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ClassicsOnline Home » FURTWANGLER: Symphony No. 3
Wilhelm Furtwaengler (1886-1954)
Symphony No. 3 in C Sharp Minor
Wilhelm Furtwaengler must be considered
one of the greatest conductors of the present century, his name associated
above all with that of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he became
conductor after the death of Nikisch in 1922. As a composer he has been largely
neglected, in spite of the direction in which his own interests first led him.
His orchestral works include three symphonies and a Symphonic Concerto for
piano and orchestra, chamber music, songs, and choral works, among them two
settings of passages from Goethe's Faust. The achievement is relatively
slender in quantity, compared with his work as a conductor, but not
insignificant in other respects.
Furtwaengler was born in 1886 in Berlin,
where his father, a distinguished archaeologist, was on the staff of the
University. In 1894 the family moved to Munich, after his father's appointment
as professor of archaeology there, and it was in Munich, the native city of
Richard Strauss, that he continued his education with private tutors, employed
because of his obvious and unusual gifts. His mother, a painter of some
distinction, had clear influence in the appointment of a well known sculptor,
Adolf Hildebrand, as one of the boy's teachers. The archaeologist Ludwig
Curtius was another, with the help of the musicologist and art historian Walter
Riezler. It was, in the end, neither the visual arts nor archaeology that
seized Furtwaengler's young imagination, but music, and he was able to develop
his particular ability in this direction, in the context of a much wider
liberal education that took him to Hildebrand's studio in Florence and on
archaeological excursions to Greece with his father.
As a musician Furtwaengler was provided
with excellent teachers, Anton Beer-Walbrunn and his own teacher Joseph
Rheinberger, and the composer and conductor Max von Schillings, contributed to
his musical formation, which had led, by the age of seventeen, to the composition
of a symphony and a setting of the Walpurgisnacht section of Goethe's Faust,
the latter completed at the age of twelve, to be followed in 1902 by a setting
of the Geisterchor from Faust and the following year the Religioeser
Furtwaengler was slow to give up his
ambitions as a composer, and it was partly through the desire to conduct his
own music that his career as a conductor took shape, leading from apprentice
years as repetiteur at Breslau Stadttheater and employment successively in Zurich,
Munich and Strasbourg, to the position of director of the opera in Luebeck and
conductor of the orchestral concerts in the city from 1911 until 1915. This was
followed by five years at the Manheim Opera. Positions in Frankfurt and at the
Berlin Staatsoper preceded his appointment in 1922 to the Berlin Philharmonic
and to the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.
In the years that followed Furtwaengler's
pre-eminence became generally acknowledged, although his popular success in
America was marred at first by his failure to court the favour of rich sponsors
and later by his apparent association with the National Socialist Party after
Hitler's accession to power in 1933. While Jewish musicians in Germany fended
for themselves as best they could, taking refuge abroad, when possible, or
suffering the fate of others unable to escape, a number of distinguished
non-Jewish musicians chose to leave Germany in protest at the anti-Semitic
policies of the new regime. Furtwaengler, with the approval of Jewish friends
and colleagues, such as Arnold Schoenberg and Max Reinhardt, chose to stay,
doing what he could to help those persecuted, and attempting always to keep
music and politics apart.
It was unfortunate that Furtwaengler's
very honesty and political innocence were to work against him in the years that
followed the war. In January 1945 he emigarted to Switzerland, a country that
provided a refuge for Richard Strauss in the same year. In 1946 there was a
"denazification" tribunal to face, but his clearance was followed, all
the same, by opposition and persecution that was to prevent his appointment to
the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1949. Yehudi Menuhin has provided an insight
into the post-war mood, when his innocent repetition of the statement by French
musicians that they would welcome Furtwaengler, because of his refusal to
conduct in occupied France, was used in the American Jewish campaign against
his appearance again in the United States. Menuhin goes on to point out, in a
view of the matter that must recall Mahler's earlier dilemma, that Furtwaengler
found himself a foreigner in Nazi Germany and a Nazi in the eyes of foreigners.
This reputation died hard.
At the time of his death in 1954
Furtwaengler was planning a tour of the United States with the Berlin Philharmonic
Orchestra, having already been welcomed in the major musical centres of Europe.
It was in his last years that he was able to work on his Third Symphony, the
composition of which occupied him from 1947 until his death. His Symphony in
D of 1903 had proved unsuccessful at an early performance in Breslau. The
first numbered symphony, the Symphony No. 1 in B minor, was completed in
1941, and the Second Symphony was written in the closing years of the war, his
application to composition coinciding with a decrease in activity as a
The Symphony No. 3 in C Sharp
Minor is a monumental work, of the dimensions of a Bruckner symphony, with
something of the latter's structural technique, yet belonging to a much starker
world than Bruckner or Brahms had known. Its ominous first movement unfolds
slowly, brooding and tragic in its Mahlerian intensity, a mood that the
following Allegro does nothing to dispel. The feeling of Weltschmerz continues
through thematically related third movement into a Finale that seems only
narrowly to win the battle against despair. Throughout the music speaks in the
idiom of the great symphonists of the late Romantic period, the language of
Bruckner, the mood of Mahler, with an occasional glance towards Furtwaengler's
nearer contemporary, Richard Strauss.
RTBF Symphony Orchestra
The Symphony Orchestra of the
French-language section the Belgian broadcast service was established in 1978.
The body from which it sprang, the Belgian Radio Orchestra, was created in 1923
and was later enlarged, earning a reputation under its conductor Franz André
(1935-1958) for the introduction of new music by composers such as Bartok,
Milhaud and Stravinsky.
The RTBF Symphony Orchestra was conducted
from its foundation by Edgard Doneux who was succeeded in 1984 by the present
Principal Conductor, Alfred Walter. The orchestra appears regularly in France
and Germany and has made a number of recordings, in addition to its regular
work for the Belgian broadcasting service.
Alfred Walter was born in Southern
Bohemia in 1929 of Austrian parents. He studied at the University of Graz and
in 1948 was appointed assistant conductor to the Opera of Ravensburg. At the
age of 22 he became conductor of the Graz Opera, where he continued until 1965,
while serving at Bayreuth as assistant to Hans Knappertsbusch and Karl Boehm.
From 1966 until 1969 he was Principal Conductor of the Durban Symphony
Orchestra in South Africa, followed by a period of 15 years as General Director
of Music in Muenster. He took up his present position with the RTBF Symphony
Orchestra in 1984.
Alfred Walter has appeared as a guest
conductor in various parts of the world. In Vienna he has worked as guest
conductor at the State Opera and in 1986 was given the title of Professor by the
Austrian Government. In 1980 he was awarded the Golden Medal of the
International Gustav Mahler Society.
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FURTWANGLER: Symphony No. 3