Kurt Masur and Leipzig, his greatest achievement.

Kurt Masur has died, aged 88. Masur was much, much more than a conductor. He transformed his city, his nation and the world. Would Germany be united today without the movement that led to the fall of thge Berlin Wall ? Would the Iron Curtain still hold sway ? The cataclysmic eents of 1989 only 26 years ago, but seem to have been forgotten, by too many.  To truly honoure Masur, we need to appreciate Masur the man, and what shaped him.

Masur was born in Brieg (Bryzg) in Lower Silesia, once part of Germany, now part of Poland.  That might mean nothing, but it’s this background of war, ethnic cleansing and exile affects people.  Christoph Eschenbach was traumatized, but he was only 5. Masur, who was 18,  could understand.  Masur’s career was built on the rock solid foundations of German Democratic Republic music-making. In the DDR, the traditions of German music remained resolutely untouched by what was happening elsewhere. The regime was repressive, but it also resisted capitalist pressure, maintaining a superb music education system, which supported the industry so it could do what it did best, without having to cave in to the commercial forces of a new era where recordings started a new mass market dictated by public taste. What we think we know is shaped by market forces.  Harnoncourt’s response was to go back to the roots (read mire here). asur and the East German tradition were “at” the roots.. Masur conducted the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra from 1955 to 1972, with breaks between, and conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1970 to 1996.  These two great pillars of the German tradition remained pure and largely intact. So Masur’s repertoire was standard Austro-German, like Thielemann’s after him ? Better that conductors should do what they love best.

The city of Leipzig has been a centre of German culture and idealism for centuries.  Consider its “favourite sons” amongg them Bachm Schumann and Mendelssohn. It also has liberal mtendencies. When the Nazxis tried to rip out Mendelssohn’s statue outside the Gewandhaus, the Mayor stood up to them. So when protests for freedom began in early 1989, Leipzig was at the heart of things.  Masur attended meetings at the Nikolaikirche, and stood with the thousands  who marched through the streets. Just as Furtwängler made a statement conducting Beethoven tom make Goebbels squirm, Masur played Beethoven as a symbol of liberty and freedom   In 1956 and again in 1968, the Soviets silenced protest by sending in tanks.  The Nikolaikirche movement emphasis on non-violence grew from very realistic awareness of danger.  Just as Sibelius brought the world behind Finland against Russia,  Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra used their prestige to galvanize support invoking moral authority.

A few weeks after the “revolution” of October 9th, The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra went on tour. At the time, we worried thatb they wouldn’t be allowed out in case they defected.  When they walked onto the platform at the Sheldonian in Oxford, the audience began to cheer as a gesture of appreciation. The orchestra seemed visibly moved. Masur let them take in the solemnity of the moment for as long as possible, before launching into an impassioned evening of Beethoven.

Barely two years later, Masur left the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra for New York.  In London, we got to know him well, when he was Chief of the LPO during the first decade of the millenium, while simultaneously heading the Orchestra Nationale de France and guesting elsewhere. So much for the nonsense idea that conductors should only mage one orchestra at a time.  A friend  said Masur was “too foursquare”, but another said that it was his DDR heritage, which puts other tastes into perspective.  Masur went on to many things after Leipzig, but Leipzig will always be central to his legacy.

Original Source: Kurt Masur and Leipzig, his greatest achievement.


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