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?

The Problem with Wagner

Wagner_Das_Judenthum_in_der_Musik_1869

As you will recall, Robert Schumann founded and edited the influential music magazine Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. 

Nzm.jpgIn 1850, the Neue Zeitschrift published an essay by a pseudonymous author called “Das Judentum in der Music” (Jewishness in Music), which alleged that Jews, being not only culturally and religiously different, but also biologically — that is, racially — different from gentile Germans, could not contribute to German musical traditions, but only corrupt and dilute them. Furthermore, the author stated, Jews could never fully participate in German society, no matter how many generations their ancestors had been Germans, because of this difference (the full text in English translation can be found here.)

It should be noted that by 1850, Robert Schumann was no longer editing the Neue Zeitschrift.

Ten years later, the author of this vicious essay was revealed to be Richard Wagner.

Some fifty years after Wagner’s death, Hitler supposedly said, “There is only one legitimate predecessor to National Socialism [Nazism]: Wagner.” Hitler frequently used Wagner’s music at Nazi rallies. Here, at the notorious 1934 Nüremberg Rally, the military band plays the “Nibelungen March,” an arrangement of several themes from the Ring Cycle.

Hitler at Bayreuth:

Because of Hitler’s appropriation of Wagner’s music — and Wagner’s own virulent anti-Semitism — there has long been an unofficial ban on performances of his music in Israel. Nevertheless, in recent years, some Israeli musicians have tried to circumvent and defy this ban.

Read: “Barenboim Stirs Up Israeli Storm by playing Wagner.”

Read: “Divorcing Music from Anti-Semitism, Israeli Soprano Takes on Taboo at Wagner Fest.”

Read: “The Case for Wagner in Israel.”

A Nazi propaganda film of the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler conducing the Berlin Philharmonic in the overture to Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for an audience of factory workers in 1942.

Furtwängler, incidentally, was a complicated and controversial figure. While many German musicians, artists, and intellectuals went into exile as a protest against the Nazis, Furtwängler remained. After the war, he was accused of being a Nazi himself, though he never joined the Nazi party, and in fact he had helped many Jewish musicians to escape from Germany. He was tried by the Allies after the war, and defended himself at his trial by saying:

I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like. Does [German novelist] Thomas Mann [who was critical of Furtwängler’s actions] really believe that in ‘the Germany of Himmler’ one should not be permitted to play Beethoven? Could he not realize that people never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans, who had to live under Himmler’s terror? I do not regret having stayed with them.

What do you think? Can we separate the art from the man? Should we? Once the music has been written and released into the world, to whom does it belong?