Remembering Terry Teachout: On the pianist who sold his soul

Remembering Terry Teachout: On the pianist who sold his soul

Daily Comfort Zone

norman lebrecht

January 27, 2022

From an essay by Terry, dated May 2020:

When the Guardian invited a group of noted piano virtuosi to name their favorite pianist of all time, two of them, Stephen Hough and Angela Hewitt, passed over such familiar figures as Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein and instead chose Alfred Cortot, whose name is no longer generally known outside France. They spoke of his playing with an enthusiasm that bordered on outright idolatry. In Hough’s words:

There are artists who delight listeners with their wild and daring individuality; there are others who uncover the written score with reverence; there are few who can do both. Cortot had a vision which went beyond the academic or the theatrical to some wider horizon of creativity from whence the composers themselves might well have drawn inspiration.

Nor are Hough and Hewitt alone. Alfred Brendel has called Alfred Cortot “the one pianist who equally satisfies my mind, my senses, my emotions.” Horowitz himself briefly studied with him. Clara Haskil and Dinu Lipatti revered him both as a teacher and as a performer.

The darker side of his career was summed up in the headline atop the Times’ posthumous tribute: “Alfred Cortot, Pianist, Is Dead; Soloist and Conductor, 84, Backed Vichy Regime.” Alfred Cortot was the first artist and only musician to serve in France’s Nazi-sanctioned occupation government during World War II, becoming Marshal Pétain’s high commissioner for fine arts and (as one historian put it) “Vichy’s official music czar.”

An energetic and unapologetic collabo, he also performed in Nazi Germany and was friendly with such prominent Nazis as Albert Speer. After the war, he was duly brought before a purge committee that banned him for a year from public performance in France, and the members of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra refused to play for him when he sought to resume concertizing.

“Collaboration…in the sphere of music between Germany and France is something I have been engaged in for more than 40 years, despite events in other spheres which oppose it,” Cortot said in 1942, a pronouncement he never had occasion to retract.
He stopped concertizing when war broke out in 1939 and offered his services to the new government at Vichy within days of the fall of France. His dream, in the words of one of his disillusioned pupils, was to become “the Gauleiter of French music,” and that, in essence, was what he did. By 1941, he was in charge of French musical life, eventually becoming the president of Vichy’s Committee for the Professional Organization of Music, which issued licenses to anyone who wanted to function as a professional musician. So far as can now be known, such licenses were not issued to Jews. In the same year, he resumed his own career as a pianist and conductor, regularly appearing at German-sponsored events and, starting in 1942, performing throughout Nazi Germany as well.

Cortot, like Furtwängler, claimed after the war that he had used his position to protect Jews and Resistance members. True or not, it is known that he did nothing whatsoever to protect the Jewish pianist Vlado Perlemuter, one of his most gifted pupils, who was placed on a Gestapo arrest list in 1942 and immediately sought to emigrate to Switzerland with his wife. Perlemuter eventually made it there—but without any help from the well-placed Cortot. When he later confronted his former teacher and asked why he had offered no help, Alfred Cortot replied, “My friends didn’t inform me.”

Cortot was arrested almost immediately upon the liberation of Paris. He was released three days later, but in October 1944 he went before an official tribunal, which suspended him from all professional activity as a musician for a year. He immediately resumed concertizing after the ban was lifted, but when he tried to perform at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in January 1947, a near-riot resulted as he came on stage to perform Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata. “Do you dedicate that to your friend Hitler?” shouted one member of the audience.

He promptly went back to Switzerland, returning in 1949 to perform at a Chopin commemorative concert. By that time, his fellow Frenchmen had decided either to forgive him or look the other way at his wartime conduct, and his appearance was a success. For the rest of his life, he performed and taught to universal acclaim, making one final appearance in 1958 at Pablo Casals’s Prades Festival, having been forgiven his political sins by his old colleague.
“Cortot should have ended his days before a firing squad.” Frederic Spotts in The Shameful Peace (2008)
According to Spotts, the pianist’s “celebration of collaboration” was “not merely voluntary but deliberate, gratuitous and purposive.”

