It’s Wilhelm Furtwängler-bashing season on the Internet. Around a week ago, Alex Ross nominated a disc of the German musician’s piano quintet as one of the worst recordings in history. Ross called it “an immensely earnest mishmash of Brahms, Franck, Bruckner, and Reger, full of unmemorable ideas developed at unrelenting length.” Pitting Furtwängler’s composing life against what most people love Furtwängler for (his performing), Ross offered up a clip of Furtwängler leading the Berlin Philharmonic in the Coriolan Overture — “in the interest of equal time.”
Wouldn’t it have been fairer to choose a few minutes of one of Furtwängler’s own pieces to balance out the supposedly awful piano quintet? Or was Wilhelm just that uninteresting as a composer? I’ll admit that until this month, whenever I heard Furtwängler’s name, I thought not of composing but rather about two other things: conducting and Nazi Germany.1 Much has been written about the German musician’s complex relationship with the Third Reich and his position as the regime’s favored orchestral leader. Though the debate about his politics rages on, Furtwängler’s status as one of the 20th century’s greatest conductors is firm and secure. But the maestro’s own music doesn’t get much respect.
It tends to be easy to beat up on composers who are actually more famous for their performing. It’s as if you can only be really good at one of the two activities, and once you choose conducting, you might as well not bother writing your own stuff.2 And there may be a few other factors working against our estimation of Furtwängler as a composer. For a guy with a shady political past, perhaps it’s easier to like him for the way he reproduces others’ music than for how he creates his own. Listening to Furtwängler’s own music might bring us uncomfortably close to a possible Nazi sympathizer. On the other hand, when we hear him only as a conductor, we’re kept at a safe distance, since we’re really just listening to Beethoven, Brahms, or Bruckner.
And Furtwängler’s music may be useless for music historians who want to demonstrate “progress” in music in the 20th century. As far as I know, he didn’t experiment with atonality, serialism, or electronics. If something sounds like it could have been written in the 19th century, then that’s already a big strike against talking about it as part of the mid-20th. In other words, it has to do something new or it’s not worth taking seriously.
So I felt a little rebellious when I decided to make his Symphony No. 2 (1944-5) one of our first 20th-century Unsung Symphonies. It could be his best-known work. Indeed, it has a flashy 2002 recording with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and I was able to find a score in Harvard’s music library. Someone out there thinks Furtwängler's music is worth hearing.
My own investigation of this hour-and-a-half long, four-movement behemoth for large orchestra suggests that Furtwängler could compose. What held this piece together for me was one simple tension, but one that went a long way — a tension between ascending and descending scalar motion. By the fifth measure, Furtwängler effectively introduces this tension, which drives the entire work. He begins with a mysterious, disjointed bassoon figure (joined by clarinets) against which the violins introduce the scale as the main musical tissue:
For one play on that idea, in a transitional section a bit later, note how Furtwängler gradually tears apart a smooth, five-note stepwise ascent. It starts in the oboe, then becomes an arpeggio in the flutes, and, finally, a fragmented, plucked passage in the violin:
Furtwängler does the reverse in the third movement, where a forceful drop in thirds in the strings is tightened into a stepwise descent in the clarinet, and then turns into a similar reach for the heavens in the violin. The horns and flutes also join in the fun. And because Furtwängler has conditioned us so well to listen for scales, the upward leap at the end of the ascending figure comes as a nice surprise:
As the fourth movement begins, bassoons firmly announce our central descent/ascent tension over a pedal in the double bass and cello, as if to say, in a primal way, that despite the jagged melody they played at the beginning the first movement, these instruments have finally come into line. When the trumpet completes its ascending line, the sonority it lands on is downright scary:
For my final example of Furtwängler’s play on the basic descending scale, I’d like to offer up some evidence that Furtwängler was more of a Mahlerian than he is sometimes given credit for. First, Furtwängler, midway through the fourth movement:
Compare to Mahler's Second Symphony, First Movement (Ricardo Chailly, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra):
Furtwängler's Second Symphony is chock full of this kind of manipulation of basic scalar motion. It’s certainly not the only thing going on here, but Furtwängler seems to have found a key to keeping listeners’ attention: hammer home something very simple, like an ascending or descending set of notes, and manipulate it in different ways. So next time you want to relax and listen to Bruckner's Seventh, check this one out instead.
— Matthew Mugmon
1. OK, sometimes I also think of the Lawn Wranglers.
2. See this Norman Lebrecht article, where Gustav Mahler, Pierre Boulez, and Leonard Bernstein are seen as the only famous conductors who could also compose. Even if that's true, I don't know that composing and conducting need to be pitted against each other like that. They seem like two tough activities that require a lot of expertise. It's also surprising when a great composer also turns out to be a superstar insurance agent or something.