Remembering Wilhelm Furtwängler

Just after WWII Furtwängler came to London to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. I was playing in the double bass section.

Let me set the scene! Many had been killed on both sides in the War and many towns in England and Germany had been bombed heavily, so of course, there wasn’t much love lost between the two nations.
Furtwängler had been tried before a de-Nazification Tribunal and found to be not guilty. He had never joined the Nazi Party and only lived for his music.

True he was Hitler’s favourite conductor and he certainly was not anti-Semitic as some writers have suggested. Because he championed Paul Hindemith (who was Jewish) against the Nazi’s in the 1930’s he lost his job as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, but was re-instated a while later. When he came on to the platform to conduct us he looked very nervous, as though expecting us to boo him, but with no pre-arranged signal between us, the orchestra rose to a man and loudly applauded him.

His face cleared to one of joy, and he just said “Bitte, Meine Herren die Neunte Symphonie.” This was one of the most poignant moments of my whole musical life.

He was thin and lanky, his hair had thinned. He had very soulful eyes. As a conductor there were no fireworks, he just ambled on the platform, stood there awkwardly, with his belly thrust forward and conducted. His beat was not very clear, but somehow he had the ability to convey to the orchestra what he wanted, and got it, with amazing results.

Beethoven’s Ninth was a revelation as were the closing scenes from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. There was frenzied applause from both the audience and the orchestra.

I was to encounter him later in the 1950’s when I was playing with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Lucerne, Switzerland, International Festival. Beethoven’s Ninth was on the programme.

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