By the time of Furtwängler's conducting debut at the age of twenty, he had written several pieces of music. However, they were not well received and that, combined with the financial insecurity that a career as a composer would provide, led him to concentrate on conducting. At his first concert he led the Kaim Orchestra (now the Munich Philharmonic) in Anton Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. He subsequently held posts at Munich, Lübeck, Mannheim, Frankfurt, and Vienna, before securing a job at the Berlin Staatskapelle in 1920 and, in 1922, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (where he succeeded Arthur Nikisch) and concurrently at the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Later he became music director of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Salzburg Festival and the Bayreuth Festival, which was regarded as the greatest post a conductor could hold in Germany at the time.
Towards the end of the war, under extreme pressure from the Nazi Party, Furtwängler fled to Switzerland. He resumed performing and recording following the war and remained a popular conductor in Europe, although he was always under somewhat of a shadow. He died in 1954 in Baden-Baden.
Furtwängler is most famous for his performances of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner. However, he was also a champion of modern music and gave performances of contemporary composers such as Bartók, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bloch.