In the summer of 2009, Valery Gergiev organized an exhibition in St. Petersburg called “Wilhelm Furtwängler: Maestro, Man, and Myth” as part of the White Nights Festival. At the opening, Gergiev gave a speech noting that Furtwängler had been attacked all his life because of his biography, yet “he served a great cause with all his creative energy and an unbelievable emotional intensity; namely the preservation of the German musical tradition.” 

Gergiev may well have been describing himself while honoring his greatest role model. His speech adopts the narrative that Furtwängler used after 1945 to legitimize his alignment with National Socialism. 

Over the last two months, there’s been a renewed debate over how to deal with Gergiev’s own closeness to Vladimir Putin and his criminal policies. The Furtwängler comparison has been made often. But how closely linked are the two scenarios? I posed this question to ​​Friedrich Geiger, Professor of Historical Musicology at the University of Music and Theater in Munich. One of Geiger’s main areas of work is comparative research on the role of music in dictatorships. His 2003 postdoctoral thesis at the University of Hamburg was titled Music in Two Dictatorships: Persecution of Composers under Hitler and Stalin.

Friedrich Geiger • Foto privat

VAN: Comparisons to dictatorships are in vogue again. To what extent are they helpful or problematic?

Friedrich Geiger: First of all, you can compare everything. That is a basic scientific method to identify structural similarities and differences. However, you need to cleave strongly to the distinction between comparing and equating. Colloquially, it’s always handled a bit differently; to compare is to notice those differences. That’s why I not only have nothing to say against comparisons to dictatorships, I also find them highly productive. Especially when it’s about the role music plays. 

Where do you see the structural similarities between Gergiev and Furtwängler?

To begin with, you have to recognize how great a role Russian classical music plays in Putin’s foreign propaganda program. Most people don’t see that. There are official documents that substantiate this. The Russian Ministry of Culture’s website, for example, has a report, “Decree of the Government of the Russian Federation on the adoption of the state cultural policy strategy in the period up to 2030,” dated February 29, 2016. There, it says: “Domestic classical music”—basically Gergiev’s main repertoire—“continues to play a leading role in world music culture and is the national glory and pride of the Russian Federation.” Right away, this is absolutely comparable to the role that German music played during the Nazi regime. The Russian soul is as important an export as oil and gas, and it’s used to paint the country in a positive light.  

In the discussion of Furtwängler and Gergiev, the term “pact” is often used. It suggests that, in both cases, the closeness was and is of a purely opportunistic nature. But it seems to me that both had or still have a very close ideological affinity with their respective regimes.

I would also see it that way. Of course there had to be a certain affinity. The decades-long discussion has been: “Was Furtwängler a Nazi?” That falls way short of the mark. More important, as you note, is “Where were the ideological intersections?”

Where were they?

With Furtwängler, it was the belief in Germany’s cultural superiority. The specter of Beethoven and this German sense of depth; the idea that the essence of Germanness is articulated most profoundly in the music.… But the Nazis didn’t invent the ideologization of music. It was long before their time. That’s why Furtwängler never saw himself as a Nazi, because he was basically just clinging to something that originated in the 19th century. The Nazi ideologues were just using what was already there.

Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra perform a concert in Palmyra for Russian troops.

Gergiev, likewise, has never kept his ideological closeness to Putin a secret. Is his affinity with state doctrine even closer than that of Furtwängler’s?

Possibly, yes. With him, there’s a complete overlap with Putin’s goals. That is the sound of terror, so to speak; the aesthetic side of what we see in Bucha. There’s a collection of interviews with Gergiev that was published recently in which Gergiev describes how he “conquered” western culture from the helm of the Mariinsky. It’s described like a military campaign: “All of the positions I took abroad—in Rotterdam, at the Met, at the LSO in London—always had something to do with the Mariinsky; I used them to that advantage.” In describing this strategy of accumulating positions, he refers explicitly to Furtwängler. He appears as a role model in four or five places in the book. Then, Gergiev is asked for the reason behind this expansion, and he replies: “The Russian composers, who put this one mighty weapon in our hands—this great Russian music.” Then there’s a lot of talk about the Russian Soul.… This idea of a certain self-superiority regarding one’s own musical culture is there in both Gergiev and Furtwängler.

With Gergiev, there’s also an unmistakable will to power and accumulation of offices. What was it like with Furtwängler?

