Furtwängler conducts Beethoven's Ninth Symphony




Furtwängler conducts Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

in 1942, 1951 and 1954



I - Allegro ma non troppo

II - Molto vivace

III - Adagio molto e cantabile

IV - Fourth movement



Furtwängler rehearses Beethoven's Symphony n°9

with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, ca 1951







The present introduction to Furtwängler's art of conducting was initially released in 2005 by Tahra Records on a 4 CDs set Furt 1101-1104 including the complete recordings of the three sessions. It it published here by courtesy of Sami-Alexander Habra and Tahra Records.


It is virtuallly impossible to dissociate Furtwängler’s name from Beethoven’s Ninth or, for that matter, from Beethoven’s works altogether. Even among Toscanini followers, many voiced the opinion that “no one could touch Furtwängler in Beethoven”. Although the German conductor’s overall vision of the Ninth did not vary as much as in the Fifth, there are nevertheless some differences due to his rethinking of certain parts, and to the different events during his career.


His basic conception came to light quite early, at the age of twenty-five, after reading his famous monograph on the subject by the Viennese theorician Heinrich Schenker (1911). The young Furtwängler was so impressed by Schenker’s book that he immediately sought to meet him, and the two men struck up in a deep friendship which lasted until Schenker’s death in 1935. Furtwängler had never heeded Wagner’s hermeneutics or extra-musical comments, and had always reverted to the musical verb alone, quite in the spirit of what he discovered later in Schenker’s writings. Nevertheless he always kept in mind Wagner’s views on the performance of the Ninth. It so happened that Schenker too, in his monumental analysis, gave many precious recommendations for the interpretation of the Ninth. Some of these impressed Furtwängler enough to consult Schenker frequently on musical issues that arose in the preparation of scores for performance. He took some of Schenker’s advice faithfully into account, and rejected others that simply did not suit his vision. Some of those were even performed in a contrary way to the author’s recommendations. Schenker had already heard Furtwängler’s Ninth. In his long discussions with Furtwängler whom he considered as the “only conductor who truly understood Beethoven”, he never hesitated to point out to him what he considered as faulty points in the conductor’s performances. An entry in Schenker’s diary (1923) says : “Furtwängler’s Ninth yesterday was magnificent; but he still makes some slight mistakes, and the third movement is too slow”.


Three recordings by Furtwängler have been selected for this set from different periods of his life and musical career:
a) Berlin, March 1942, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra : a recording taken away by the soviets from Berlin in 1945 and returned to Berlin in 1991.
b) Bayreuth, July 1951, Bayreuth Festival Orchestra : on the occasion of the re-opening of the Bayreuth Festpielhaus.
c) Lucerne, July 1954, Philharmonia Orchestra: his last performance of the Ninth.


The 1942 performance in Berlin is one of the most convincing proofs of Furtwängler’s rebellion during Germany’s tragic era, while the Nazis tried in vain to bury the great German musical heritage by using it for their sinister ends. Furtwängler fought for it and strived to save it from their clutches. Yet, after the war, he had to prove to the world that German musical Art had indeed survived that fateful period as well as some attempts by the Allies to ignore or undermine German culture. The whole musical world retained its breath while Beethoven was universally re-born when Furtwängler conducted the Ninth for the re-opening of Bayreuth in 1951. The Lucerne 1954 concert, Furtwängler’s last performance of the Ninth, allowed the listener an even deeper insight into the great conductor’s art, the most important impression being that of the abyssal depths that permeate this Swan song: no doubt Furtwängler sensed his end was near.




I - Allegro ma non troppo



The original metronome marking by Beethoven for this movement was 120. Fortunately, this was the only work where he had an opportunity of testing the marking properly, and he immediately reduced it by nearly one third, to 88! All the great conductors, as far as we know, regard even 88 as the extreme limit of speed. Again, Beethoven’s writings come to our mind: “My tempo markings are valid only for the first bars, as feeling and expression must have their own tempi”. Furtwängler pays more attention than any to the “un poco maestoso” heading. His tempo, never rigid, fluctuates between 50 and past 80 according to the structure of the piece, while disclosing the spiritual content of the music by means of unnotated emphases, pointing to musical parallels that link widely dispersed passages all through the score.




  Toscanini - NBC Orchestra - 1952

In the Fifties, when Toscanini’s recording was issued, the Italian conductor declared to the press: « Questo primo movimento, non l’ho ancora capito”. Some praised the great man’s “modesty”. Others voiced clearly their disappointment. Perhaps Furtwängler was right when he once declared “I have just heard Toscanini’s Ninth. In the opening, the clarity of the performance was such that you could see the score unfolding before your eyes. Everything was perfectly in its place, but Beethoven’s original idea was totally lost”.



  Lucerne 1954


  Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1963

What idea was Furtwängler referring to? Probably, what Beethoven himself had written in his early sketches for the Ninth (1812), inspired by the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning the spirit floated, born by the waters”. Another entry by Beethoven speaks of the “thought, density and atmosphere, all pre-existing to form”. In 1815, again he wrote: “For my Symphony in D minor, the beginning could be hushed, with only 4 instruments: two violins, one viola and one bass, before taking its final shape”. That was Beethoven’s original idea which gave birth to this unique pianissimo entrance on E-A, then on A-E, born from nothingness, not giving the slightest hint to the listener as to where he is bound for, with a sudden swerve to D (on the 3rd Horn at the top of the crescendo), and the full blast of the first fortissimo on the tutti, settling down definitely into the key of D minor. In this passage, (the whole basis of the movement), you could always sense an impression of lightning in any of Furtwängler’s performances, an impression which is usually lacking in most other conductors’ renderings. By his own avowal, Karajan sought advice from Furtwängler on this very passage, but in our opinion, he never quite equalled the master’s performance.
Critics in Germany had praised the “audacity” of this opening; in England they were unnerved by it and blamed Beethoven for deliberately misleading the listener, while Pierre Boulez once declared to his pupils that this process was naïve (“procédé simpliste”). One Scottish critic even wondered why Beethoven didn’t start right away with the fortissimo!



