Book Review: Furtwängler’s Writings–The Intellectual Biography of a Second-Rater

Roger Allen. Wilhelm Furtwängler: Art and the Politics of the Unpolitical. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2018 (286pp).

Just how smart was Wilhelm Furtwängler? That he was musically gifted there can be no question, but there is a significant difference between being talented and being intelligent. Similarly, one can be very highly educated—as a function of wealth, social class, environment and opportunity—without having any special scholarly aptitude. These thoughts come to mind immediately after reading Roger Allen’s new intellectual biography of the great German conductor. For all its author’s admirably systematic presentation of his subject’s writings, as well as his refreshing willingness to question and criticize where appropriate, there remains at the heart of this study an unresolved conflict between what Allen promises, and what Furtwängler himself actually delivers. The result, therefore, is both disappointing in its conclusions and methodologically confused.

Consider, for example, Allen’s treatment of Furtwängler the symphonist in his eighth chapter. Allen wishes to address “the significance and possible ideological implications of [Furtwängler’s] return to active composition in the late 1930s when he was at the height of his prestige as a conductor (p. 187).” The suggestion here is that the works he ultimately more or less completed, the three late symphonies in particular, are in fact significant, and do indeed possess “ideological implications,” a theory underscored by including Furtwängler among “a significant group of composer/conductors that emerged in the aftermath of Wagner (p. 187).” These include, according to Allen, Hans von Bülow, Gustav Mahler, Felix Weingartner, Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner, Alexander von Zemlinsky and Oskar Fried.

The list is deceptive, however. Mahler, Strauss, Pfitzner, and Zemlinsky are all properly regarded today as composers first and conductors second. Furtwängler, of course, is not viewed as being in their league at all, and wasn’t in his own day. Even Mahler, whose works often received a very rocky initial reception, was acknowledged as a noteworthy composer during his active career. Great conductors who were also major composers belong to an exceedingly rare breed; in our time we might mention Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez as the most iconic examples.

This being the case, a more accurate list for contextual purposes could retain Weingartner and Fried[1], adding Furtwängler’s contemporaries such as Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Paul Kletzki, Jean Martinon, Paul Paray, Victor de Sabata, Igor Markevitch, Hamilton Harty, Serge Koussevitzky, and George Szell, all of whom at some point staked their careers as composers, and all of whom wrote works that were subsequently performed (and recorded either by themselves or others). Some ultimately gave up composition and some did not, but all of them, Furtwängler included, were for various reasons deemed relative failures as composers. To assign him to a “significant group” as a composer/conductor, as Allen does, implying that this was a special, specifically German, post-Wagnerian phenomenon simply isn’t true to the historical facts.

So after inflating Furtwängler’s alleged uniqueness by placing him in an artificial musico-historical context, Allen confusingly proceeds to disparage his original music, mainly in order to assert that, “The lasting value of these symphonies is therefore not so much as symphonic utterances in their own right, but as guides to the creative musical energies that made Furtwängler’s performances of the Austro-German repertory so compelling (p. 202).” Huh? What does that mean? There is no demonstrable mechanism by which Furtwängler’s boring, bloated and prolix symphonies (assuming that is how you feel about them[2]) cast new light on his interpretations of the great masters and thereby acquire a “lasting value” that they otherwise would not have. If I were to summarize Allen’s proposal in simple terms, and say that because Furtwängler wrote three dreary symphonies we can now learn more about what made his Beethoven conducting so wonderful, you would rightly find this statement nonsensical. I’m not even sure that on reflection Allen would disagree, since he—again confusingly–characterizes the symphonies in his preface quite positively as “significant cultural statements with a good deal to tell (p. xvii).”

Allen’s terminological imprecision doesn’t help him here, or in many other places, as we shall see. Used without explanation or qualification, the word “significant” can mean almost anything. A “significant cultural statement with a good deal to tell” begs a question that Allen does not even attempt to answer. Equally disconcerting is his use of the word “tendentious” literally every few pages, mostly redundantly, often meaninglessly–almost like a sort of nervous verbal tick. God invented copy editors to deal with just this sort of situation.

