125th birthday of Wilhelm Furtwängler and love for music

Entrance of Mignon

His master's voice

January 25th was the 125th birthday of Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886 – 1954), one of the most significant and renowned conductors of the 20th century. The Furtwängler Institute Tokyo held an afternoon concert = New Year's party on January 30th at Mignon.

Mignon (Japanese only) is a "meikyoku-kissa". Meikyoku-kissa is a coffee house where people can listen to classical music played by phonograph. When there were very few occasions in Japan to listen to live European classical music, meikyoku-kissa used to offer a unique possibility for the most classical music lovers to listen to music till the 1970s when stereo equipment became available at reasonable prices and people started to listen to LPs, cassettes and later CDs and other digital sources at home or with personal equipment such as Walkman.

Mignon opened in 1961 in the north of the Ogikubo JR station and moved to the present place south of the station in 1971. The owner named the house "Mignon", because the space was "mini" and she found it chic to have a name from an opera title based on the Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lernjahre.

Goethe, Furtwängler and Mignon all characterize an aspect of the acceptance process of the European culture by the Japanese intellectuals.

Gips bust of the Music Saint is
an obligatory interior item.

In the first half of the 20th century the modern Japanese social system was somehow consolidated after several decades of catching up with the advanced West and the elites of the country came to be educated at high schools (1) from the 11th grade to the 13th grade before they went to the universities.

(1)There were in total more or less 25 high schools all over Japan. They were integrated into universities after WWII as a result of the reorganization of the educational system.

The high school students in general lived in dormitories and jointly cultivated a culture to develop their character through reading the works of European philosophers, in particular German philosophers such as Kant, Fichte and Hegel. The works of classical authors such as Goethe and Hesse also belonged to their compulsory reading materials.

European classical music was accepted by the Japanese would-be leaders in the context of character-building. It was very natural that music was accepted as a tool to improve individuals and not simply as entertainment. The legends related to the Music Saints such as Beethoven were highly appreciated and the abstract music was preferred by them. However, there were few chances for them to listen to music in live, and meikyoku-kissa was an important institution for them to experience the sound of the European classical music.

Though the special attachment to the German culture subsided after WWII and German language is not any more taught at universities as compulsory second foreign language, the influence of German music tradition is still strong among the Japanese music lovers. There are still people who are opposed to easy listening. For them listening music is an aesthetic practice and the serious style of Music Saints was respected and worshiped.

It is therefore very natural that Furtwängler became an icon among the Japanese music lovers. There are three associations (2) in Japan dedicated to Furtwängler as conductor as well as composer and thinker. I believe Japan has more associations related to Furtwängler than any other country in the world including Germany.

(2)- Wilhelm Furtwängler Society Japan Associates
(Established 1969)
- Furtwängler Institute Tokyo
(Established 1995)
- Wilhelm Furtwängler Centre of Japan
(Established 2004)

A part of the immense collection of LP records.

Musicians are members of the Furtwängler Institute Philharmonic Orchestra. The Japan premier of "The First Walpurgis Night"!

For January 30th Mr. Takeo Noguchi, the representative of the Furtwängler Institute, organized a gathering with concert, lecture and, as it is in a meikyoku-kissa, listening to the third movement of Bruckner symphony No.9 conducted by Furtwängler in 1944.

Two small works by Furtwängler were performed at the concert. They were composed when he was only 12 years old before properly learning music theory and composition: the first movement of a piano sonata and three instrumental works from the music to Goethe's poem "The First Walpurgis Night" (the premier in Japan!). They were both works by a young boy and sounded like works of early Romantic composers.

Mr. Noguchi underlined; though Furtwängler became famous as conductor, he himself wanted to be a composer and it might be more important for us to experience what he wanted to express through playing and lisening to his compositions than merely comparing different recordings of Furtwängler as conductor and critically analyzing tiny differences among them.

Noguchi-san talking about "love and comparison".

I was really impressed by his explanation about Furtwängler as a great thinker and his citation of Furtwänglers words. Furtwängler said (3) , Mr. Noguchi stressed, that people must indulge in music. Indulgence means love. Love is the opposite of evaluation or comparison and is to see the incomparable and transcendent essence of music. The world of intellectuals, which tries to uncover and evaluate the art, would never grasp the real value of art. We should stop analyzing trifling things but play and love his work and try to glimpse the essence of this world, Mr. Noguchi added.

(3)There is no proof of the correctness of these words, because I translated them from the Japanese translation.

I now play with the Furtwängler Institute Philharmonic Orchestra (cf. previous concert) and prepare for the next concert. It is really a fun to hear Mr. Noguchi at rehearsals and feel his love for the works by Furtwängler. The main program will be the symphonic concert for piano and orchestra - a large piano concert which was composed in 1937. The romantic, but very gloomy and technically demanding music from the Nazi time lasts more than one hour!!