Music mourns Kurt Masur

Music mourns Kurt Masur


norman lebrecht

December 19, 2015

The death of the German conductor today at the age of 88 is a cause for global sadness.

Kurt was not widely loved until his mid-life. He seemed at first to be a rather rigid disciplinarian and unsmiling representative of the authoritarian East German regime. But those who grew close to him knew a different story and once he met his third wife, Tomoko, playing in a Brazilian orchestra, an altogether warmer man emerged.


I got to know him well in the early 1990s and we bonded over our mutual love for Klaus Tennstedt, whom Kurt had known and loved since he was 19. It was through Slipped Disc that Kurt announced to the world that he was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and in an interview with me that he (with Tomoko’s support) discussed its intimate effects. His courage and humility in the face of mortal illness was humbling. He would stand in front of an orchestra, no longer able to raise an arm, and still communicate the inner essence of a Beethoven symphony.

He was a great musician and a fine human being. I cherish his memory.

Kurt Masur, born in Silesia, escaped from an American POW camp at the end of the war, made his name with the Leipzig Gewandhaus and his greater fame by defying the Communist regime in Leipzig and facilitating a peaceful transfer of power. Approached to become president of united Germany, Kurt said: ‘I’m a musician. That’s what I know how to do.’

From 1991 to 2002 he was music director of the New York Philharmonic, sharpening its playing responses and instilling a stronger sense of identity. He fell out publicly with its president Deborah Borda, but was later fondly reconciled. He went on to succeed Tennstedt at the LPO and to revitalise the Orchestre National de France.

Never remotely a Nazi, he was proud of his title as honorary guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic.


  • John says:

    We shall all miss an incredible conductor.

    It is good to see the major news outlets remembering his brave action against the left-wing East German regime. Given only a small change of circumstances, I would not be surprised if we would be remembering Mr Masur also as one of Germany’s leading politicians.

    • jaypee says:

      To describe the communist dictatorship of East Germany as merely “left wing” makes as much sense (and is as intellectually dishonest) as to describe the nazi regime as merely “right wing”.

      On top of being a great conductor, Kurt Masur stood up to the communist regime. And that is admirable.

      • Peter says:

        “he stood up to the communist regime” he did not. He opened his house, the Gewandhaus Leipzig, for hosting dialogue between the street and the authorities, but he did so at a point in time in fall 1989, where the communist regime was already history. He was helping the peaceful transition and avoiding anarchy in the process.

        But he never resisted the regime openly at a time where it was dangerous to do so. He was, after all, as he said himself all the time, not only later when asked to run for President, only a musician.

        It is one of these rich biographies that should not be judged by those, who grew up in the safe west and who are therefor clueless how it is to have ambition and arrange your career under a totalitarian government.

        Masur did all the things that were required by the East German government, in order to achieve growth and best possible conditions not only for himself but also for all those under his leadership. It was “Realpolitik” in the musical world. Impossible to achieve anything by being a straight dissident to the regime.

        He governed over the new concert hall buildings, first in Dresden and then the New Leipzig Gewandhaus, and it is also because of his good personal relationship with the officials, that at least the Gewandhaus was built to an internationally competitive standard, making it one of the better halls today in Germany. Remarkable, considering that in the much more prosperous west, comparable projects like the Gasteig in Munich missed that target.

        So in his memory lets remember a visionary and charismatic musician, commanding natural authority from his musicianship that moved many people. There is no need to cloud his memory with fantasia stories about Kurt Masur the resistance fighter. He was a real man and practical musician, and thats a lot.

  • Olaugh Turchev says:

    That was the last time the NY Philharmonic had interesting programming…
    RIP Maestro

    • Jevgeniy says:

      Baloney. You may like Gilbert or not, but the programming has never been more varied and interesting.