Matters become even more suspect when Allen awkwardly paraphrases fellow scholar Chris Walton to the effect that, “Furtwängler’s bursts of intense compositional activity coincided with periods when his conducting activity was constrained either by circumstance or design (p. xvi).” Allen here refers to Walton’s excellent essay on Furtwängler’s rededication to composition, “Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Return of the Muse,” contained in the provocative collection Lies and Epiphanies: Composers and Their Inspiration from Wagner to Berg (Rochester, 2014, pp. 94-109). There’s only one problem: Walton asserts no such thing. To compose during his time off may have been Furtwängler’s desire, as Walton relates, but he then proceeds to debunk the notion that the conductor actually worked that way. In fact, Walton shows that, “Furtwängler had always had time to compose; he just had not been able to finish anything (Walton, p. 97).”

Indeed, Walton proves that Furtwängler’s most sustained mature bout of compositional activity in fact occurred after his return to a typically busy conducting schedule in 1935. Having been “rehabilitated” by the Nazi regime in the wake of the Hindemith controversy, and with the free expression of criticism effectively muzzled by government decree, Walton argues that Furtwängler only then felt secure enough to present his music to the public. Because his early experiences as a composer at the turn of the twentieth century had been uniformly, embarrassingly, and soul-crushingly disastrous, he needed an environment where his reactionary works would most likely enjoy a positive reception. So if we accept at face value his desire to be taken seriously as a composer, then the relative fecundity of Furtwängler’s output after 1935 sheds revealing new light on his decision to remain in Germany during the War, as well as his rationale for accommodating the Nazis.

Allen unfortunately fails to address any of these intriguing possibilities, to the detriment of his analysis. The mere fact that Furtwängler returned to composition when he did is in truth far more important than Allen’s subjective evaluation of his music’s quality. It is particularly puzzling to see Allen employ this approach in what purports to be an intellectual biography.

The defects just identified in Allen’s eighth chapter permeate and weaken his argument more generally throughout the book, which is otherwise organized as a straightforward chronological review of Furtwängler’s writings, interspersed with brief vignettes describing purported major influences on his system of thought. Perhaps the most serious flaw stems from Allen’s failure to place Furtwängler’s ideas and their ideological antecedents in the most helpful historical context for understanding–not so much what he believed–but why, and how he came to be that way. Most of the other problems with the ensuing analysis then appear as corollaries to this most basic one. Having set the train in motion on the wrong track, it’s very difficult to change its course.

Allen does take some time to get started. The book begins with a Prelude, followed by the Acknowledgments, then a Preface, a Note on Translations, and a Chronology before finally arriving at–the Introduction. This initial hesitation in simply getting on with it highlights the difficulty of the ambitious task that Allen has set for himself:

…accepting Furtwängler as the master musician he was, while considering the historical and ideological foundations of that mastery in ways that, rather than follow the well-trodden path of establishing what he did or did no do for the Nazi regime, respond to more recent scholarship on the antecedents and aftermath of the Third Reich (p. xii).

Already we can see difficulties, the first being the unprovable assumption that the source of Furtwängler’s “mastery” arose from “historical and ideological foundations” rather than sheer musical talent. The second problem, possibly more serious, stems from Allen’s decision to “respond to more recent scholarship on the antecedents and aftermath of the Third Reich.” This was both unwise and, aside from its conceptual fogginess, a project only tangentially related to what ought to be Allen’s main focus.

Let us then be clear: Allen does not command the necessary grounding in German cultural and intellectual history to undertake the mission that he has outlined. This is evident from a glance at the extremely well padded bibliography at the end of the book. There we find works “consulted” (but not actually read?), including the complete Goethe—all forty volumes of it—big chunks of Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Fichte, Dilthey, and Thomas Mann; plus a selection of narrative German histories by Gollo Mann, Richard Evans, Peter Pulzer and several others, all excellent but covering much the same territory; and then an enormous and, to be honest, almost wacky mass of irrelevancies: everything from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, to Plato’s Phaedo, to the most books on Bruckner ever assembled in one location, to John Lucas’ Reggie: The Life of Reginald Goodall. I mean, really Roger? Reggie?

