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Viewing Furtwängler from the perspective of the philosophy of music

The philosopher Henrik Holm has written an essay on the controversial German orchestra conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler as both conductor and thinker. Although Furtwängler was used as a tool by the Nazi regime, he succeeded in eliciting the beauty of music to promote the power of good, according to Holm.

Ever since Henrik Holm was a child he has been delighted and fascinated by Wilhelm Furtwängler’s interpretations of the music he conducted. Holm’s career as a percussionist took him to Germany, where he studied at the art university. He eventually found his way into the fields of theology and philosophy.

Music has always remained a part of his life, and now also a part of his academic activities. This resulted in the dissertation The Logos in the Music. A hermeneutical investigation of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s art of musical interpretation after three years as a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Academy of Music.

"More than merely music"

In his dissertation Holm addressed both examples of Furtwängler’s recordings of various works of Beethoven and Brahms, and the conductor and composer’s writings on subjects including interpretation, music history and aesthetics.

"As I read more and more of Furtwängler’s writings I understood that they applied to much more than merely music. When examining his activities during the period of Nazi rule in Germany, and the recordings that were made during that time, I felt that when he conducted he evoked the entire human drama of the struggle between good and evil," Holm says enthusiastically.

Because of Furtwängler’s activities during the period of the Nazi regime in Germany, he is a controversial artist. His decision to remain in Germany left its mark on his life and career, and not least on his posthumous reputation.

"As I read more and more of Furtwängler’s writings I understood that they applied to much more than merely music. When examining his activities during the period of Nazi rule in Germany, and the recordings that were made during that time, I felt that when he conducted he evoked the entire human drama of the struggle between good and evil."

Henrik Holm Philosopher

Furtwängler regarded himself as an apolitical artist. Holm finds Furtwängler interesting both as an artist and as a person, but is also intrigued by the phenomenon itself, and views the various complex problems that arise in this context as an attractive subject for a philosopher to explore.

"Naturally, it is a difficult historical and ethical issue to delve into. But one of the most fascinating elements of this project from a philosophical point of view is precisely investigating the weighty problems that go along with it. The question arises: Can I ignore the historical aspects and devote myself solely to the music, or must I maintain a constantly critical conscience and dissociate myself from him?"

The art of interpretation

The challenge was to develop a method that would unite Furtwängler’s historical and artistic qualities. Holms’s dissertation includes a chapter about Furtwängler in his time, while the main focus provides a philosophical analysis of the conductor’s interpretations and writings.

"From a methodical point of view, I have treated the writings and the musical interpretations as a cohesive entity. Thomas Mann summarises it very well in his concept of the art of interpretation. It is an art to interpret music, but that does not prevent it from also being an intellectual pursuit. This intellectual aspect is brought out in Furtwängler’s writings, and in the process of studying him I have become aware of the internal interaction between theory and practice," says Holm.

The beauty of art as a force for the good

Holm has discovered a classic German artistic idealism in Furtwängler’s writings. And although Furtwängler was not even a philosopher, Holm sees great philosophical potential in the conductor’s written work. This is what Holm has been working with and examining in light of the interpretations that Furtwängler actually carried out.

"Furtwängler wrote quite a bit about what interpreting music demanded of him as a person. His idealistic artistic viewpoint encompasses the idea that art says something to us that only art can say, and that it preserves its beauty despite, for example, the conditions that prevailed during the Second World War."

"That beauty was a force pulling us towards the good, in Furtwängler’s view, which is precisely why he decided to stay in Germany during that period," Holm explains.

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) served as the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for two periods: from 1922 to 1945 and from 1952 to 1954.

Creativity and intuition in philosophy

In order to convey all of this in his dissertation, Holm drew linguistic inspiration from a number of central German philosophers.

"With the help of philosophers such as Schelling, Heidegger and Wittgenstein I have tried to cultivate a metaphorical language to describe Furtwängler’s art of interpretation. This language includes everything from dramatic, existential concepts to metaphorical descriptions of the landscape," according to Holm.

Holm sees a future for himself as a philosopher of music. He believes that there is a close connection between music and philosophy and that they have a lot to offer each other.

"Gathering all the different ideas and sources of inspiration that derive from history, music, philosophy and my own experiences into an integrated whole has been one of the most exciting parts of the project. As a listener and philosopher one must utilise one’s creative, intuitive abilities in order to recreate and depict Furtwängler’s universe."

He thus sees philosophy, like art, as an intuitive and creative activity, and hopes that musicians and music students will regard his dissertation as relevant for their work.

Hope and beauty

At the same time, Holm has discovered important contributions to philosophical reflection in the musical examples he has explored. Listening to Furtwängler’s music and interpretations evokes a great deal of the tragedy and tension that characterise the most extreme facets of human existence, in Holm’s view.

"For Furtwängler, the idea that art integrates all negativity and transforms it into an expression of beauty is extremely important. I also find powerful glimpses of hope in his interpretations of Brahms," he explains.

He perceives a more imposing and idealistic quality in Beethoven.

"Beauty and art emerge there for Furtwängler as invincible stars, which will remain invulnerable regardless of what we humans manage to do to each other. He takes the tragedy of human fate to heart, but transforms it into a manifestation of absolute beauty. In other words, according to Furtwängler the entire broad spectrum of human existence is encompassed by the metaphysical depths of music," the philosopher of music ascertains.

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