the year he had lost all his important political and musical positions. The proximate cause of this reverse was Furtwängler’s staunch defence of Hindemith, who was loathed by Hitler and considered politically intolerable by the Nazi establishment. But this was only the last in a series of acts which the authorities regarded as provocative – notably Furtwängler’s repeated attempts to protect his Jewish colleagues. At this point, Furtwängler thought of emigrating, but his passport was withdrawn, and in any case events rapidly began to run in his favour again. For a start, the public expressed its disapproval of his departure by voting with its feet. The Berlin Philharmonic and the State Opera were both in financial difficulties, so that when subscribers started to return their tickets in droves, the authorities had to think again (‘No F- concerts = empty halls’, read one official memorandum). Diplomatic attempts were made to woo the conductor back – on certain conditions – and these were met half-way by Furtwängler’s own lobbying. In February 1935 it was announced that an agreement had been reached between Furtwängler and Goebbels. From here it was a short way back to the rostrum.

Furtwängler’s return was a spectacular success. His first concert in Berlin in April 1935 was sold out and the public showered him with flowers. The programme was repeated on 3 May in front of Hitler, Goering and Goebbels. On 10 May it was announced that Furtwängler would be the chief conductor at Bayreuth in 1936. Hitler began to turn up at his concerts more often, and engaged him to conduct Die Meistersinger at the opening of the Nazi Party Congress. By April 1937, Furtwängler had a new contract at the State Opera and in August he was proposed by Goebbels for the new German Prize for Arts and Sciences. By the end of that year, however, he was once again at odds with his bosses, this time with Goering over the artistic direction of the state opera. And so it went on until the end of the war: sometimes in favour, sometimes out, depending on whether his enemies (notably Rosenberg and, later, Himmler) or his ‘friends’ (chiefly Goebbels) had the upper hand. Only at the very end of the war, as terminal paranoia began to grip the Nazi junta, was Furtwängler in immediate and serious danger. But by the time the Gestapo were ready to act, he was over the border in Switzerland and out of reach.

Prieberg’s purpose in telling this story is to clear Furtwängler’s name, and in pursuit of it he throws up some interesting material. His tracking of the way the young Karajan allowed himself to be used by the anti-Furtwängler camp does little for the reputation of that post-war hero of German music-making, and his account of the relationship between Goebbels and Furtwängler marks it out as surely one of the most curious in the history of art and politics (Prieburg compares them to Castor and Pollux). It’s also fascinating to see how important music was to the Nazi regime, and how the various political factions under Hitler used musicians to score points off one another. But if Furtwängler survived because Hitler noted ‘inaccurate entries’ in one of Karajan’s performances, and because Goebbels believed, as he wrote in his diary, that ‘as an artistic figure Karajan does not bear the least comparison with Furtwängler,’ then this is the undoing of any attempt to exonerate him completely. Prieberg never quite concedes this, although by the end of the book his efforts to find secure moral ground for his hero are showing the strain.

One of his main defences of Furtwängler, and one which Furtwängler himself used, is that music and politics have nothing to do with one another. In deploying this, Prieberg fails to make the elementary distinction between the politics of musical form – which is indeed an open and complex question – and the politics of musical institutions, which is a matter of common sense. You don’t have to subscribe to a Marxist theory of sonata form to recognise that a symphony orchestra and an opera house have potential political significance. When the orchestra and opera in question are the prestige musical institutions of the state, and the state is one that places great importance on music as an expression of national greatness, then it’s daft to deny the political significance of the performances they give. At the same time, it simply won’t do to claim that in staying in Germany Furtwängler was no different from the other ‘seventy or eighty million Germans’ who also stayed. Furtwängler was a leading public figure, recognised at home and abroad as the German conductor of the time, and on those grounds of great importance to Nazi cultural policy. Goebbels was surely right to see that to keep Furtwängler as a musical figure-head it was worth putting up with his maverick behaviour, especially since the performances he delivered – above all, of German music – had a potency so easily harnessed to the purposes of propaganda (Goebbels was quick to get Furtwängler on the radio).

Prieberg makes out that it was Furtwängler who was manipulating the authorities and not vice versa, that by making judicious concessions and playing up to the vanity of his bosses, while setting his own rules as to what he would and would not do for them, Furtwängler was able to thwart the worst effects of Nazi cultural vandalism without compromising himself. This appears indeed to have been part of Furtwängler’s strategy, and it achieved some successes: postponing the departure of the Jews from his orchestras, softening the force of official displeasure with composers like Hindemith and Schoenberg as well as many lesser-known colleagues, securing funding for the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras. But in retrospect it is clear that Goebbels got Furtwängler cheaply. The mystery is why Furtwängler couldn’t see this at the time (and enough people tried to tell him).