Conspicuously lacking are many major works of German intellectual, social, and cultural history that would have helped Allen to fulfill his stated intentions. I am thinking here of works such as Gordon A. Craig’s The Politics of the Unpolitical: German Writers and the Problem of Power, 1770-1871, which explodes the myth of the “unpolitical German,” Mack Walker’s German Home Towns, Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture (and other writings), W. H. Bruford’s The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: ‘Bildung’ from Humboldt to Thomas Mann, Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, or George L. Mosse’s The Nationalization of the Masses and The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich, both classic treatises on the origins and rise of Volkisch thought[3], and finally Max Nordau’s Degeneration, preferably with Mosse’s introduction.

Allen quite rightly points out that, “The bibliography of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century German political and cultural history is of course extensive (p. xix),” and every scholar of the period will have a preferred selection; but it does seem as though Allen’s principal choices stem as much from his personal circle of acquaintances as from familiarity with the territory. Furthermore, although well and good to attempt to engage with the most recent scholarship, it is better still to utilize the secondary sources most appropriate to analyzing the subject at hand. In this respect, there is one particular work so powerful, so completely on point, and so effective in explaining the origins and formulation of Furtwängler’s ideology that its omission from Allen’s discussion truly diminishes its value. This is Fritz K. Ringer’s The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 (Wesleyan University Press, Hanover, 1969).

Ringer’s book describes the exact social, cultural, and intellectual milieu in which Furtwängler was raised, lived and worked. His father, a noted archeologist and authority on classical Greek pottery and artifacts, was a member of precisely the academic community who’s thought Ringer analyzes—the “mandarins” of the title. Furtwängler even at one point considered going into his father’s profession. While none of the standard biographical sources adequately assesses the impact on Furtwängler’s ideological development of being born into this specific social class, it was undoubtedly profound, and it constituted far more than the usual, generic assertions of upper middle-class “Bildung” (which Ringer translates as “cultivation”).

As Ringer notes:

…German academics from 1890 to 1932 actually thought of themselves as a group. They considered themselves part of a threatened elite of German “bearers of culture,” members of a distinct cultured segment of the nation. …Their writings testified to the existence of a highly integrated and relatively homogeneous intellectual community. Their whole situation united them, their common educational background, their social status, and the threat to their position which, in one way or another, they all felt deeply. (Ringer, p. 3)

Ringer divides this group into two factions, the “orthodox” majority and the “modernist” minority (represented by more forward-thinking scholars such as Max Weber). As Furtwängler’s writings show, he came squarely from the orthodox camp. Their ideological predispositions were anti-modern, anti-democratic, anti-technological, anti-intellectual, anti-rational, and relentlessly elitist. They regarded themselves as the paragons of German cultural virtue. In other words,

German industrialization, once it accelerated around 1870, was particularly abrupt. The social and cultural strains it engendered were unusually severe, and above all, the German academics reacted to the dislocation with such desperate intensity that the specter of a “soulless” modern age came to haunt everything they said and wrote, no matter what the subject. By the early 1920’s, they were deeply convinced that they were living through a profound crisis, a “crisis of culture,” of “learning,” of “values,” or of the “spirit.” (Ringer, p. 3)

These ideas constitute one half of Furtwängler’s philosophy. The other half consists of vaporous notions of “wholeness,” of “biological” unity and organic consistency both of the body politic and, by extension, the great works of German musical culture. Ringer explains this phenomenon as well:

Consider the mandarins’ determination to train the students’ whole character and their emphasis upon the whole nation. Think also of their preference for “whole” insights, for morally profitable experiences, rather than “merely” analytical techniques. These three conceptions were, after all, among the most important tenets of the mandarin creed. We have repeatedly traced their relevance to the social and cultural pretensions of the German elite. Notice, finally, that the argument upon wholeness was easily transferred from one field to another, from philosophy and the humanistic disciplines to pedagogy, and from there to politics. It was used so widely and indiscriminately during the Weimar period that one may fairly describe it as an unconscious mental habit. (Ringer, p. 394)

