Wilhem Furtwängler, conductor

Not long after WWll I was playing in the London Philharmonic Orchestra and we were told that Wilhelm Furtwängler was coming over from Germany to conduct us.

Let me set the scene: Both Britain and Germany had suffered dreadfully in the war, and to say that there was no love lost between them at that time would be putting it mildly.

Furtwängler had been tried in a de-Nazification court just after the war and was acquitted.  This was only fair, because he was never a member of the Nazi Party, and although he was Hitler’s favourite conductor and conducted many times at Bayreuth, which, during the war had been regarded as a hotbed of Wagnerian anti-Semitism, in fact he put his job on the line in 1934 when he championed Paul Hindemith, who was Jewish, against Goebbels and other Nazis.

He was obliged to resign his conductorship of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra  but was later re-instated.  During the war the Berlin Philharmonic was playing at a factory and many of them were killed in an air raid.

At his first rehearsal with us he ambled onto the stage, mounted the podium and looked around nervously as if he expected us to boo him, but to a man, with no pre-arranged signal, the whole orchestra stood and applauded him.  His face changed into a warm smile and then he said “Bitte, Meine Herren, die Neunte Symphonie von Beethoven”. (Please gentlemen, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony). That was one of the most poignant moments in my long career.

In appearance he was fairly tall and lank and was stooped.  He was balding with a fringe of white hair.

On the podium he looked awkward. and stuck his belly out when he leaned back when conducting.  One couldn’t say that he had a clear beat, although he used a fairly long baton, but he was certainly able to convey clearly to us what he wanted.

Beethoven’s Ninth was a revelation. The orchestra, as a sign of great respect stood for him when he came on stage- a rare honour in those days.

He husbanded his energy until the climax in the last movement with astonishing results.  The air seemed to be electrified, and the audience gave him deafening applause, well deserved.

The next concert included the closing scenes from Wagner’s opera “Götterdämmerung”.  It was wonderful, and I thought at the time, novice though I was, that this was the true Wagner.

I came across him again when I was in the Philharmonia Orchestra. It was at the Lucerne, Switzerland, International Festival where he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

I was reminded of the occasion many years later when I was principal bass of the Vancouver Symphony in Canada.  I received a nice cheque for a televised repeat of his Lucerne concert.


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This was a wonderful and evocative portrait of Furtwängler. It was amazing to read the impressions of someone who was actually “there.” I would like to contact Mr. Meyer, if possible. I am currently completing a documentary film about Furtwängler. Although it’s – probably – too late to interview Mr. Meyer for my film, I’d like to thank him for what he’s written and to ask him when he performed with Furtwängler in Lucerne; that concert may be on CD.

  2. This whole blog of reminiscences is a wonderful gift to music-lovers. I would like to point out, though, that Hindemith was not Jewish – his wife Gertrud was. Furtwängler did in fact help Jewish members of his orchestra when their livelihood and lives were threatened.

  3. […] here to read a previous post on Furtwängler that you might care to peruse. Published […]

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