Such a fate, however, was never in the cards for Cortot, just as Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, and virtually all of the other leading German musicians who cooperated with the Hitler regime were permitted to resume their careers, suffering only the lightest of sanctions for their offenses.

His recordings are revelatory. They prove that Cortot was worthy to have been ranked alongside the likes of Josef Hofmann, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Artur Schnabel, the tallest giants of the golden age of classical piano playing.

How, then, are we to come to terms with the fact that they are the work of a man who collaborated enthusiastically with the most monstrous regime that the world has ever known? Ultimately unsatisfying as it is, the answer is that we cannot, and should not. What Cortot did during World War II will taint to the end of time the memory of his supreme artistry. Yet it cannot alter the indelible fact of that artistry, or help us understand how an artist capable of bringing such art into being was also capable of behaving as he did at the supreme moment of moral choice. For as Clement Greenberg so wisely said, “art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art.” Least of all can it solve the impenetrable mystery of how beautiful art can be made by ugly men who—human, all too human—succumb to the temptation to serve evil and sell their souls. In the end, all we can do is love their art, but remember their deeds.


  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    Artists who performed in Nazi Germany include Pablo Casals (1934), Pierre Fournier, Hermann Krebbers and Willem de Machula.

  • José Bergher says:

    Superb article. Thank you for posting it.

  • Herbie G says:

    It’s the Wagner question again – as a man, a squalid opportunist who supped with the devil, but an outstanding musician. His performance, with Casals and Thibaud, of Schubert’s B flat piano trio would be in my top ten of all classical recordings. That was made in 1926, at the dawn of electrical recordings; the sound is excellent too, for its time.

  • Y says:

    Funny, I’ve been enjoying Cortot’s playing for years without knowing any of this. And I’ll go right on enjoying his playing, because it’s good and it brings me happiness. I never let an artist’s personality or politics get in the way of my enjoying his or her art, and I pity those who cannot do the same.

  • DG says:

    Fascinating, thanks for sharing this. Now to go binge-watch Cortot performances on Youtube..

  • Paul says:

    Imagine that: nuance! Sometimes there is more than one truth, in darkness and light, and we’re adult enough to separate them. Terry never got distracted.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The human psyche can put things in different, separate boxes. It is a form of schizophrenia, if it goes so far as to split-up the personality.

    ‘For as Clement Greenberg so wisely said, “art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art.” Least of all can it solve the impenetrable mystery of how beautiful art can be made by ugly men who—human, all too human—succumb to the temptation to serve evil and sell their souls.’

    But it is not a mystery. Art, that is: high art, appeals to the better selves of the human being, but that being is free to accept it, when it understands the symbolism. It is possible that players don’t understand the symbolism of art, and choose to ignore what it means for themselves and for others, to treat it as a ‘thing in itself’ without consequences, and that is NOT the failure of the art but of the people. In an existentially threatening situation, someone can create a fantasy about the evil thing to render it quasi harmless, a sort of infantile ‘magic’, and use that fantasy to promote one’s interests, to ‘make the best of it’, combining opportunism with self-delusion. Thereby the symbolism of art has to be put firmly in a separate box, and the result is self-delusion and schizophrenia. One’s conscience, if there is one, is then banned to the dungeon of suppression and people like Cortot will have experienced their playing as an island, separated from real life. Classical music, because of its non-conceptual nature, lends itself well for such manipulations, as we know.

    Musicians like Cortot, Karajan, Furtwängler, Schwarzkopf, did not personally murder people; they went along a dangerous change in society and tried to exploit the situation. Thereby they entirely separated themselves from the art they served, just what we also should do. The sad thing is that they could have decided otherwise, which would have meant sacrifice of opportunity, but they would have come-out as better people and would have left a much better legacy. They could have given-up their career for a period of time, thereby protecting both their art and their conscience, going into ‘innere Emigration’, if one had the means to do that – one had to live on an income of some sort. But at the time nobody knew whether the nazi blanket would be a short or long one, or would last forever, so that would have been a difficult decision. It seems that the best options would have been either inner or real emigration, what quite some artists indeed decided.

