Kurt Masur

Less than a year before he died, I flew into a New York blizzard for the express purpose of interviewing one of the great living musicians in his upstate home. Maestro Kurt Masur was in his upper 80s and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but he was undaunted in his determination to share his story with me, generously giving me an entire afternoon to interview him and make a video with him for his permanent archives. Having worked with him several times in San Francisco as he conducted the San Francisco Symphony, and having taken those opportunities to chat with him about my efforts to use music in international conflict resolution, I knew I could find a sympathetic ear with him. But this time I was more eager to hear his story than to share my own dreams.

I walked into his home and immediately heard the sound of organ music playing over his kitchen sound system. And not just any organ music: It was Messiaen’s music. And not just any recording of that, either; he was listening to one of my own recordings which I had made in Paris several years earlier. Approaching him in his chair, I commented with a surprised smile: “I recognize that!”

“Yes!” He said. “Organ music is ‘Comfort Music’ to me. I always wanted to be an organist, but never thought I would be good enough.”

The latter statement brought a sly grin to his face, and I chuckled at the extreme irony that any musical summit he might choose to climb could prove too difficult!

“Why do you consider organ music ‘Comfort Music’?” I inquired.

“It has to do with the War.”

I had been told that he never liked to discuss WWII, so was curious to see where he would go with this opening. But it immediately dawned on me that, listening to my own recordings in his kitchen, taking a significant amount of time to meet with me, and entrusting me with a tale from normally-taboo subject matter, Maestro Masur respected our budding friendship to such a degree that it made him want to share openly with me.

“You see, at the beginning of the War, there were 127 young men from my village (Brieg, Germany) that were recruited to fight. I was one of those, of course. But at the end of the war, there were only 30 of us left.”

That piece of information, which he shared like it was common knowledge, took my breath away. In America, we focus on the numbers of lives we lost. After all, we were fighting a just war! But the other side, too, had a human toll – mothers that had to bury their sons, lovers and husbands whose lives were cut drastically short because they were drafted to carry out another person’s ideology.

“That’s incredible!” I said. “Nearly one hundred lives lost just from your one village.”

“Yes. And we no sooner started fighting than I was captured and taken as a Prisoner of War. I was moved to the Netherlands, to a P.O.W. camp. But as soon as I arrived there, the Camp Chaplain discovered that I was a musician. He came up to me and said: ‘OK. I need someone to accompany me as I go from village to village preaching in small churches. You can play the organ for the services, and I’ll preach the sermons.”

“So that is exactly what we did. We would arrive at a village church, I would familiarize myself with the organ there – often historic – and he would bring the townspeople in for a service. I can tell you that organ music was the only thing that saved my life during that very difficult period. I will always be grateful to that amazing instrument for giving me the courage to keep going.”

“I’ve been back to many of those villages now. I wanted to see those organs again, touch them, play them. They seem to carry the weight of human expression. Did the builders of those instruments ever have an idea of how many people’s lives would be effected by their craft? I wonder.”

“Maestro, I’m really interested in how you developed a relationship between music and healing.  On my way here today, I was reading an old article in New York Magazine, called “Soul Man” that had me riveted.  (And by the way, I love that they call you “Soul Man”!)  In reference to your Farewell concert at Lincoln Center, the writer said:

‘Perhaps Masur’s most singular attribute – and this may make him unique among major conductor’s right now – is his conviction that great music is still capable of exercising a healing power; that it can even serve as a potent moral force.’

“And the writer, Peter Davis, went on to say:

‘His critics have tended to regard these unfashionable beliefs with a trace of condescension when they surface in public pronouncements or at press conferences.  But no one was snickering when Masur conducted an impromptu performance of the Brahms German Requiem soon after [9/11], a musical event that seemed to move all who heard it, and profoundly so.’

“So, I’m wondering if you can tell me how music is transformative in your life.”

At that prompting, Masur began to tell me how he became a musician:

“When I was a boy, around five years old, my sister took piano lessons, and I liked that she could make music.  In the meantime, if nobody was at the piano, I went there and played for myself.  I wrote the tunes, and after a while, much to everyone’s surprise, I could play the piano very nicely.

“There came a time, while still a boy in school, that I realized that I couldn’t live without music.  Of course, this was the music of a child – music that I heard or wrote.  But it was for me, already, a necessity.  I would come back from school, put my things on the table, and go to the piano.