It was pretty much the same with Furtwängler; perhaps not as extreme as Gergiev, who got to the point where he couldn’t take on any more individual positions. The number of bad performances due to a lack of time is pretty impressive. The difference is that Furtwängler lost his posts pretty early on in the Third Reich, in 1934 after attempting to oppose the regime. But of course he continued to be the unofficial head of the Berlin Philharmonic when he fell into line as a toady in 1935. Another parallel is that both participated in cultural-political committees: For Gergiev, it was the Council for Culture and Art. For Furtwängler, it was the Reich Cultural Senate through the Reich Chamber of Culture.

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Furtwängler’s defense during the Denazification process was that, as an artist, he was a priori not political. Where does this view of politics and classical music existing as separate worlds—which is still widespread today—actually come from?

That’s a core belief of German Romanticism. This idea that music is this heightened dream world into which one can withdraw, a world completely disconnected from daily events, started with [Ludwig] Tieck, [Wilhelm Heinrich] Wackenroder, and ETA Hoffmann. It’s remained a powerful idea ever since. One of the smartest Nazi propaganda moves was to appropriate it as a virtue. Goebbels knew he could bring these two systems together—politics and music—when he needed to add an emotional urgency to politics. But, when needed, he could also very quickly pull them apart and say, “It’s only music.” In the period of Denazification, this argument was still used: Orff, Furtwängler, Werner Egt. Even Schoenberg—who, as a Jewish artist, suffered under National Socialism—supported [Hans] Pfitzner by saying, “It’s terrible, what he said, but he’s a great composer.” You can see how deeply-rooted this thinking was. Depending on the situation, both Furtwängler and Gergiev can pretend it’s all about the music. At the same time, however, it’s not hard to find many situations in which both have brought music into a context where it’s no longer “only music.” 

In hindsight, do you think that Furtwängler acted naively? That he really didn’t understand how the Nazis were instrumentalizing music for their own ideology? 

There’s an interesting letter from Furtwängler to teacher and friend Ludwig Curtius from September, 1934: “Today, every German with a position is faced with the question of whether he wants to keep that position or not. If it’s the affirmative, he must somehow make a practical pact with the ruling party. Or, if he wants to leave, then that’s something else.” That shows the dilemma was crystal clear to him. And he made a very conscious decision not to leave. 

Wilhelm Furtwängler conducts a concert of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1939. • Photo © Scherl/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo

In 1936, Furtwängler was offered the position of chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He decided to remain in Germany, a decision for which many emigrés attacked him. He later said, “I could never leave Germany in its hour of deepest need.” 

Exactly, he presented it as a kind of “resistance.” One of the most revealing sources about his involvement with the Third Reich are the Goebbels diaries: There are countless entries in which Furtwängler met with Goebbels as a petitioner. Even in their personal lives: support for his divorce in 1943, whether Goebbels could sideline Karajan a bit because he got on Furtwängler’s nerves… sometimes incredibly prissy and small-minded concerns that Furtwängler believed he could use the Nazi state to resolve. There is also a parallel here with Gergiev, who successfully weaseled millions out of Putin for his theaters. Of course, Putin wouldn’t do it unless there was something in it for him. 

Can one force people who live under a dictatorship to criticize their government?

This is highly problematic. And it begs the question, what does one actually get out of it? For me, it reveals more about the person asking artists to make such statements; that it’s more of a strategy to ease one’s own conscience. “I’m not going to make any further efforts to learn what you think or what else you’ve been up to; I don’t really care. If you just say ‘Putin is evil,’ then you can play.” That’s very cheap. “All the years of entanglements that you referred to in your Gergiev article, that’s all horrible, but it shouldn’t be of interest anymore [because they’ve now distanced themselves from the regime].” There’s also the question of how true such statements are. Anna Netrebko distances herself from the war, but at the same time writes in Russian, “Sorry, I didn’t have a choice.” This does nothing except, under certain circumstances, calm one’s own conscience.

At the same time, it’s hard for many Ukrainian musicians to share a stage with Russian artists without knowing how they feel about the war. There’s always the suspicion that someone who remains neutral or silent is on the side of the aggressor. 

