The Hero’s Funeral

liszt eroica

You will recall that, in the BBC film about the first rehearsal of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the second movement — the funeral march — causes general consternation among the listeners. The Princess Lobkowitz talks breathlessly about picturing the funeral cortège, with black horses; the Prince’s nay-saying cousin, the Count von Dietrichstein, who has earlier dismissed Beethoven, is truly moved, even disturbed, by the music; and the Princess’s maid weeps openly.

But . . . who has died?

On November 22, 1963, Erich Leinsdorf, the Vienna-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who had come to the United States in the 1930s as a refugee from the Nazis, was preparing to lead his orchestra in a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov, when he got word of President Kennedy’s assassination. The orchestra’s music librarian, William Shisler, quickly pulled the parts for the second movement of the Eroica instead. Listen to Leinsdorf’s announcement from the podium of the assassination, the shock of the audience, and the way that the orchestra plays. Does this performance of the second movement sound different to you? How?

In 1944, when it was abundantly clear that Germany was losing World War II, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler led the Vienna Philharmonic in a recorded performance of the Eroica. How is this orchestra’s performance of the second movement different? Do you have the sense that it is informed by the knowledge of what is going on outside the concert hall?

In fact, Wilhelm Furtwängler is a controversial figure in the light of history. Unlike many of his peers among the German artistic and intellectual classes, he did not go into exile during the Third Reich.

The crucial question which would plague Furtwängler for the rest of his life was why he stayed behind when all the other great artists fled. The standard explanation is that he lacked moral fortitude. But, as so often emerges with ethical issues, the full story is far more complex. If anything, the opposite is true: Furtwängler stayed primarily out of a sincere, albeit naive, conviction.

Out of the depths of his cultural and intellectual roots, Furtwängler regarded Hitler and Nazism as a passing phase in German politics. . . . Furtwängler saw two Germanies: the permanent, cultural one of which he remained a proud member, and an irrelevant, political one which was a temporary nuisance. To Furtwängler, there was no such thing as Nazi Germany, but rather a Germany raped by Nazis. Furtwängler truly believed that by maintaining his artistic convictions he would succeed in resisting Hitler and upholding the everlasting purity of great German culture. All of his wartime activities were bent upon achieving this goal.

Furtwängler believed to the depth of his soul that music was a force for moral good, a route out of chaos that would assist the cause of humanity. In 1943, he wrote: “The message Beethoven gave mankind in his works . . . seems to me never to have been more urgent than it is today.” He later told the Chicago Daily Tribune: “It would have been much easier to emigrate, but there had to be a spiritual center of integrity for all the good and real Germans who had to stay behind. I felt that a really great work of music was a stronger and more essential contradiction of the spirit of Buchenwald and Auschwitz than words could be.” 

. . . Furtwängler had dedicated his entire life to perpetuating the traditions of German culture . . . . German music was the sole reason for his existence. Indeed, in 1938, after the annexation of Austria, the already overworked conductor doubled his duties by taking charge of all musical activity in Vienna, as he felt compelled to preserve that city’s proud tradition and in particular the independence and excellence of its famed Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which was threatened with State control.

The Nazis needed Furtwängler . . . Hitler deeply admired his artistry. The [Nazi] Party itself was keenly aware that Furtwängler was the foremost symbol of the past glory of German culture and that his loss [if he left Germany] would be a final blow to national prestige which would validate all the foreign criticism.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to see Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for Hitler’s birthday in 1942 as, at best, a misunderstanding of “the message that Beethoven gave mankind in his works.”

What do you think that message is?

As George Grella, Jr. notes:

Beethoven cannot choose his listeners, and so both the Allies and Axis in WWII thought he was on their side. For the Allies, the four-note motif that opens Symphony No. 5 meant V for Victory. But what did the Nazi party functionaries think when they heard Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic play the anti-tyrant Symphony No. 3 (Beethoven was a subversive, spied on by the secret police, and with public disdain for the aristocrats who had earned their privilege due to the merit of being born to the right parents), or when they heard the chorus in Symphony No. 9 sing about brotherhood? And why are the wartime broadcast recordings of those performances so full of poetry, so beautiful and emotionally intense? Those recordings are among the greatest Beethoven one will hear: does this mean fascists deserve Beethoven?

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