    The confrontation with evil shows-up people as the stuff they are made of, and what we see is that artistry is not necessarily the same as character.

    • margaret koscielny says:

      “They could have given-up their career for a period of time, thereby protecting both their art and their conscience, going into ‘innere Emigration’”

      Some could have became alcoholics, depressives, suicides…

  • christopher storey says:

    The most evil regime ? What about Stalin’s Russia ? It is hard to say which holds the title…. both were utterly evil and both were viciously anti-semitic . None of that, however, excuses Cortot’s participation in the Vichy setup

    • Music fan says:

      It takes little imagination to know what would have happened to Cortot if he had been Russian and backed the Nazi regime, of if he had been German and backed the Russians.

      The difference between Cortot and Furtwangler, Karajan, and the others is that Cortot was sucking up to and benefiting from an invading occupier. Furtwangler was delusional enough to think he could save German music from Nazi influence – which was not the case. But while Furtwangler actually did try to rescue Jews, there is no evidence Cortot ever lifted a finger.

  • HugoPreuß says:

    I still love the music of Gesualdo. And he certainly won’t win a prize in the category “outstanding humanitarian”.

  • Great article.
    Thank you for sharing.
    I own several original Lp recordings of Alfred Cortot.
    But I wasn’t aware of his Proto- Fascist leanings.

    As a seasoned Composer, Historian and Scholar, it’s never a good practice to associate ones “Art” or Art in general, with the corrosive realm of politics, regardless of ideology.

    And certainly not for personal gain at the expense of victim’s.

    Like the victim’s of these men without morals or honor: Vichy French, the N.S.D.A.P. etc.

    It is our responsibility as Artist to defend liberty! And the victim’s of tyranny.

    My warmest regards from the Historic Old West State of Arizona, United States of America.

    Álvaro Guevara y Vázquez, Composer BMI.

    Grandmaster of the Imperial Knight’s and Dame of the Holy Grail.
    A universal organization focused on defending Human Right’s through Art and Culture.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    It is perhaps a sign of our incurable naïveté that we expect our heroes to be heroic in all ways. And with precious few exceptions they always disappoint. Great musicians, great teachers, great athletes, great writers. Often they are not just flawed, but are genuine pieces of shit. Why do we even expect more of them than that at which they do excel? Oddly, we seem prepared (hurt, but prepared) for friends and relatives to have and to show deep flaws, but not those heroes who we do not even know personally but have placed on some pedestal.

    And we fall for it again and again — to borrow a bon mot from another context (remarriage I believe!), “the triumph of hope over experience.”

    In the book Joys and Sorrows, Pablo Casals’s “as told to” autobiography, he recounts this: “One episode after my return to Prades brought back with a sudden shock the darkest days of the war years. I was in my cottage there one morning, when there was a knock on the front door. I opened it — and there stood Alfred Cortot.”

    “I felt a terrible pain at the sight of him. The sorrowful past was suddenly with me, as if it had all happened the day before. We stood looking at each other without speaking. I motioned him into my room.”

    “He began speaking haltingly, with his eyes on the floor. He had aged greatly, and he looked very tired. At first he made a half-hearted attempt to excuse what he had done, but I stopped him.”

    “Then he blurted out, ‘It’s true, Pablo. What they say is true. I was a collaborator. I worked with the Germans. I am ashamed, dreadfully ashamed. I have come to ask your forgiveness ….’ He could say no more.”

    “I, too, found it hard to speak. I told him, ‘I am glad that you tell the truth. Because of that, I forgive you. I give you my hand.'”

    Somehow that reminds me of something Lionel Menuhin Rolfe wrote of his uncle Yehudi Menuhin’s “forgiveness” of Wilhelm Furtwängler after the war, that being that under Jewish law only the victim can forgive and since Yehudi was not a victim of what Furtwängler did during the war, his “forgiveness” was irrelevant. Rolfe was even more rejecting of Yehudi’s suggestion that Furtwängler did not need to be forgiven, which of course is not what Casals was saying about Cortot.

