David Worboys – The great interpreters

The great classical conductors, such as Furtwaengler and Klemperer left us a legacy of music in defiance of the Nazi regime.

It starts with Mahler, renowned as one of the great specialist composers – of the symphony and the Lied. He was also one of the most accomplished conductors but, as he died in 1911, there are no recordings of his interpretations. However, two of his pupils have left a rich legacy on record.

It is a subjective judgement but four conductors whom we can hear today stand out from the rest. These are Wilhelm Furtwaengler, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer (all contemporaries) and Herbert von Karajan.

Furtwaengler risked his life criticising the Nazi regime and mocking Goebbels, but stayed in Germany during the war. As he was not successful as a composer, he chose to focus on conducting, taking risks by working with Jewish musicians such as Yehudi Menuhin and Artur Schnabel. He made his debut with the Bruckner Ninth in Munich and went on to become a legend, being honoured on a West Berlin postage stamp in 1955. He was by then associated with the Vienna Philharmonic and is now widely regarded as the G.O.A.T.

Furtwaengler had tried to protect the music of Jewish composers such as Mahler and Mendelssohn. No longer alive, they were free from persecution, but the current musicians, composers and interpreters were not so fortunate. Two other pre-eminent conductors were forced by the Nazi regime to leave Germany, because they were Jewish. They were Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, proteges of Mahler, himself Jewish.

Bruno Walter converted to Christianity in 1898. Despite this, in 1933 his daughter was arrested by the Nazis for being Jewish. He arranged for her to escape to Sweden while he himself left for France in 1933 and six years later settled in the USA. He was especially proficient with Mahler, Brahms and Wagner.

Klemperer started as a conductor of opera before switching to specialise in symphonic music. The Nazis forced him to leave Germany in 1933. Five years later he had a brain tumour removed which left him partly paralysed and suffering acute depression until 1945. Despite other painful physical adversities, he recovered sufficiently to become one of the greatest conductors, above all of Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler, particularly with the Philharmonia  based in London.

Herbert von Karajan was different. He was not German, not Jewish and had been a reluctant member of the Nazi party in his twenties for the benefit of his career. In 1956 he succeeded Furtwaengler as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. Most of his prolific output was issued on CDs of which he sold 100 million. In 1967 he founded the Salzburg Festival and began promoting opera to a wider public. Karajan was a showman who recorded numerous videos of his performances, including a number of operas. Nobody has done more to introduce classical music to the millions.

In their distinct ways these four music conductors lived heroic lives, leaving a glorious legacy.

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Written by

David Worboys

Offering a unique insight into everything from politics to food to sport, David is one of the Euro Weekly News´ most popular columnists.