Celebrating music: Wilhelm Furtwangler, Edwin Fischer, Wilhelm Kempff and the German Romantic performance tradition

Date of Completion

January 2005






German culture in the nineteenth century frequently granted music an exalted moral and quasi-religious status. This dissertation seeks to contextualize and to describe this phenomenon. Sources include works on theological, philosophical and social history topics as well as music historical sources, (including some writings by Wilhelm Kempff and Edwin Fischer translated into English for this dissertation). ^ In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther's emphasis on the inner experience of grace established a vital precedent for the significance of subjective experience. Subsequently, Pietism, Quietism and associated "religions of the heart" perpetuated this aspect of Luther's message. In the eighteenth century, the fledgling discipline of aesthetics developed from an epistemological study into a philosophy of art (Baumgarten, Mendelssohn, Kant, Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer). Through this line of development, art is recognized as a powerful shaper of human consciousness. ^ These philosophical ideas were not the sole province of professional philosophers. By an examination of writings by Furtwängler, Fischer, and Kempff, these ideas are related to the experience of practical performing musicians. The four areas discussed are (1) Nature and organicism, (2) subjectivity, (3) ethical art, (4) spirituality. ^ Modernism created a backlash against the perceived sentimentality and imprecision of Romantic art. Here, Stravinsky and Hindemith are the major figures whose ideas are used to make the argument against the Romantic view of music, and especially against the position of the performer in Romantic culture. ^ The practical results of this schism in terms of performance practice are discussed. Recorded performances are compared: Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, Op. 55 (Eroica) (first movement) by Toscanini and Furtwängler, and Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 83 (first movement) by Furtwängler/Fischer and George Szell/Rudolf Serkin. ^ The dissertation concludes with a consideraton of the contemporary classical music scene. The positivist apologia of the authentic performance movement, the anti-high culture bias of Postmodernism, and the basis of New Musicology in critical theory are all contemporary ways of understanding classical music that undermine the voice from within that Martin Luther believed to be the Holy Spirit, and that the Romantics reinterpreted as the immediate reception of the Absolute. ^