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Mack Williams: Old 78s and Furtwängler

Today’s column concerns 78 rpm records which I came across in my youth and recordings of old 78 rpm records people posted on You Tube for all to currently enjoy (scratches and all). Some of these old You Tube 78s are recordings of orchestras under the direction of the greatest symphonic director of the 20th century, Maestro Wilhelm Furtwängler, a good, but somewhat politically naïve man.

My 78 rpm reverie (the speed of the records, not the speed of my reverie) began on a late rainy night.

For something to go to sleep by, I googled “Tschaikovsky 6th Symphony ‘Pathetique’ directed by Wilhelm Furtwängler.” A post appeared with a picture of an old 78 rpm record, and on its label was listed the Berlin Philharmonic directed by Wilhelm Furtwängler.

The posting was taken directly from old 78 records, scratches and all! Following the completion of each side was a brief silence, followed by “introductory scratches” leading into another segment of “music and scratches.” After a while, I thought of each brief silence as “the present,” and the “scratched music” as “the past.” The sound of that late night’s falling rain seemed to become inseparable, sound-wise, from the old recording’s scratches.

I found several Wagner operas (excuse me, “music dramas”) on old 78s at the Rowan Library while in high school. What now takes a couple of CDs (or a few more, since it is Wagner) were represented at one time by “tomes” containing multiple 78 rpm records. If each passenger carried one on an airplane, take-off might be difficult with such “Wagnerian” weight!

In East Rowan’s library, I was amazed to find an old 78 of “Der Nibelungen Marsch,” by German composer Gottfried Sonntag based on themes by Richard Wagner. By strange coincidence, about that time I also heard the same march played over my car radio by one of the local radio stations (there must have been a need to fill some time and the march came in handy).

As an Old Stone House docent, my brother Joe will speak of German yet being spoken on the streets of Salisbury at the turn of the century (not this one, the previous one); but here I was in the late 1960s, driving up West Innes and listening to a “Teutonic” march.

Of course, there were already long-playing 33 1/3 recordings of all of the above, but the older records sounded as if they had been “marked” by the past, music added to by the “scratches of time.”

There were, of course, some 78s being made in the 1950s, like the local radio station recording of “Susie Darlin’” by the rock ’n roll band in which my brother Joe played drums.

Somewhere along the way back then, I remember either Spence Hatley (The Music Mart) or my brother Joe, or both, talking about some guy somewhere who was using a bunch of old 78s for skeet shooting (a modern-day Hun).

Returning to Furtwängler, with some of my East Rowan graduation (1969) money, I bought a 33 1/3 recording of Wagner’s “Die Walkure” (The Valkyrie) under the direction of Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Furtwängler received criticism for having remained in Germany as the director of the Berlin Philharmonic while other conductors and musicians were emigrating west. He said he remained for his art, and in effect, his art was his fight against the Nazis. He had on-going arguments with Propaganda Minister Dr. Josef Goebbels about what the Berlin Philharmonic would or would not do, in trying to avoid being called a “Nazi orchestra.”

Over those years, Furtwängler did manage to save upwards of 100 of his Jewish musicians from the gas chamber; and he finally emigrated to Switzerland in February of 1945 after finding out he was on a list of people to be shot.

Hearing a recording of any symphony under Furtwangler’s direction, I feel as if I’m really hearing that symphony for the first time. Gosh, I have a lot of catching up to do!

To see him in action, google “Furtwängler rehearsals Brahms Symphony No.4 in 1948, London.”

Falling asleep the other night, I thought of those saved musicians on “Furtwängler list,” a list not as extensive as “Schindler’s,” and written on that particular sort of paper containing five lines and four spaces.

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