“I learned the great German chorales, of course, but I especially loved making up my own tunes.  One day, and I recall that it was a Sunday, some of our relatives came to visit us.  At the request of my mother, I played the piano for them.  In fact, I played some of my own tunes.  One of our relatives asked me: “Where did you learn that?  Who is your teacher?”  And I said, “I have no teacher.”  And this man went to my mother and said:  “You must be out of your mind!  Your son is so musical, and you don’t give him a teacher?  What’s the problem?”

“Well, my parents had a bit of disagreement about this.  My father didn’t want me to be a musician because he was an electrician.  He wanted me to be a German hand-worker, like him. But on the other hand, when he noticed that people liked what I did, he was a bit proud also.  So, then it came to mind – how to move forward as a musician.

“There were more and more opportunities to make music at school and with friends.  Some learned other instruments, but I kept playing the piano.  We taught ourselves whatever tunes we heard.  And I learned how to bring joy to people.

“When I was ten years old, my parents finally decided to get me a teacher.  Until then, I had learned only by ear.  My first teacher was Katharina Hartmann, who was also an outstanding organist.  You’ll be interested in this, Jonathan, since you’re an organist:  Frau Hartmann was very good friends with Albert Schweitzer!

“Albert Schweitzer used to come to our church on occasion. I heard him there several times.  With Schweitzer, my teacher developed a way to play Bach’s Art of the Fugue as a duet.  You could hear each voice in a special tone color.  For me, this was so fascinating!  Schweitzer and Hartmann playing together, and me getting to hear this!

“Then the war started.  I was 17 and came to be a soldier, fighting for Germany.  This was very hard.  I’ve told you about being captured.  It was a very hard time that I went through.  But it was music that helped me to overcome this kind of hard life – trying to understand whatever we were confronted with.

“This background, all the experience I had, made me able to understand that music can really do so much more than entertain people.  I felt the healing power of music already as a child.  And the more and more I grew up, I learned more and more that with all the people around me, it has the same kind of meaning.  They’re able to experience this.

For musicians, the eternal question is: What does music actually do? And yet, specific to Masur, I also wanted to find out how he was so instrumental in the fall of the Iron Curtain.

JD: “Maestro, it’s fascinating, the subject of what actually happens to people listening to music.  We make music, it goes out into the world, and we have no idea what happens after that.  It’s beyond our capacity to be in control of.    Whether they’re immersed in it, whether they’re feeling emotional, whether they’re thinking about tomorrow’s lunch – it could be a million things.

His response was as enigmatic as the question:

KM: “I often spoke with my students about what music can do, and what it achieves. If you go to New York and you play a special kind of repertory, you might have success and brilliant performances.  But then you discover that you actually need music for yourself. My first teacher said to me, when I was 10 years old, know what each piece is saying to you!  This is of utmost importance.

“When I was in my 20s, I was a keyboard player in an Opera House, coaching singers.  One day, I arrived at the Opera House at noon and was asked: “Could you conduct tonight?”  It was Rigoletto.  Now, I knew the piece partially, but I didn’t think I was prepared.  They said to me:  ‘Mr. Masur, you are our first Kappelmeister.  It’s your duty!’  So that was the beginning of my conducting career – and it forced me to become very brave!

“But, to your point, after the show, I was talking with one of the singers. He embraced me saying: ‘Wonderful performance!’  And I said “This was a bad performance, and you say ‘Wonderful’?  And he told me:  “If I tell you I found it wonderful, you do not have the right to destroy my memories!”  I’ve never forgotten that. Music touches people in different ways, and we must respect the uniqueness of their experience.

JD: “Maestro, I’m fascinated about the relationship your teacher had with Albert Schweitzer. As we know, he cared a great deal about the power of music.  Also about the connection of music with the soul – and also its use as an instrument for healing.  Of course, he was a doctor, too, so healing was his second nature.  But I think he made that leap of music and healing – which was fairly new at the time.

KM:  Many people went to the churches to be helped; but it seems that no one came up with the idea of how to help people’s soul!  Eventually, they learned in hospitals that music can help people feel better.  For me, this process made me able to see how music should be given more power in people’s lives to transcend boundaries.

JD:  This idea of how to help the soul of people, do you think that music can help politics itself?  Not the politicians as people, but more like the idea of how politics works in the world – presumably to make the world a functioning place. And, jumping to 1989, and the street musicians in Leipzig who were not allowed to make music on the street, can you speak about that?  Was that a denial of something in their soul?