      • Daniel F. says:

        Agree: taking on an orchestra that was in great shape, thanks to Masur and preserved (though no more) during the stodgy tenure of Maazel, Gilbert has gone the needed extra step in building an organization that actually STANDS for something and has intelligent people talking. He is dishearteningly neutral in “standard repertory” but his program-making is superb, as is his conducting of most difficult 20th and 21st century scores. Here’s hoping the NY Philharmonic stays on course by hiring Salonen, but they probably won’t since they have apparently been unhappy with AG.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Just a remark on the sideline: nobody knows whether the ‘most difficult works of the 20th century’ are played well, because nobody knows them well, or not altogether, and it is very hard to tell whether a modern piece is played well, or even correctly, when in its idiom there is no room for the notion of ‘wrong note’.

          • Holly Golightly says:

            Excellent and salient comment!! I saw Gilbert and the NYPO in Vienna at the Musikverein and I thought it was superb. During that year I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity compare all the great orchestras of the world, most of which appeared in Vienna, and I have to say the NYPO was right up there amongst them. The Chicago, I felt, only slightly trumped – but I regard that orchestra as one of the top 5 in the world. All those great orchestras were absolutely on fire!!

  • Holly Golightly says:

    I am sorry to learn of the death of Maestro Masur. He was always a name synonymous with excellent musicality and intelligence. It seems he had an interesting and eventful life under the communists in East Germany and in WW2, which no doubt shaped his personality and aesthetic.

    The nazi comment was gratuitous; I never considered this aspect of Masur simply because he was German and lived through WW2.

  • Daniel F. says:

    Kurt Masur restored a professionalism of attitude, teamwork, and playing standards in the New York Philharmonic that had gone wanting since the mid-1930’s. That is not to say that other great conductors did not, in the long interim, produce wonderful performances, but essentially this was an orchestra of, you might say, 100 musicians in 100 taxi-cabs. For one reason or another, he never received proper credit and gratitude for his labors, which of course were more than considerable. The Brahms Requiem he directed after 9/11 was unforgettable. During the Ozawa reign at the Boston Symphony, Masur’s guest appearances were eagerly anticipated and warmly received.

  • John Willan says:

    The London Philharmonic was fortunate to have both Tennstedt and Masur in their stable. Such was the bond between them and the obvious rapport with the orchestra that, shortly after my arrival, it seemed logical for me to appoint Kurt as principal guest conductor. They were, however, very different. Masur could be quite stern. I remember how the players would sit up when he addressed them as “friends”. This was a warning signal.

    Kurt was about a year younger than Klaus. In 1991 I held a small dinner party for both in London to celebrate their 65th birthdays. There were just 6 of us. Kurt was rehearsing the orchestra in the morning and, as he left, I asked him at what time the car was picking him up. “Friend”, he said, “I do not need you to send a car, I can hail a taxi on the street.” “Maestro”, I said, “your car will pick you up at 9 am.” “Thank you”, he said. A lucky escape!

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    A great conductor certainly and he played a significant part in quelling tensions during the collapse of the Communist regime in East Germany. History will remember him for this.

    I suppose one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead- but he was a pretty nasty man. I vividly recall him coming to IU whilst I was a student. He worked on Beethoven 7 and Shostakovich 1 with one of the student orchestras. He was brutal to them-considering that they were young, talented but inexperienced players. A poor girl- struggling through the piano part in the final movement of the Shostakovich was told she couldn’t play and should consider giving up. The prinicipal flute played beautifully and flawlessly but was still beaten up by him when he commented that as ‘a sweet American girl from Bloomington’ she had no idea what it was ‘like to live under the communist system like Shostakovich’ and hence implying no empathy with the music. A totally irrelevant & ridiculous comment.

    But when it came to the performance of Beethoven 7- these kids played like The Berlin Philharmonic. The magnetism of his musical personality was there to see.

    I’ve friends in the LPO. Most of them found him totally ghastly to play for. He was routinely offensive to them in both rehearsal and during a performance. During a few lunches with Bob Truman, former principal cello of the LPO, he told me many amusing Masur stories. One night, Bob refused to play for the maestro after a rehearsal tongue lashing. A messenger was sent as a peace offering to which Bob replied ‘Tell him to do something on his hands and then clap on them’ or something to that effect…

    • Anon says:

      Well, what you witnessed was probably just a typical clash of the cultures, Masur was an alien to the American way of indirect and p.c. soft washed communication.

