Posted by: rbbadger | June 1, 2013

The Pope and Wilhelm Furtwängler

Recently, the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Dr. Angela Merkel, visited Pope Francis in the Vatican.  I haven’t posted much about Pope Francis.  I do believe that the cardinals made a wonderful choice.  Pope Francis is a very different man from his predecessor.  And while I still do admire Benedict XVI, I have been very pleasantly surprised by Pope Francis. 

Each Pope brings different talents and limitations to the role.  For Benedict XVI, who is after all a rather quiet and shy man, being thrust into the role as Sucessor of Peter must have been very difficult.  Following someone like Blessed John Paul II would be difficult for anybody.  Pope Francis, while as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was somebody who loved mingling with the people and getting know them.  For him, that also meant getting to know the very real poverty to be found in the Argentine capital, along with its splendours.  When Pope John Paul II was the Pope, he would often invite guests to his private chapel for Mass.  Benedict XVI tended to have Mass only with his household staff.  Pope Francis has instead remained in the Vatican guest house where there are a number of priests in residence.  He seems to be taking his role as pastor and Bishop of Rome very seriously.  The private chapel in the Vatican apartments is very small.  The chapel in the Domus Sanctae Marthae is much larger and it is there that he has daily Mass with the resident priests and the various employees of the Vatican.  He is a man with a real pastoral heart.  He also seems to enjoy a life of simplicity and wants to continue to try and live a simple life as best he can, despite now having a very complicated role.

Like most Catholic bishops, Pope Francis has a doctorate.  He did his doctorate in Germany where he focused on theology of the German philosopher and theologian Romano Guardini.  (Guardini was ethnically Italian and born in Verona.  However, when he was one year old, his family moved to Mainz and he spent the rest of his life in Germany.)  He has made references in some of his speeches to the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin.  Hölderlin was one of the German Romantic poets and novelists.  His poetry inspired many composers, Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann among them.  However, I was surprised to learn that the Pope has a predeliction for the conducting of Wilhelm Furtwängler.  The Pope has hailed him as “Germany’s most brilliant conductor and the greatest Wagner and Beethoven expert”. 

For those of you who don’t know who Furtwängler was, he was a major figure in German cultural life in the first half of the 20th century.  He was the conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker.  Unlike a number of German musicians, who fled Germany either because they were either Jewish or opponents of the Nazi regime, Furtwängler chose to remain in Germany.  He was not a fan of the Nazis.  He used his considerable influence to save the lives of a number of Jewish musicians.  However, because he chose to remain rather than flee, he had to dog controversy over being a Nazi for the rest of his life.  Furtwängler was never a member of the Nazi party and despised Hitler despite the fact that Hitler loved his conducting.  It’s an unfortunate example of good art happening to bad people.  He always refused to give the Nazi salute, would not conduct the Horst Wessel Lied (the anthem of the Nazis), and refused to sign letters with the customary “Heil Hitler”, even in those he wrote to Hitler.  Eventually, in 1945 under increasing pressure from the Nazis, he himself fled to Switzerland, though he returned to Berlin shortly after it was all over.  Unfortunately, though, the Nazis used culture to further their political aims, something which he was blind to.  Ordinarily, being invited to conduct at Bayreuth, the last home of Richard Wagner and home of the Wagner Festival is a huge honour.  Furtwängler conducted there when it was very much a Nazi stronghold.  He also conducted a number of concerts for workers, all of which were later used in Nazi propaganda. 

Furtwängler is regarded by many of as the greatest of the German Romantic conductors.  His style of conducting is not one which is much practiced nowadays.  Currently, musicians try their best to uncover what the composer’s intentions were and carry them out as best they can.  The discipline of musicology has been a huge help in this regard.  The early music revolution involved playing historic instruments, or at least good replicas of historic instruments.  A great deal of research has been done in areas such as fingering and bowing.   We also see Beethoven performed with much smaller orchestras than before.  Vibrato is avoided.  The British conductor Sir Roger Norrington made waves in the 1980s by releasing a series of recordings in which the Beethoven symphonies were performed on historic instruments with no vibrato and by carefully following Beethoven’s metronome markings.  Furtwängler, like other conductors of the time such as Willem Mengelberg and Leopold Stokowski, did not view the score as the absolute last word on a given piece of music.  He practiced a rather subjective approach to the music and rarely conducting a given piece the same way twice.  Furtwängler, sadly, suffered a loss of hearing at the end of his life.  After no longer being able to hear some of the instruments in his orchestra, he lost the will to live and died in 1954 aged 68.

Naxos Historical has released a number of Furtwängler’s recordings, one of which I bought a few months ago.  His rendition of the Schubert 8th “Unfinished” and 9th Symphonies would certainly not be approved by many critics today, at least if it came from a living conductor.  But since Furtwängler belonged to a different time, there is now a greater appreciation of some of these great Romantic masters.  Unfortunately, none of these Naxos CDs, which are very inexpensive, can be bought in the United States.  Thanks to US Copyright Law, which gives sound recordings a very long time before they go into the public domain, the Naxos International recordings can’t be sold in the United States of America.  If there is any greater example of who actually writes our laws (the special interests and lobbyists), US Copyright law is a prime example.  In most of the world, sound recordings are only protected for 50 years.  However, in the USA, it can take up to about 100 years before these works pass into the public domain.  I shall be a very old man or dead before some of the great recordings of the 20th century become public domain in my native land.  That being said, it is possible to find recordings of Furtwängler’s in the US, some of which have been licensed from their copyright owners.  One of them is the 107 CD set put out by Membran Music in Germany and which can be bought in the USA.

Pope Francis, according to this article which you can read by clicking here, recently received the German chancellor Angela Merkel in the Vatican.  As is traditional at these sorts of affairs, there is an exchange of gifts.  He gave the Chancellor some medals from the recent Sedae Vacante period.  She gave him some volumes of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poetry and the 107 CD set of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s complete recordings on Membran.  I’ve noted that Membran is already using this in their web store.   

I have to admit that I prefer some of the older recordings to some of the newer ones.  I have on my mp3 player some volumes of Gregorian Chant sung by the monks of the French Abbey of St. Pierre de Solesmes.  Solesmes is the greatest centre for the study of Gregorian Chant.  However, as musicological research has continued, Solesmes has abandoned the old method for which they were famed.  While their newer recordings reflect the best of recent research into the chant, my favourites still are the 1930 recordings they made on HMV under the direction of Dom Joseph Gajard, O.S.B.  I prefer the older, though less musicologically-correct Solesmes method, as much as I respect and admire the research done by Dom Eugène Cardine, O.S.B and his successors.  There is that wonderful legato and undulating rhythm which gives the chant a certain degree of serenity.


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