Wilhelm Furtwängler

Wilhelm Furtwängler (January 25, 1886 - November 30, 1954) was a German conductor and sometime composer.

Furtwängler was born in Berlin. His father was an archaeologist and his mother a painter. Most of his childhood was spent in Munich, where his father taught at the university. He was given a musical education from an early age, and developed an early love of Beethoven, a composer he remained closely associated with throughout his life.

By the time of Furtwängler's conducting debut at the age of twenty, he had written several pieces of music. However, they were not well received, and that combined with the financial insecurity a career as a composer would provide led him to concentrate on conducting. At his first concert, he led the Kaim Orchestra in Anton Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. He subsequently held posts at Munich, Lübeck, Mannheim, Frankfurt, and Vienna, before securing a job at the Berlin Staatskapelle in 1920, and, in 1922, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (where he succeeded Arthur Nikisch) and concurrently at the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Later he became music director of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Salzburg Festival and the Bayreuth Festival, which was regarded as the greatest post a conductor could hold in Germany at the time.

Furtwängler's relationship with and attitude towards Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party was a matter of much controversy. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Furtwängler was highly critical of them. In 1934, he was banned from conducting the premiere of Paul Hindemith's opera Mathis der Maler, and Furtwängler resigned from his post at the Berlin Opera in protest. In 1936, with Furtwängler becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the regime, he was offered the principal conductor's post at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, where he would succeed Arturo Toscanini. There is every possibility that Furtwängler would have accepted the post, but a report from the Berlin branch of the Associated Press, possibly ordered by Hermann Göring, said that he was willing to take up his post at the Berlin Opera once more. This caused the mood in New York to turn against him; from their point of view, it seemed that Furtwängler was now a full supporter of the Nazi Party. Although it is now widely accepted that this was not the case (Furtwängler always refused to give the Nazi salute, for instance), it was a view which prevailed until his death.

Furtwängler was treated relatively well by the Nazis; he had a high profile, and was an important cultural figure. His concerts were often broadcast to German troops to raise morale, and he was limited in what he was allowed to perform by the authorites. His attitude towards Jews remains controversial today. On the one hand, he often lauded Jewish artists such as Artur Schnabel, but on the other he supported boycotts of Jewish goods and was critical of what he saw as Jewish domination of newspapers.

Towards the end of the war, under extra pressure from the Nazi Party, Furtwängler fled to Switzerland. He resumed performing and recording following the war, and remained a popular conductor in Europe, although he was always under somewhat of a shadow. He died in 1954 in Baden-Baden.

British playwright Ronald Harwood's play Taking Sides (1995), set in 1946 in the American zone of occupied Berlin, is about U.S. accusations against Furtwängler of having served the Nazi regime.

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