The German conductor Kurt Masur was one of the most influential conductors of the 20th century. He was known for his role as Music Director of the GewandhausOrchester and the New York Philharmonic, which he “tamed” and improved after the Boulez and Mehta eras.
Kurt Masur was born in Brieg, Silesia, Germany (now Brzeg, Poland) on 18 July 1927. His father, an engineer, insisted that his son study something “practical”, leading him to study to become an electrician to fulfill his father’s orders. In addition, he studied music—piano, organ, cello and percussion—at the National Music School in Breslau. However, due to a severe injury to the tendon in his right hand, he was no longer able to perform and decided to focus on conducting. This injury is also the reason Masur conducted without a baton. After serving in World War II in the Wehrmacht, Masur studied conducting and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory.
In 1948, Masur was appointed orchestra coach at the Halle County Theatre. He was later appointed Kapellmeister of both the Erfurt and Leipzig Opera theatres. He received his first major appointment in 1955 as conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic. In 1958 he returned to opera as the General Director of Music at the Mecklenburg State Theatre of Schwerin. He then served as Senior Director of Music at Belin’s Komische Oper, where he collaborated with the Director-Producer Walter Felsenstein.
Between 1967 and 1972, Masur served as Chief Conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic. He was then appointed Kapellmeister at the Gewandhausorchester in Leipzig, where he led approximately 1000 concerts between 1970 and 1996 in addition to 900 on tour. During his time in Leipzig, Masur became one of the town’s most well-respected citizens. He was immediately recognized on the street and was even once considered an option for the presidency. His reputation as a conductor was built on his intense knowledge of the scores and strict rehearsals that resulted in a ‘lush, string saturated, dark brown sound’ from the orchestra. This sound was ideal for his favourite music of the Romantic repertoire. With this orchestra, he made many recordings, including the often praised recordings of the complete Beethoven symphonies.
With his great influence, Masur was able to ensure that the orchestra received a new concert hall, as their home, the Gewandhuis, had been destroyed by bombs. In 1981, the new Gewandhuis opened; every aspect of this masterpiece was overseen by Masur. Though not a communist himself, Masur was popular with the communist party, which allowed him a comfortable home and a Mercedes. He was also allowed to travel abroad with his orchestra and to accept guest-conducting invitations worldwide, including at the New York and Israel Philharmonics, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (Principal Guest Conductor in 1976), the Cleveland Orchestra and the London Symphony.
Masur strongly believed that music could heal the world and was known to step in on occasion to solve political problems. For instance, in the fall of 1989, he helped the street musicians of Leipzig, who were often arrested for not holding official licenses, by arranging a meeting between the Stasi (East German secret police), Communist Party officials and the musicians at the Gewandhaus. In total, more than 600 people were involved. With his patience and influence, the restrictions on the street musicians were relaxed. He again invited people to the Gewandhaus to talk in response to pro-democracy demonstrations in Karl-Marx-Platz. He urged nonviolence from both sides in a recorded a message that was broadcast on the radio and over loudspeakers.
Around this time, Masur was offered the position of Music Director at the New York Philharmonic, which he gladly accepted in 1991, though he continued to serve as Kapellmeister of the Gewandhausorchester until 1996. After his retirement in Leipzig her was named the orchestra’s first-ever Conductor Laureate.
Before coming to the attention of the New York Philharmonic, Masur had already made his US debut in 1974 with the Cleveland Orchestra. That same year he took the Gewandhausorchester on tour in the US. As early as 1981, Masur made his debut with the New York Philharmonic as a guest conductor.
Other conductors considered for the post in New York included Bernard Haitink, Sir Colin Davis and Claudio Abbado. For many, the orchestra’s choice of Masur was baffling. Critics predicted the worst, as evidenced in an article from The New York Times written in 1990 by Donal Henahan. He wrote, ‘Mr. Masur has stretched on occasion into the 20th century for a late Romantic like Richard Strauss of a moderate modernist like Prokofiev, but unless he has a few surprising ideas up his sleeve, Leipzig-on-the-Hudson could be a duller town than Mehtaville’.
The negative press was almost to be expected. Between 1959 and 1969 Leonard Bernstein brought orchestra to great heights, but his reign was followed first by Pierre Boulez, who was far more interested in contemporary works than anything else, and then by Zubin Mehta, who preferred ‘flash and dazzle at the expense of musical meaning’. It is not surprising, based on the reputation of the orchestras previous two conductors that the critics would be weary of a quite conservative conductor from Europe.
The orchestra, however, believed that Masur’s mastery of the Central European composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mahler and Bruckner would bring a much needed musical basis back to the orchestra.
While Abbado almost accepted the job first, he was then offered the position at the Berlin Philharmonic instead. Other conductors where not interested in the New York position as the orchestra had become notorious for its ‘low standing and the reputation of its players as temperamental, insubordinate and demoralized’.
Masur was able to tame the orchestra to acceptable New York standards, earning the respect of his players. To some he was seen as a dictator, but to others he was admired for his rehearsal discipline. One time, he asked the orchestra committee why they had chosen him and they replied, ‘because you do not fear orchestras’.
Despite hesitations, Masur succeeded everyone’s expectations, leading performances of Mendelssohn’s Elijah in which he was praised because he ‘propelled the music forward with bracing authority. At the end, the hall rang with cheers that apparently signify the onset of Mr. Masur’s honeymoon with the New York public’.
While some criticized Masur for being too conventional with his programming, he actually commissioned quite a few works, including from composers such as Hans Werner Henze, John Corigliano, Thomas Adès, Sofia Gubaidulina and Christopher Rouse. He also made it his life’s mission to improve the acoustics of the orchestra’s Avery Fisher Hall, bringing in experts from Europe.
In the days following the attacks on 11 September 2001, Masur performed what The Time called ‘his finest hour, and a gift to the city’ with a nationally televised memorial to the victims of the attacks in the form of Brahms’ German Requiem.
Power struggles between Masur and the orchestral board eventually led to Masur’s unwilling dismissal after the 2001-02 season. He was succeeded by Lorin Maazel. He proceeded as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic from 2000 to 2007 and as Music Director at the Orchestre National de France from 2002 to 2008.
Masur suffered from Parkinson’s toward the end of his career and during one concert in 2012 with the Orchestre National de France in Paris he fell off the podium and had to be treated in the hospital. He died on 19 December 2015 in Greenwich, Connecticut at the age of 88.
He received many awards during his career including many honorary degrees, the Cross of the Order of Merits of the Federal Republic of Germany (1995), the Gold Medal of Honour for Music from the National Arts Club (1996) and the tiles of Commander of the Legion of Honour from both the French government and the New York City Cultural Ambassador (1997). He also received one of Poland’s highest honours in 1999—the Commander Cross of Merit of the Polish Republic and was made an Honorary Citizen of his hometown, Brieg.