      It was the common style east of the iron curtain, to say things “as it is”. Even when hurtful. It created much pain, but it also created a sense of honesty and intense immediacy in the social interaction which led to very intense music making and moving many people’s hearts.

  • Nurhan Arman says:

    Very saddened to hear the death of great conductor Kurt Masur. Besides being an outstanding musician he also knew how to use his art and persona for social change. Everything I heard him conduct had stylistic integrity and remarkable rhythmic clarity. I heard him live with Leipzig Gewandhouse in Mendelssohn’s 4th symphony and it remains in my memory as one of the finest live performances. His transformation of the New York Philharmonic is well known. But New York Times’ harsh criticism during his last years of tenure was unfair and unfortunate. Rest in peace Maestro Kurt Masur.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Why does it seem that our present times don’t produce so many musical personalities like Masur? Or Karajan? Or Solti, Walter, Toscanini? Is it the materialistic decadence of the West, dripping into music education? Is it the lack of suffering, or the dominance of career lust? Given the high standards of orchestras nowadays, better than in the past, one would expect an abundance of great conductors.

    • Peter says:

      Apparently to achieve something, you need to be hungry. You need to have a drive for moving, for getting “out of the darkness”.

      Our times have achieved, that everybody is well fed and that nobody needs to respect any authority. Our culture has been driven down to the lowest common denominator, a result of economic realities, namely that you can make much more money with selling trivial sh*t to a lot of people, rather than selling complex high art to a very few, once the masses have disposable income for such consumption, that by itself being a remarkable achievement of our times…

      Why should the young generation work hard? They have already a convenient life.
      Now if a society has a lot of money and invests it into music education in a big scale (e.g. Norway) there still can be good results. But for the rest of us, good night.

      • Mark Mortimer says:

        Peter, I’m sorry- don’t buy all this the ‘younger generation have never had it so easy’. The Capitalist, free market Western economies present equally severe living problems, allbeit different, to the Communist system. Youth unemployment across Europe has never been higher- despite the erroneous statistics.

        There are many wonderful young musicians about- just as many as before. The trouble is finding the outlets for them to play/sing/conduct etc….. which I agree, have been curtailed by an increasingly materialistic society. I don’t think ‘hunger’ has anything to do with it. Great musicians are born- not made- ‘hungry’ or not.

        To tie this in with Masur. Whatever you say about the circumstances of his life and the system he lived most of it under, at least it nurtured and supported his talent for conducting. Something of which the younger generation are finding increasingly tough.

    • Anon says:

      I guess it is the hardships of life, confrontations with death, disease, despair, that form and fortify a personality and amplify the love of life, and with it the love of life and the love of one of man’s highest inspirations, classical music.
      Kurt Masur and all the others you name lived up in turbulent, times. War, personal setbacks.
      One cataclysmic, and until the end by him avoided topic, was the tragic death of his first wife in a car accident. AFAIK he was driving back home to East Germany from Stockholm, in the night right after a concert in Stockholm. It’s a very long drive, even more so back in 1972.
      At some point somewhere in the south of Sweden he fell asleep for seconds on the wheel. He drifted into the other lane and hit a car that was driving in the opposite direction at full speed.
      Two people in that car died. His wife as well died of her injuries. He luckily survived. Just imagine the heavy burden that was on him for the rest of his life.
      The tragedy had a political aftermath. Sweden wanted to arrest him for manslaughter as soon as he was out of the hospital. Only an exceptional intervention on the highest governmental level secured his release to East Germany without further charges.
      So in legal terms he never was made to atone for his error of judgment – an error most of us made typically at some point in our lives – that had such grave consequences.

      He said he was a Christian, so lets pray for him that he finds forgiveness now.
      Needless to say, that the East German government going out of their way to safe him from Swedish prison, also influenced his way of living an inner opposition, but finding recompense in arranging his career with the authorities.

      • Anon says:

        …according to other sources the accident happened in East Germany. Nevertheless, I hope he finally finds consolation and forgiveness.