Prieberg’s answer, and it is his most convincing, if humblest, defence of the conductor, is that, given Furtwängler’s education and background and the sort of chap he was, he was bound to act as he did. Upbringing and temperament combined to make him a deeply conservative man, who saw it as his God-given mission in life to preserve a musical tradition which he believed to be the finest expression of Germany as a spiritual ideal. To such a man cultural developments during the Weimar Republic were anathema. The so-called Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) in musical composition and performance appalled him, because of the value it placed on irony, detachment, the head in preference to the heart. The fact that the Nazis also deplored these things seems initially to have deceived Furtwängler. When he saw that the new Germany that Hitler had awakened was in fact an ugly threat to the old Germany he cherished, he set to work in the musical sphere to try and protect it from destruction. The courage he showed in his 12-year battle for his quixotic ideals is undeniable. But it was also undeniably blind. His fearlessness in confronting Hitler and his gang is breathtaking to read about (he simply told them what he thought) but it makes one wonder whether he fully understood who he was dealing with. No more, it would appear, than he understood why, after it was all over, his heroic and solitary efforts should have been reviled on all sides as acts of moral cowardice.

In the light of Prieberg’s book it’s now possible to be fair to Furtwängler. In 1945, in an atmosphere clogged with anti-German propaganda and heavy with the first terrible revelations about the true extent of the Holocaust, being fair to suspected Nazi collaborators can’t have been very easy. So it says much for the personality of Yehudi Menuhin that he – arguably the most famous Jewish musician in the world at that time – should have been one of the very first prominent performers demonstratively to support the ostracised conductor. He travelled to Berlin to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic, he boycotted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when they boycotted Furtwängler, he made recordings and gave concerts with the conductor. This required courage as well as level-headed compassion, and Menuhin suffered as a result. He was called a traitor. His concerts were boycotted and heckled. In Israel his life was threatened and he had to give his first concert under armed guard.

This is only one of numerous examples given by Tony Palmer of Menuhin’s willingness throughout his life to put himself out, and, where necessary, on the line, for people and matters of principle. He comes out of this book well, much better in fact than he did out of the television documentary – shown earlier this year on Channel 4 – which was based on the same material. It’s particularly striking how the dialogues between Menuhin and his wife, Diana, are redeemed by the written word. The tone of voice and the body language are missing, and this allows us to concentrate on what is being said. But in every respect the book is better than the film, achieving an admirable balance and tact, where the film was clumsy and obtrusive.

Palmer sees Menuhin’s life as dividing into two, with the pivot somewhere around the end of the war, when Menuhin, approaching thirty, experienced a personal and artistic collapse (‘he seemed to have fallen from a great height and smashed to pieces,’ says Diana). His first marriage had come apart in sordid circumstances, the war had knocked the stuffing out of his well-fed childhood illusions about life, his playing was no longer what it was. To appreciate Menuhin’s private achievement in refashioning a life for himself after this, one has to try and imagine what it must have been like to feel the loss, the slipping away, of that artistic power which had made him into a musical god.

In those early post-war years Menuhin was a magician whose magic was draining out of him, a sort of busted shaman. The wonderful boy had turned into a confused and uncertain man. And how wonderful he had been. The recordings he made in his teens and twenties are living evidence of the miracle of his musical gift. There was something uncanny about it – not the technique, but the understanding and the humanity of it, nowhere more mysteriously present than in his recording with the 75-year-old Elgar of his Violin Concerto, so much the work of a sad and lonely adult, yet never again so touchingly realised as by the 16 year-old boy. In his TV film Palmer kept interpolating snippets of these early recordings into his sellotape and scissors collage: tantalising enough to drive one to distraction, but still enough to transfix one, even over a few bars, with the beauty of the playing. ‘I didn’t expect that a work could be played this beautifully until long after the composer was dead,’ was Bartok’s response alter Menuhin had played him his First Violin Sonata. ‘His playing is a beatitude,’ said Furtwängler. And then it went. ‘Maturity’, says Menuhin, ‘robbed me of intuition.’ But instead of allowing himself to lapse into bitter obscurity he set about making himself a new musical persona, which has served him well for more than forty years.

After the war Menuhin did not just hurry to play in Berlin: he played in Belsen (accompanied by Benjamin Britten) only a week after it had been liberated (they gave over thirty concerts in and around the camp). ‘Nothing could have prepared us, psychologically or visually, for what we found,’ Menuhin recalls, and the experience scarred him for life. So again, the friendship with Furtwängler, entered on by Menuhin soon after his visit to Belsen, seems extraordinarily magnanimous, almost visionary. And it is moving to think of these two musical geniuses, one a Jew, one a German, arriving from such different points to meet over the ruins of the culture which had produced the music they lived by.

Palmer and Prieberg speak of their subjects in very similar language. ‘He had great difficulty coming to terms with a reality which was so at odds with his carefully nurtured beliefs’ (Prieberg). ‘The tragedy of Yehudi’s life has been the extent to which he has been unable to reconcile myth with reality’ (Palmer). Both Menuhin and Furtwängler had visions while remaining blind to the real world and their effect upon it. About them both there is something of what Keats called the ‘egotistical sublime’. But if, like many musicians, they have been prone too easily to talk of soul and truth, love and spirit, their music at its greatest has had the power to make us feel we understand the meaning of these things. And who can do this now?