You have to carefully examine the particulars of each individual case. There are also considerable differences between Gergiev and Netrebko, which have become completely blurred in the discourse. Divestments, sanctions, these are difficult measures because they are more about us and our well-being. You don’t need to like [Ukrainian ambassador to Germany] Andriy Melnyk, but I can absolutely understand that, as the ambassador to a country where people are being slaughtered, he’s going to find a solidarity concert for Ukraine featuring only Russian musicians pretty unbearable. Two months ago, perhaps a concert with Russian and Ukrainian artists would have been appropriate. Now, it could come off as a huge faux pas. 

Even the reflexive argument of “music unites humanity” only works in certain contexts.

It’s debatable at the very least, but if that’s your conviction, you can try it at certain times. But right now, it’s just inappropriate. Music is highly dependent on context. That’s why it’s so absurd when Furtwängler says it’s all completely apolitical while conducting in front of Nazi flags, or Gergiev with his baseball hat performing for Russian soldiers in Palmyra. In those cases, music, with all its emotional power, is absolutely placed in a certain context. 

YouTube video
Performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday on April 19, 1942 in the old – in the war destroyed – Berlin Philharmonic Hall. Wilhelm Furtwängler conducts the “Reich Orchestra,” as the Berlin Philharmonic was called during the Nazi era.

Furtwängler was also “canceled” after the war when the Allies imposed a conducting ban, something that caused him to complain bitterly. Was there ever any self-criticism or reflection with him?

Not that I know of. I think his basic conviction was that he wasn’t guilty of anything. 

How does one now deal with a person so ambivalent as Furtwängler?

I think the challenge is not to pretend it isn’t there. That’s an unproductive attitude. You should deal with it. For example, I also find it interesting to ask to what extent a certain type of conducting might show a greater affinity with dictatorships. Gergiev, when asked about his strange hand movements, explicitly refers to Furtwängler and his own strategy behind it: keeping an orchestra in a state of confusion in order to sharpen their attention. That was certainly one of the main ingredients of the Furtwängler sound; you can feel this unbelievable tension in the musicians, who never know what’s coming next. This is a concept that takes strong aim at the irrational element of music; the mystical, intellectually incomprehensible aspects described in terms like “depth” and “soul.” One might ask whether this conducting isn’t more suitable to a dictatorship than a style that works out the structure of a piece, explores the music, and makes it explainable. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we always have such mystical conductors when it comes to using music as a propaganda tool

Valery Gergiev and Vladimir Putin at the awarding of the State Prize of the Russian Federation to Gergiev in June 2016 in the Kremlin • Photo Kremlin.ruCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite many unequivocal politica statements and appearances, some still insist that Gergiev “really” thinks quite differently. Where does that come from?

Again, this is also music-specific. People love Gergiev’s interpretations, and rightly so. I was at the Mariinsky in 2001 and heard a “Boris Godunov” that made me think, “I could die, this is so unbelievably great.” And then you can’t square this with the fact that art and the artist can diverge so much; that maybe he’s not a good person. The Süddeutsche Zeitung asks, in all seriousness, whether Gergiev’s silence “really” means he stands by Putin, and how can we infer that… How can you be so naive? You can see how the whole story played out. It’s typical cognitive dissonance: You can tell me a thousand times that smoking is harmful, but I’ll still happily smoke, even if there’s a picture of a diseased lung on the box. It’s selfish in a way, because it’s also about not spoiling your own enjoyment. 

Where does this idea that “a great artist be a bad person” come from?

I think that goes back to the ancient ethos that music has a civilizing power and makes you a better person. The poet Johann Gottfried Seume wrote in 1804: “Evil people have no songs.” Of course, that’s idealistic nonsense; it’s almost embarrassing to quote it. But many are still convinced of it to this day. Gergiev is painted as a good, somewhat unworldly, idiot uncle who supports his Mariinsky family and only stays silent because he doesn’t want to hurt them.

In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Shostakovich was used to understand Gergiev’s situation. What do you think of that comparison?

It’s problematic, because Gergiev, unlike Shostakovich, had every opportunity to choose between Putin and his western posts. Moreover, unlike the composer, he was never the target of reprisals. Above all, however, one must understand what it means when Gergiev plays Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. This is an abusive update of the “Great Patriotic War” myth, of that anti-fascist narrative that Putin uses to legitimize his atrocities. ¶

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... earned degrees in development studies, Asian studies, and cultural anthropology from universities in Berlin, Seoul, Edinburgh, and London. He is a founder of VAN, where he serves as publisher and editor-in-chief.