The Immortality of Wilhelm Furtwängler
by Matthew Ogden
21 May 2015
Wilhelm Furtwängler died on November 30, 1954. The epitaph which Furtwängler chose for his own tombstone were the words of Saint Paul:
"Meanwhile, these three: Faith, Hope and Love abide with us, but the greatest of these is Love."
Wilhelm Furtwängler’s grave, in the Bergfriedhof cemetery outside of Heidelberg, Germany. Inscribed on the tombstone are the words of St. Paul:
Not coincidentally, these are also the last words of Johannes Brahms’ final vocal composition, Die Vier Ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs). Brahms’ lifelong friend Clara Schumann had suffered a massive stroke in March of 1896, shortly after playing her last public concert at which she performed Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Brahms, anticipating that Clara Schumann would soon die, composed this series of four songs based on biblical text. Brahms himself would die the following year.
Brahms asks us, what is the meaning of our lives? Is man nothing more than a beast? Do our lives amount to anything more than the dust which we become? As animals die, so our bodies do as well. Are all of our pleasures, sufferings, trials, aspirations, our experiences between birth and death nothing greater than mere idle vanities, ephemeral and lost in time? A breath in the wind? A droplet in the rushing flood?
Or can we see beyond our deaths, as "through a glass, darkly," to something which abides after our flesh is gone? To the future, into which the meaning of our lives will persist? As the poet Percy Shelley wrote in verses composed shortly before his own death:
As Wilhelm Furtwängler said of Johannes Brahms in a speech commemorating the centenary of his birth: "Particularly in the last years of his life, he lived with the future, with eternity, in mind."
Immortality is not merely the unceasing extension of mortality. It is not a never-ending longevity of the flesh. Rather, just as infinity is not the sum of an unlimited number of finite, eternity exists above time, outside of time. The eternal is not contained within and cannot be attained through the additive aggregate sum of temporal. The sequential chronology of what we call elapsed time is merely the unfolding shadows of something higher — the meaning of each moment cannot be located within the moment itself, but only from the standpoint of the greater flow of which it is a passing part. And without the prior existence of the whole, there could be no possibility for the existence of the parts.
How can we transcend the experience of the moment to participate in the eternal, the universal which created it? How can we be living participants within that whole which supersedes the existence of its subordinate parts?
Just as he said of Brahms, Wilhelm Furtwängler himself lived always "with the future, with eternity, in mind." In fact, the capacity to live in the future — to participate in the eternal — is, in a very real way, the secret that lies behind the almost timeless quality of the experience of a performance by Furtwängler.
The absolutely distinct quality of Furtwängler’s performance will immediately grip any sentient listener, and is instantly recognizable. The relentless quality of suspension, a tension always pulling the listener forward from the very beginning through to the very end, an absolute coherence, an unbroken unity — all of these words describe the effect of the almost magical power that Furtwängler commanded over his music and his audiences. The conductor Claudio Abbado describes the effect that even the presence of Furtwängler exerted over his orchestra:
A seemingly paradoxical idea: a musical tension which exists even in the moments when there is no audible sound. How can there be something in what seems like nothing? For Furtwängler, the notes were not the music, but were merely shadows dancing to a higher music, one which lurks silently but powerfully behind the sensual sounds. As the poet John Keats famously wrote in his Ode on a Grecian Urn:
This "silent form," which lives outside of time, "dost tease us out of thought as doth eternity." The eerie presence of a ghostly something visiting our present time from beyond time itself is the effect we experience through the music of Furtwängler. We are transported beyond the momentary experience of the part to an apprehension of the existence of a greater, superior whole, which is constantly exerting its power and control over each passing present moment in time.
Perhaps the most readily available example of this are Furtwängler’s recorded performances of Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major, the so-called "Great" Symphony. Furtwängler’s rendering of this masterpiece remains the standard which no other performance of the work has since achieved. Furtwängler’s performance of this Schubert symphony was described by the great Russian conductor Valeri Gergiev in a recent interview3, in which he described Furtwängler as a giant, unequaled among all others, the conductor whom he admired most:
Recording of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a 1953 performance of Franz Schubert’s Symphony n°9 in C-Major, D 944.
The constant change in tempo so characteristic of Furtwängler’s music indicates the presence of a higher law, a higher time, dictating the unfolding of each moment in time. These are not arbitrary changes, not precalculated mathematical values, but the pulse of a living, breathing organism united by a single all-embracing coherent process of development, proceeding always into the future, residing in what is yet to come. The performer subordinates himself to that power, that higher law, striving always towards the apprehension of the unity which brings coherence to the multiplicity of the parts — an almost religious quality of devotion.
Listening to the Future
The forgoing typifies Furtwängler’s insight into an actually ontological principle, one which extends far beyond music per se, which is as true in science as it is in art. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Furtwängler’s contemporaries Max Planck and Albert Einstein were themselves devoted musicians as much as they were scientists. In fact, Furtwängler’s composition teacher when he was a young man, Joseph Rheinberger (who was himself a friend and collaborator of Johannes Brahms), had also taught composition to the young Max Planck.
