Wilhelm Furtwängler (January 25, 1886 – November 30, 1954) was a German conductor and composer. He is considered to be one of the greatest symphonic and operatic conductors of the 20th century.
Furtwängler was principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic between 1922 and 1945, and from 1952 until 1954. He was also principal conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra (1922–26), and was a guest conductor of other major orchestras including the Vienna Philharmonic.
He was the leading conductor to remain in Germany during the Second World War, although he was not an adherent of the Nazi regime. This decision caused lasting controversy, and the extent to which his presence lent prestige to the Third Reich is still debated.
Furtwängler's conducting is well documented in commercial and broadcast recordings and has contributed to his lasting reputation. He had a major influence on many later conductors, and his name is often mentioned when discussing their interpretive styles.
Gustav Heinrich Ernst Martin Wilhelm Furtwängler was born in Schöneberg (now a locality of Berlin) into a prominent family. His father Adolf was an archaeologist, his mother a painter. Most of his childhood was spent in Munich, where his father taught at the city's Ludwig Maximilian University. He was given a musical education from an early age, and developed an early love of Ludwig van Beethoven, a composer with whose works he remained closely associated throughout his life.
Although Furtwängler achieved fame chiefly from his conducting, he regarded himself foremost as a composer. He began conducting in order to perform his own works. By age of twenty, he had composed several works. However, they were not well received, and that, combined with the financial insecurity of a career as a composer, led him to concentrate on conducting. He made his conducting debut with the Kaim Orchestra (now the Munich Philharmonic) in Anton Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. He subsequently held conducting posts at Munich, Strasbourg, Lübeck, Mannheim, Frankfurt, and Vienna.
Furtwangler succeeded Artur Bodanzky as principal conductor of the Mannheim Opera and Music Academy in 1915, remaining until 1920. As a boy he had sometimes stayed with his grandmother in Mannheim. Through her family he met the Geissmars, a Jewish family who were leading lawyers and amateur musicians in the town. Berta Geissmar wrote, "Furtwängler became so good at [skiing] as to attain almost professional skill...Almost every sport appealed to him: he loved tennis, sailing and swimming...He was a good horseman..." She also reports that he was a strong mountain climber and hiker.
Berta Geissmar subsequently became his secretary and business manager, in Mannheim and later in Berlin, until she was forced to leave Germany in 1934. From 1921 onwards, Furtwängler shared holidays in the Engadin with Berta and her mother. In 1924 he bought a house there. After he married, the house was open to a wide circle of friends.
In 1920 he was appointed conductor of the Berlin Staatskapelle succeeding Richard Strauss. In January 1922, following the sudden death of Arthur Nikisch, he was appointed to the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Shortly afterwards he was appointed to the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, again in succession to Nikisch. Furtwängler made his London debut in 1924, and continued to appear there before the outbreak of World War 2 as late as 1938, when he conducted Richard Wagner's Ring. (Furtwängler later conducted in London many times between 1948 and 1954.) In 1925 he appeared as guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, making return visits in the following two years.
In January 1945 Furtwängler fled to Switzerland. It was during this period that he completed what is considered his most significant composition, the Symphony No. 2 in E minor. It was given its premiere in 1948 by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Furtwängler's direction and was recorded for Deutsche Grammophon.
Following the war, he resumed performing and recording, and remained a popular conductor in Europe, although his actions in the 1930s and 40s were a subject of ongoing criticism. He died in 1954 in Ebersteinburg, close to Baden-Baden. He is buried in the Heidelberg Bergfriedhof.