Furtwangler, Beethoven and Hermeneutics

The comparison between the act of interpreting a text and the act of performing a musical score has often been made.  I will probably use it in my own writing this summer.  However the potency of the analogy struck me this morning as I was listen to a new transfer of Wilhelm Furtwangler’s legendary 1951 performance of Beethoven’s 9th at the re-opening of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.  Now, the other recording I have in my collection is John Eliot Gardiner’s, which is a period instrument performance.  Both are dealing with the same notes on the page, both are convincing but the contrast is utterly extraordinary, so that one feels that you are listening to two different pieces of music, which in a sense, you are.  Gardiner is the exegete, Furtwangler the preacher.

I can’t find a clip of Gardiner’s version, so if you have a moment, then take a look/listen to these 2 clips of the final bars.  The first is Toscanini in 1948: for the comparison to work, you may want to start listening at about 3:30 in.

The second is Furtwangler in 1942 Berlin in a concert celebrating Hitler’s birthday!  There is huge debate about this performance, and to watch it is to be disturbed, but it seems to me that Furtwangler is actually pressing the score to the point where actually the music begins to break down (deconstruct).  Is this someone who knows that the music being played, and the context in which that happens, are inimical to each other, so much so that the music collapses?  The fury of the final bars suggest someone who is struggling to keep control  We will never know (but note if you stick to the end how he shakes Goebbel’s hand and then wipes his hand with a hankerchief).

For an insight into Furtwangler’s art, see here.

The point is that the notes on the page are the same – but in music, as in biblical studies, interpretation does indeed go all the way down.