Making Peace With Music
Conductor Kurt Masur's professional career has placed him at the center of the Cold War and today's Middle East conflict. Throughout, he has sought to make beautiful music and promote peace.
Kurt Masur, one of the most widely admired and respected musicians of his generation, is well known to orchestras and audiences not only as a distinguished conductor, but also as a humanist.
As a young musician he initially wanted to be an organist, but an unfortunate problem with his finger led his family doctor to advise him against a career as an instrumentalist. It was fate that led Masur to a conducting career.
"I had my very first concert at the age of 16," says Masur. "I hadn't heard a symphony orchestra before, and I was so deeply impressed I said I have to be a conductor." This decision came as a surprise, particularly to Masur’s family.
"Even my family laughed at me," he says. "They said, 'This young guy who's always stuttering in front of other people is going to be in front of 100 musicians and talk to them and lead them?'" But Masur has come a long way since his awkward teenage beginnings, having conducted most of the world’s leading orchestras over his long career.
Learning from a master
Born in Brieg, Silesia, in 1927, Masur studied piano, composition and conducting at the Music College of Leipzig. He says he learned the message of music much earlier on from one of his first music teachers. "She was an organist, too, and she was very devoted to what she played, so she had a respect for every piece and she felt that she was not allowed to add something of her own," he says. It was from her that he learned the importance of respecting what the composer had written. "Since the composer has said everything, if you discover everything, it will be enough and you will be a happy man. Don't try to say it's your taste and, because of that, you are changing this or that."
During his studies in Leipzig, Masur encountered Wilhelm Fürtwangler -- one of the 20th century’s great conductors -- an experience that greatly influenced the young musician. "Just after the Second World War, Fürtwangler came to Leipzig where I still was studying," he recalls. "We were allowed to come to his rehearsals. And of course this was the first time that I understood that if a great conductor really stays in front of an orchestra, he can change everything," says Masur.
Observing Fürtwangler also made him aware of the qualities important for a conductor. "It is not the character of the orchestra, not the special sound of an orchestra, but the quality," he says, "the kind of expectation of the audience which is also necessary to create an outstanding concert."
After graduating from Leipzig, Masur served first as an orchestra coach at the Halle County Theater, and later as Kapellmeister of the Erfurt and Leipzig Opera Theatres. He accepted his first major orchestral appointment as conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic in 1955. Three years later he returned to opera as general music director of music at the Mecklenburg State Theater of Schwerin. From 1960 to 1964, he was senior director of music at Berlin's Komische Oper, collaborating with influential director Walter Felsenstein.
Breaking the glass ceiling
The period following this was one of Masur’s most difficult times, he says. "I went away from Felsenstein because I said it will destroy me. Because he was so strong, I grew a little bit stiffer each day. And so I went away and our government thought I wanted to go to West Germany or out of the country and suddenly I had four years without any orchestra," he says of his early professional experience in communist-ruled East Germany.
Devastated by his predicament, Masur decided to use the time to study scores in a way he might not have had time to do otherwise. "I went to the musical library in Berlin, which is very famous. I discovered that we had scores of Beethoven, printed scores of Beethoven, that are full of mistakes. Not the wrong or false notes, but the wrong dynamic, understandable things."
In 1967, Masur's old orchestra, the Dresden Philharmonic, invited him to return to the concert stage, and a new era started for the conductor. Masur says this new period was also a crucial time. "It was so wonderful to be with an orchestra where I never had to show up as a boss or someone who is a principal conductor," he says. "We were partners. And for first time in my life, I had a partnership where everybody was convinced we have to go together."
Just two years later, Masur was offered a position as Kapellmeister with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. This profoundly important position has been held by historic figures including Felix Mendelssohn, Arthur Nikisch, Fürtwangler and Bruno Walter. Under Masur's direction, the important East German orchestra rose to international acclaim. It was an opportunity Masur felt he couldn't refuse; yet Dresden remained important to him. "I insisted on staying in Dresden and also going to the Gewandhaus," he says, "and for two years, I was allowed to do that. So I had both orchestras and then of course it was not possible to do it anymore that way. But the connection to Dresden is still there."