Here, then, is a typical statement of Furtwängler’s, from his essay “Timely Reflections of a Musician” (1915), in which Allen argues we see “a governing text for Furtwängler’s entire creative life (p. 70).” Note the combination in one convenient paragraph of dissatisfaction with the “modern” in contrast to the “organic” view of the great musical works:

The other approach is to thrust one’s own ‘personality’ to the fore and seek, as a modern man, to turn the classics into modern works. Here, by means of a characteristically modern urge to pack as much expression into each individual moment as possible, one can see even more starkly how ill-equipped we are for the task. In both cases the reason is the same: the inability to identify the sources of that expressive power that flows through and permeates every part of the living organisms that are these works. (p. 70)

Had Allen seen fit to afford a prominent place to Ringer’s study, he could have saved himself (and his readers) no end of time and trouble by placing Furtwängler in the correct context for discussion of his writings. He would have thought twice before identifying the conductor’s alleged antecedents or influences, whether Wagner or Oswald Spengler[4]. He would also have been able to clarify the inevitable discussion of Bildung, and in particular the ongoing comparisons Allen makes on this topic between Furtwängler and Thomas Mann. These run rather annoyingly like a strong current through the entire book, often to such an extent that Mann seems as much a subject of this study as Furtwängler himself. Just when we expect Allen to make a point by quoting Furtwängler, we get Thomas Mann instead. There are two reasons for this: first, Mann expressed himself far more clearly than does Furtwängler, and second, for a time, during the Weimar Republic, the two men’s thinking seemed to be relatively congruent.

However, as Allen correctly notes—even to the extent of reprinting Mann’s 1945 lecture “Germany and the Germans” in an appendix—Furtwängler’s ideology grew and developed not a whit from childhood to his death, while Mann’s evolved considerably in light of historical events. His openness to change can be explained with reference to his origins: as the son of a grain merchant and politician, Mann’s version of Bildung necessarily differed considerably from Furtwängler’s, a nuance that Allen is not in a position to explain. Ringer, however, is:

Since “every kind of learning, virtuosity, refinement in a man” was not considered cultivation [Bildung], unless it unfolded the “inner prefiguration” of his soul’s “subjective perfection,” there was bound to be some difficulty in determining who was capable of being cultivated…. This was a serious problem in the mandarin philosophy of cultivation, for it tended to leave the selection of candidates for higher learning to chance—and to the social prejudices of the cultured elite itself. Until far into the twentieth century, German academics stubbornly resisted the idea that a student’s potential ability might be tested. (Ringer, p. 108-9)

In other words, in Mann and Furtwängler we find the classic contrast between the “self-made” man succeeding on his own considerable intellectual merits and, culturally speaking, the spoiled rich kid certain of his own superiority and entitlement, destined to attend his dad’s university as a “legacy.” Convinced that their son was a genius, Furtwängler’s parents pulled their “Willie” out of grammar school, where he was doing poorly, in favor of work with private tutors. Just how well balanced and comprehensive his education actually was remains very much an open question, but there is no doubt that as a child he was groomed to become a member of an elite stratum of society holding sharply defined, mostly uniform views. As Ringer’s description suggests, Furtwängler’s brand of “Bildung” may have been largely hereditary: hence a partial explanation for its rigidity, and later, his stubborn defensiveness. His ideological outlook was thus not, as Allen would have it, a personal synthesis of disparate elements, but rather a complete, ready-made package absorbed early in life.

Because he can’t correctly pinpoint the source of Furtwängler’s youthful ideological indoctrination, Allen compounds his methodological difficulties, adopting a thesis singularly unsuited to the reality of the material he has to work with. “It is hoped,” he writes, “that what can appear to be rather empty and prolix passages of aesthetic theorizing will here be readable as cogent indicators of an evolving intellectual biography of some historical significance (p. xxii).” This wish is wholly inconsistent with the thinking of a man who, Allen concedes, constantly reaffirmed, “almost to the point of obsession, the ideas of the late-nineteenth-century epoch from which he originated (p. 182).” You can’t write an “evolving intellectual biography” about someone who never evolved at all; nor does Allen’s bland assertion of “historical significance” convince without a shred of explanation as to what that means in this context.