    In the CD era, the Biddulph label issued a substantial series of discs featuring Cortot playing Schumann, Chopin, Ravel, Debussy, Weber, and Mendelssohn. Because most Biddulph CDs were violin or cello recordings, I was sent them as a Fanfare reviewer, even though it never otherwise occured to my editor to send me piano discs to review.

    The quality of transfers is exceptional and even items from the 1920s and early 1930s could almost pass as pre-stereo “high fidelity.” But they all reveal something else about Cortot that perhaps explains to an even greater degree than his personal failings during the war why he is now semi-neglected in the pantheon of greats:

    Wrong notes.

    He was not concerned with technical perfection and evidently his record producers were not either — that was the era before tape splices of course. And his lapses are surprising because extremely difficult passages are executed perfectly and then comes a stumble on a relatively “easy” passage. There used to be many such artists on recordings in that era who had extraordinary reputations, now faded – since we mention Cortot, why not mention Jacques Thibaud whose violin recordings are at the same time marvelous but not examples of perfection.

    We have in a sense become deafened to the positive qualities of such musicians. We now expect a level of accuracy which in the past could only be achieved with re-takes and, when it became possible, tape splices. It takes imaginative ears (and perhaps the benefit of actually playing an instrument so knowing what can and should be forgiven in the interests of other and larger virtues) to get past these wrong notes.

    Accuracy used to be valued if it came in addition to greatness. Now it is a precondition to even discussing greatness.

    This suggests that even if Cortot had been a hero, an angel, during the war, that his current renown and active reputation among classical listeners would be about what it is anyway. Something for the specialists to know and love.

  • Bill Blake says:

    Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong is a good read.

  • Simpson says:

    Excellent essay. Along the same line of judgment, I think it is important to distinguish long gone artists and those who are our contemporaries. It is not easy to judge those from many years ago, we didn’t live back then to be in their shoes and circumstances, and we are unable to talk to the dead people about those times. It is different for those artists who are actively supporting dictators and murderers of our times and benefiting greatly from such association.

  • Tim says:

    Fun to get on one’s moral high horse from the vantage of hindsight and relative safety. Interesting that most here are ignoring Stanley Milgram and his famous shock experiment. Yes, there were many who acted better than Cortot, but they were absolutely the minority for various reasons, much beyond their control.

  • Vaquero357 says:

    I come to SD for the gossip and the Texas Death Match Brawl of the comments sections….. but darnit, this is one of the most thoughtful, enlightening posts I’ve ever read on SD! Of course, it’s due to that excellent essay by Mr Teachout.

    Cortot has mostly been for me an artists I’ve “heard about” more than actually, consciously made an effort to listen to. I have some of his Chopin playing from YouTube right now….. and I’m really blown away. No matter how long you’re a lover of “Classical” music, there’s always something new (to you) to discover.

    As for Cortot’s involvement with the Vichy/Nazis, it’s yet another example of a great artist not having any good political or moral instincts. The story, quoted above by another poster, told by Casals that Cortot came to him and just said, basically, “I was terribly wrong and I’m ashamed,” says *something* in his favor. I supposed people will say it wasn’t sincere and he was just saying the right words to get back in his friend’s good graces. Maybe so, but we’ll never know.

  • Sharon says:

    This brings to mind Bruno Kittel who was a Nazi sympathizer conductor and choir master who continued to work into the 1950s.

    The beast who was probably his son (same unusual name) was one of the most cynical and brutal Nazis who liquidated the Vilna ghetto and yes, he DID kill people personally and personally ordered the death of thousands more. Bruno the younger even killed someone with one hand with a pistol while playing the piano in a death camp. He would give piano radio concerts while he was the head of the SS in Vilna.

    This horrific monster just seems to have “disappeared” after the war. How someone so high up in the SS could just “disappear” is a mystery to me, even though Vilna was in Lithuania. Even if he died by suicide someone should have known about it.

    Although I realize that Bruno the elder was not as prominent a musician there were other lower level people in various professions who were questioned and disciplined. Bruno the elder and to a large extent the younger seem to have just slipped under the radar screen.

    Of course, Kurt Waldheim was able to hide his background and became head of the United Nations!