Einstein asserted that the paradoxes pertaining to time and causality presented by Planck’s discovery of the quantum would actually be resolved from the standpoint of a higher understanding of music. In an interview published as an appendix to the book Where Is Science Going?, Einstein asserted:
The implications of Einstein’s allusion to Bach’s fugues are very revealing when considered in light of his contemporary Furtwängler’s insights as quoted above. When we consider the necessary existence of a unified whole in music, which as Furtwängler says "controls the behaviour of the individual elements within it, down to the smallest detail," we must ask: where does that whole exist? If the whole cannot exist in any part, nor in the aggregate of all the parts, where and when can we locate the existence of this unifying whole?
Only by listening to the future, to that totality which can never exist in the sequential temporal experiences of the ear, but only in the imagination which can consider the entire composition as a one, existing as a unity outside of time. By hearing that single unified Being and following it as it guides us through the inexorable evolution of its own Becoming. By allowing the inaudible echo of that yet-to-be-experienced future to resonate within the audible sounds of the present, each meeting and mutually interacting with one another at each unfolding moment in time. At no one moment of the sensed experience in time can this whole be perceived, however it is present at all times, above time, guiding the behaviour of each moment of the unfolding experience of time.
Furtwängler expresses this as the intersection between the Nah-Erleben and the Fernhören, the interaction between "near-experience" with the "distance-hearing," also citing the fugues of Bach as exemplary of the most perfect expression of this principle:
In Bach, we experience at every moment this intersection of the near with the far, the part with the whole, the microcosm with the macrocosm, the temporal with the eternal. As Furtwängler describes elsewhere, the mission of the artist is always to seek "the fulfilment of the moment within a larger process. Each individual thing has its own function and this within the development of the whole. The two meet and intersect at each moment. It is not always easy at first to grasp the fact that every detail has its function within the whole, and is not only ’arranged’ within this whole, but often has an effect on the whole that goes far beyond its individual importance... This single-mindedness of purpose, this clear and unmistakable cohesion of the whole can only be created through real laws, based in nature."
"If I Have Not Love, I Am Nothing"
"Love — love that is forever being seized and shaken by the work — can never be replaced. Love alone creates the preconditions for the visionary and correct understanding of ’the whole’ in the work of art, for this whole is nothing but love. Each individual part can be more or less understood intellectually, but the whole can only ever be grasped by the living feeling of love. It is the only thing which is appropriate and fitting to the whole work of art as an image of the active and living world. Everything else, however skillful it may be, is limited, and therefore profoundly boring to me."— W. Furtwängler, Notebooks, 1936 
As the 19th Century drew to a close, Johannes Brahms’ setting in his Four Serious Songs of the words of St. Paul speaks almost as a prophesy, a warning to musicians, a eulogy for art in the century to come:
Furtwängler insisted, without the dedication to the "the living feeling of love" which is required to grasp the understanding of a work of art in its wholeness, music dies, and becomes nothing more than the intellectualized assembly of individual separate parts rather than a single, living, organic whole. In the essay cited previously, Furtwängler asks the question: what is the emotion which is required by the artist to grasp this fundamental unity of the whole?
For Furtwängler, the late compositions of Beethoven represented the high-point in this ideal of cohesive artistic unity in which the parts became absolutely subordinated and inseparable from the whole — an ideal which, however, was increasingly abandoned following Beethoven’s death.
The irony, however, of the rejection of the concept of the organic whole, is that since the very existence of the parts depends upon the existence of the whole, in the absence of this whole there also ceases to be the possibility of the parts!
Thus, quite literally: "Though I may speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but I have not love, so am I become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal." Furtwängler clearly identified what he saw as the tragedy of music’s decline as being fundamentally rooted in the loss among his contemporaries of the capacity for love.
The Music of Our Soul
Pope Francis recently stated in an interview, that for him, the most "Promethean" of all conductors is Wilhelm Furtwängler, citing Furtwängler’s performances of Beethoven and especially Bach, specifically his St. Matthew Passion, saying: "The piece by Bach that I love so much is the Erbarme Dich, the tears of Peter in the St. Matthew Passion. Sublime."
And indeed, Furtwängler’s music has a reverential, devout, almost religious quality to it. The orchestra under Furtwängler, becomes fused into a single instrument, a single organism, and becomes in his words "a point of entry of the divine."
Furtwängler sought to transport his audiences from the mere temporal experience of the passing moment and into the universal, the eternal, the whole. This becomes the almost sacred devotion of the true artist and the true scientist alike. As Albert Einstein wrote in 1930 in an article published in the New York Times Magazine, describing what he called the "cosmic religious feeling" which motivates the great scientist:
Furtwängler’s music allows us to do just that. Furtwängler enables his audiences to escape that prison of shadows and sense-experience, and to experience instead the unheard music which lies beyond the notes. Each sound may quickly die, but the music which created it is eternal.
As Furtwängler’s great friend and collaborator, the violinist Yehudi Menuhin said:
Recording of Yehudi Menuhin performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 with Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1953, one year prior to Furtwängler’s death.