The German conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was the son of the archaeologist Adolf Furtwängler, spent his youth in Munich, where his father lectured at the university. He grew up in a humanistically influenced home. His musical education was provided by Anton Beer-Waldbrunn, Josef Rheinberger and Max von Schillings. Konrad Ansorge made him a good pianist.
In 1906 Wilhelm Furtwängler became the second rehearsal assistant in Berlin. At the age of 20, he conducted Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 in Munich before he moved first to Breslau (Wroclaw), then to Zürich, where he conducted a choir from 1907-1909. He then returned to Munich and filled the same post under Felix Mottl. When Hans Pfitzner took over the directorship of the Strasbourg Opera, he appointed Furtwängler as the third conductor. In 1911, Furtwängler conducted the orchestra of the Society of Friends of Music in Lübeck.
In 1915 he succeeded Arthur Bodanzky at the court theatre in Mannheim. In 1920, he took over the directorship of the symphony concerts of the Berlin Opera from Richard Strauss. Within two years he gained such renown that he was appointed as the successor of Arthur Nikisch as the director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1925 he went on his first tour of the USA. In 1928 he succeeded Felix Weingartner as the director of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, but refused to take on the directorship of the opera at the same time. In 1931 he became the joint musical director of the Bayreuth Festival on an equal footing with Arturo Toscanini. In the same year he was responsible for the first performance of Hans Pfitzner's opera Das Herz in Berlin. Two years later he became the director of the establishment; he took on numerous Jewish artists, which was strongly criticised by the National Socialist regime.
In December 1934 he resigned his post 'for political reasons'. After that he received invitations from all over the world to conduct symphony concerts and operas as a guest conductor, mainly for the works of Richard Wagner. Philadelphia, New York and Vienna offered him the directorship of their opera houses, but Furtwängler refused because he did not want to leave Germany. He wanted to live in freedom and to conduct those works abroad which he considered to be significant. The 'Hindemith Affair' was one of the most difficult moments of his career (Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring had forbidden him to perform Mathis der Maler at the Berlin Opera, and for this reason he had resigned).
In 1936, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra offered him the opportunity to succeed Arturo Toscanini. He was willing to go into exile. But in a mysterious report from the Berlin branch of the Associated Press it was alleged that Furtwängler was willing to be reinstated as the director of the Berlin Opera. This incorrect report triggered a hefty polemic reaction to the conductor in New York, who then decided not to take over the New York orchestra. In the same year, he again conducted in Bayreuth for the first time since 1931.
He conducted there again in 1937, 1943 and 1944. In between, he conducted in Paris during the world exhibition in 1937, and he conducted concerts and operas in London. But the Second World War made foreign contacts impossible and he had to limit himself to very few concerts in Berlin. In 1945 his position became increasingly difficult, because the Gestapo put increasing pressure on him. He fled to Switzerland. At this time he mainly worked on composing. His works included the Symphonic concert for piano and orchestra (1937), the Sonata in E minor for piano and violin (1938) and the Sonata in E major for piano and violin (1940). Not until December 1946 was he cleared of all allegations of collaborating with the National Socialists. Two musicians acted as particularly vocal advocates for him: Yehudi Menuhin and Ernest Ansermet.
In 1947 Wilhelm Furtwängler resumed the directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. At the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951 he conducted a notable performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. From 1947 he had worked untiringly for the Salzburg Festival. Tours through South America, to Switzerland (especially to the festivals in Lucerne), to Italy (including Milan’s La Scala) and to Paris and London had come in quick succession. In 1948 he completed his Symphony No. 2 in E minor. After his death, three movements of an incomplete third symphony were found among his papers.
We are indebted to Wilhelm Furtwängler for numerous first performances: 5 orchestral pieces op. 16 (2nd version 1922) and Variations for orchestra op. 31 (1928) by Arnold Schoenberg, Concert for piano No. 1 by Béla Bartók (1927), Concert music for solo viola op. 48 (1930), Philharmonic concert (1932) and the Symphony Mathis der Maler (1934) by Paul Hindemith, Mouvement symphonique No. 3 by Arthur Honegger (1933), Concert for piano and orchestra No. 5 by Sergey S. Prokofiev (1932) and Vier letzte Lieder by Richard Strauss (1950).