Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Alchemist Who Turned The Metaphysical Into Music

Wilhelm Furtwängler’s name was never far from the headlines during his lifetime and in spite of 2019 being the 65th anniversary of his death, the orchestral maestro and composer is in many ways more relevant to music today than he was during his own lifetime. The reason that Furtwängler’s relevance and majesty is even more magnified in the 21st century than it was in the 20th, is due to the fact that at the time of his death, it was conventional wisdom to say that while there will never be another Furtwängler, it was still possible that there might be someone like him. Alas, orchestra music making has changed so much (for the worse) that it is now safe to say that there will never be another even remotely like Furtwängler.

Furtwängler approached conducting in such a way that sought to take music beyond questions of the spiritual versus the sensual and likewise above the fray of arguments about whether orchestral European music should be approached from a visceral or scholarly perspective.  A performance by Furtwängler was something that sounded like music as noumena – the thing in itself, the Platonic form from which everything similar is a mere attempt at deriving a somewhat accurate representation. In a world of shadows on a cave wall, Furtwängler was the innocent yet profound hand creating shades of life in front of the sun.

As an active listener to music and a former musician one’s self, one cannot resist the temptation when listening to just about any performance, to think of how one might make various changes in order to make the performance in question ‘one’s own’. This is true even of musical performances that delight, move and inspire. Yet with Furtwängler, one has never had this feeling. It is as though in his self-described subjective relationship with music’s spirituality, Furtwängler uncovered something utterly perfect by simply being himself and doing to the music in an aural sense, what the written score was doing to him. This was the root of Furtwängler’s philosophy: allowing intangible metaphysics to control the man’s mind so that its form can be shaped by the man’s naked emotional honesty.

In this sense, just as the human mind is capable of both rational thought and irrational reflexes, by approaching music as a subjective and unique moment in time, Furtwängler unearthed great metaphysical truths, much as sculptor is able to take a perfectly formed stone and mould it into something that brings man’s brilliance into a state of harmony with the natural environment that created the stone in the first place.

Furtwängler came from a school of European conducting that rose to prominence in the mid 19th century. This was the era when the orchestra that had moved from the private chamber into the public hall, was subsequently in the midst of moving to the thousand seat+ concert halls of the late modern era. As such, the role of the conductor became even more important because he now had to contend with not only ever more technically demanding music but with ever larger bands of musicians and halls that took ever more effort to tame in an acoustic sense.

By the last half of the 19th century, the exacting Mendelssohnian approach gave way to the robust, romantic, intuitive and sublime style of conducting passionately argued for and promulgated by Richard Wagner. At the turn of the 20th century, Arthur Nikisch was the world’s foremost conductor and when he died in 1922, it was fitting that the directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic was handed to his most favoured protege –  Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Far from an unsung hero in his day, let alone someone whose star fades shortly after his earthly demise, Furtwängler was a star that has burnt constantly in both life and death. Unlike Nikisch whose recorded legacy is incredibly sparse to put it mildly, Furtwängler came of age in an era where recorded sound and radio performances were becoming ever more prominent in European orchestral music. While Furtwängler died just before modern stereophonic sound became a household commodity in the first world, his recordings nevertheless represent the finest that technology had to offer in the first half of the 20th century.

As such, Furtwängler’s recordings of the great European masterworks are all preserved for future generations to hear and in every instance, the musicality is simply superior to that which subsequent generations could produce – this in spite of the lower fidelity that Furtwängler has to contend with.

Unlike his successor Herbert von Karajan who rapidly brought music making into the 20th century and even readied it for the 21st, Furtwängler remained a man of the 19th century through most of his life, insofar as his mission was neither technical perfection, musical politics, nor academic anal retention disguised as sub-par musicianship. Instead, Furtwängler strove for profundity and in so doing, he produced music that is beyond what might be casually described as beautiful. Furtwängler’s music making was something far more celestial than the word beauty could ever hope to connote. He was the alchemist who transformed manifold metaphysics into the most moving sounds that one could ever hope to hear.

This year, The Berlin Philharmonic has released an SACD boxed set of every surviving recording from Furtwängler’s numerous wartime radio broadcasts with the Philharmonic. Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Radio Recordings 1939–1945was made from the original magnetic tapes (then a revolutionary technology) used by German radio engineers to preserve the performances. After 1945, the tapes were taken to the USSR and locked in storage, but since the 1990s, they have found their way back to Germany where sound engineers using a specially constructed tape machine, have transferred the records to 24/96 quality PCM digital audio.

Although Furtwängler made many other recordings with other orchestras (the Vienna Philharmonic for example) and with Berlin both before 1939 and after 1945, this new boxed set captures a man who in spite of war, was able to make music as he always had done – for the sake of the music itself.

Furtwängler was certainly not a man built for the blood soaked 20th century. The comparatively placid late 19th century of central Europe was far better suited to Furtwängler’s ethereal approach to art. And yet it is because he came of age in the first half of the 20th century, that the world is able to relive his performances and thanks to digital archiving technologies, will be able to do so for centuries to come.

When in several hundred years time, someone asks what European orchestral music sounded like at its zenith, one need only play them a recording of  Wilhelm Furtwängler’.

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