KM:  Leipzig was not very active in those days.  Suddenly, as young people started to make music (often songs against the establishment), Leipzig became a city  that was willing and able to change the lives of ordinary people.  It was, for me, surprising, because the people had learned that my thoughts and my feelings were very liberal.  I wanted to work together with everyone, and never wanted to go the way of the government, but on the other hand, to be able to bring the people up to the idea of how we could change the situation.  Young people had no possibility for freedom there.

JD:  It seems that you had a unique position because you already had the great respect of the Leipzig community having been at the Gewandhaus for so many years at that point. And it may have come as a surprise to the politicians that you had any interest at all in freedom, or speech, or things that might be considered political.  (They probably thought:  Well he’s just a musician.)  How did it feel when you brought the people together in the Gewandhaus for that meeting?  Exciting?  Frightening?

KM:  It was all of those.  Some people had already tried to create law and order.  I went, one evening, to the meeting at the Nicolai Church.  There was a secret, and powerful, idea that was being developed.  They went to the Nicolai Church to pray, but also to collect each other and make clear:  We must change the way our world is here.

People started to trust me.  I was asked to speak at these meetings.  This lead to demonstrations.  It was miraculous.  There was no leadership of any party.  Not even from West Germany.

JD:  That particular event, when you brought all those people together in the Gewandhaus itself, was that a one time thing?

KM:  No.  More than one time.

JD:  And I read that your name was put forth as a possible nominee as president for a united Germany.  So obviously there was a considerable amount of support and love for what you had done in contributing to the fall of the iron curtain.  What did you think at the time?  Were you surprised?

KM:  I was happy that the people wanted me and trusted me.  And also that they trusted my orchestra!  The orchestra in that city had been respected for centuries.  So there was a kind of good feeling.

I made telephone calls.  It was one of my first demonstration days.  The announcement had been made about that evening’s demonstration; and young people came to me:  “Mr. Masur we have heard that a concentration of military have surrounded Leipzig.  What should we do?”  The problem will be that you will not fight unless they want to have a fight.  How should it start?  Then came the idea to give the people the advice:  No Force!

Our interview closed with shared stories about churches and organs in Germany that we each knew. But before that, Maestro Masur got quite impassioned and philosophical about the meaning of life, and music’s relationship to it.

JD:  You mentioned a key word:  Trust.  I think the audience’s ability to trust us gives us musicians a unique role in society, and perhaps even the possibility of having a prophetic voice.  So I wanted to ask you about how you see the role of music itself in carving out the future of humanity and a peaceful world.

KM:  It’s always interesting to talk with people!  Even though they may have no money and few opportunities, they have something to share and teach me. So many of my friends in Leipzig became involved in the demonstrations that, of course, led to the liberation of East Germany. They did this because they believed in something bigger than themselves. They also did it because they saw me involved and trusted me and the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Each week, more and more people were involved in these demonstrations – until, finally, they could not be ignored. It was a marvelous thing to be part of.

Your mention of “peaceful world” implies a world where we respect each other, listen to each other, and participate in community together. I think that the demonstrations we did created a peaceful world in Germany. And perhaps these would not have happened without the force of music in that culture.

JD: That’s amazing! I also wanted to talk with you about your thoughts regarding the role of the concert hall in the future. Where do you think music should be performed and how? What is a concert hall?

KM: We have to care to keep our concert halls in the center of our cities. I think this is very important. It’s important symbolically, because it shows our citizens that art, beauty, music, … these things are at the very center of what makes us human. It’s also important logistically because it means we can all participate in the art forms that add value to our lives.

Children need to start learning music in their first year of school – reading notes, singing songs of their own country. Learning how to sing is like developing the imagination of how life can be.

Once, in Texas, people asked me how I could live in East Germany, when it was still communist. I replied that everyone should look at the situation in their own country! Here in the United States many people are hungry, many don’t feel free. We need to teach our children, while they are in school, what it means to truly live one’s life. When we die, we look at our lives and ask: How was my life? Did I make people happy?

JD: That’s so poignant. And I’m of the belief that although music may be a source of healing, a source of solace, a source of stimulation, Music really is about communication, more than anything. And that communication has a spiritual element to it. Something about me, as a person, is evoked when I make music; it’s my spirit coming out. You hit the nail on the head when you say that music helps us discover how life can be.

KM: How to live a life, how to make harmony happen, how to create understanding in the world – these are the real goals of mankind. With the beginning of humanism, we start to learn to respect each other, to develop imagination, to lead a good life, and to feel oneself as a part of the great community of human beings.

JD: Yes! This is why we exist. And we musicians are very fortunate to be able to participate in this endeavor so passionately. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me and my friends.

1 thought on “Kurt Masur”

Comments are closed.