  Lucerne 1954 Lucerne 1954

Here is a striking parallel which justifies Furtwängler’s choice of tempo: the forward pace of the first movement’s fortissimo prefiguring that of the fourth movement as the music moves on to the end of “Und der Cherub steht vor Gott”, an end into itself.



  Berlin 1942 Berlin 1942

Another example is that of the main theme’s : "Schwungrichtung" (the direction taken by the power), and its metamorphosis later into a passage of extreme tenderness.




Berlin 1942

Bayreuth 1951

Lucerne 1954

This exquisite passage can be very anguished in the war performance, very lyrical in the Bayreuth 1951 recording, and tending inexorably towards fatality in the Lucerne 1954.




Berlin 1942

Bayreuth 1951

Lucerne 1954

A little while later, again the same passage in a different modulation : the anguish of 1942 becomes more interior, more tense ; the lyrical quality of 1951 bears evident signs of hope, and the 1954 resignation turns into tragic abandon.




Berlin 1942

Bayreuth 1951

Lucerne 1954

The above examples can be extended to the whole work, and give a fairly good idea of Furtwängler’s frame of mind in all three occasions. But whatever the mood or spirit, a mysterious atmosphere such as the pp at the beginning of the development, becomes more enhanced than in any matter-of-fact performance. This development begins as if it were a repeat of the exposition. To some critics’ annoyance, the D minor never arrives. New key after new key keep vanishing like the aurora borealis. Instead the music remains pianissimo and moves through D major and G minor, until the crescendo at bar 186 leads to a cadence borrowed from the end of the exposition. Under Furtwängler, the whole passage sounds as mysterious and as powerful as at the beginning of the work.




Lucerne 1954


(Conductor's name withheld)

Again, some characteristics observed here-above can be found in the fugato which benefits greatly from Furtwängler’s maestoso and yet energetic vision. I never believe my ears whenever a conductor treats this passage so fast that it turns voluntarily or not into a mock-piece.




Lucerne 1954

The unique trait about this development is the fact that it does not culminate into a climax. The music develops along beautifully, with the tender treatment of the main them soaring lovingly high up on the violins. Furtwängler always plays this passage rather mezzoforte than piano.




Lucerne 1954

But this quest for joy is interrupted by a short crescendo arriving almost out of the blue, followed by a precipitate descent into the Recapitulation. The effect is not that of a classic Beethoven home-coming, there having been no climax before. We are just drawn into the longest and most violent fortissimo in the repertory (bars 301-332). While this passage corresponds to the very beginning of the movement, its effect could not be more different.
The first half of this fortissimo in D major, theoretically joyous, is so oppressive that the switch to D minor comes rather as a relief. Where the beginning represents silence made sound, here it is like one single sforzando spread over the same period, and eventually subsiding out of a sheer exhaustion.




Lucerne 1942




Toscanini NBC 1952 - Mengelberg 1940 - Jochum 1979

Admirers of Furtwängler will always tell you that, in Beethoven,, he usually sounds a bit better than any other conductor. But here is a typical instance (among others) where he suddenly sounds twice as good. The solution to this mystery (as analysts found out after quite some research) is due to the fact that he does not try to improve on what Beethoven has written. It is not a case of Furtwängler making sudden miraculous progress: it is more a case of other conductors tampering with the nuances in the score. In this passage, musicians such as Wagner, Weingartner, Schenker, Nikisch, Toscanini (take your choice) recommended the use of shadings, or fading-out of some desks (ex: the trumpets), or applying decrescendo-crescendo on the timpani every four bars, or other special effects. Furtwängler, to our knowledge, remains the only conductor who plays it “sempre fortissimo”, never afraid that the timpani may drown out other voices, even going to the length of having the timpani go up to triple forte on the entrance of the theme (bar 316), thus applying the same logic as Beethoven’s annotated crescendo in bar 16 at the beginning of the work. Bradshaw, the great timpanist of the Philharmonic Orchestra, once told me that playing this passage under Furtwängler was the most exacting, yet most gratifying moment in his career. (Similar examples can be found in any other recordings, one of the most famous being that of the climax in the development of the 1st movement of Beethoven’s 7th).
Special tribute must be paid, here in the Ninth, to August Lohse, the Berlin timpanist.




Bayreuth 1951

The Coda is an entire piece in its own right. A striking new tune (bar 513) based on the first two notes of the work E-A, starts building up over a grinding ostinato. The whole sounds like a funeral march as the ostinato spreads from the bass upwards to the first violins. This looks like a new development of the principal theme until the “Schwungskraft” (power) and the “Schwungsrichtung” (the direction taken by the power) reach the final conclusion. This oppressive coda solves no problem and finishes with a gigantic question mark. I recommend a separate listening of Berlin 1942, where the coda sounds as if the end of the world is near. Of course, the maestoso annotation has the priority here with Furtwängler in the Bayreuth performance.


(c) 2008

Movements 1, 2, 3, 4



The composer | The Man - | The conductor