Similarly, we look forward in vain to seeing Allen fulfill his promise to “engage” with “an artist driven by an ideological world-view which determined everything he did and which drove him to extremes of both perversity and greatness (p. xv).” As it turns out Allen intends no such thing, thanks to his decision not to follow “the well trodden path of establishing what he did or did not do for the Nazi regime (p. xii),” or anyone else for that matter. We thus miss out on the chance to savor the best bits—the “extremes of perversity”–or more generally, the opportunity to examine critically the disparity between what Furtwängler thought and said, and how he actually behaved. The fact that his actions during the Third Reich (and elsewhere) have been discussed previously, even extensively, is not a legitimate excuse to ignore them here. This is an important point. The claim that Furtwängler was “an artist driven by an ideological world-view which determined everything he did” is a loaded statement, perhaps a careless one, but in any event one that demands proof. Allen provides none.

To his credit, however, Allen does clearly identify perhaps the most perverse literary act in the conductor’s entire career: the moment when, after the War, Furtwängler delivers a speech on Mendelssohn in which he graciously propounds the notion that, even though the composer came from Jewish stock, he still could be considered a genuine German composer after all. Allen calls Furtwängler out for this embarrassing bit of intellectual foolishness, and rightly so.

It is also worth noting in this connection that other scholars view Furtwängler’s writings far more dismissively than Allen does. Chris Walton, for example, observes:

It is tempting to see a direct corollary between Furtwängler the man and Furtwängler the composer, as the former’s hesitant, vacillating stance in the Third Reich seems reflected with remarkable immediacy in his music. Similar tendencies can be observed in his writings on music too, for his prose also often circles around what he wants to say, and numerous versions exist of certain writings that seem to represent stages not of increasing precision of thought, but rather multiple levels of vacillation. But again, we must be wary of putting carts before horses, as Furtwängler’s pre-1933 writings are hardly more cogent than those from after 1945. (Walton, p. 106)

Allen freely acknowledges that Furtwängler’s writing style tends to be, to put it kindly, a bit fuzzy, but rather than chalking it up to the German love of convoluted prose (the philosophical equivalent to the old marketing adage, “If you don’t have anything to say, then sing it!”), he might have profited from enlarging on Ringer’s explanation for this phenomenon:

It is impossible to be very precise in describing these orthodox fulminations, since their authors themselves rather thrived on vagueness. They were perfectly content to blur any possible distinctions between various kinds of disintegration. They were at once the victims and the exploiters of an integral mood, an undifferentiated emotional reaction against the modern age. (Ringer, p. 223-4)

Ultimately, despite some interesting and insightful moments (such as the discussion of Furtwängler’s relationship with music theorist Heinrich Schenker), we are forced to conclude that as a thinker Furtwängler was nothing special. As Ringer observes: “…it was generally the less articulate, politically unsophisticated, and intellectually less distinguished members of the German academic community who made up the rank and file of the orthodox majority (Ringer, pp. ix-x.).” This is precisely what Furtwängler was as an intellectual—a proud member of the “rank and file,” and nothing more. His ideological disposition was unoriginal, insignificant, and unreflective. This is what Allen’s exegesis reveals, and however much he may have wished it were not so when he began, he is, when all is said and done, too honest a scholar to pretend otherwise.

David Hurwitz

[1] We should omit von Bülow as his career could hardly be deemed to have begun in the “aftermath of Wagner.”

[2] I just wish to point out that I personally find Furtwängler’s Second Symphony to be a fine work overall—certainly much better than Allen contends.

[3] Allen will have gotten some Mosse at second hand through Richard Evans’ The Coming of the Third Reich, but that’s no substitute for the genuine article.

[4] Ringer states, “In an emotional atmosphere of this type, Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West was nothing more than a particularly thorough exploitation of a common theme (Ringer, p. 223).”