Kurt Masur – An Obituary
18 July 1927 – 19 December 2015
The distinguished German conductor, Kurt Masur, who has died at the age of 88, was Music Director or Principal Conductor of several leading orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic.
Masur initially trained as an organist and pianist. However, a medical condition which developed during his student days affected the fingers of his right hand to such an extent that he recognised that a playing career would be impossible – the condition was the reason why he never used a baton to conduct. After war service, therefore, he trained as a conductor at the Leipzig Conservatory. His career began at the State Theatre in Halle and it was here that he met and became friends with Klaus Tennstedt, who was the orchestra’s leader. Many years later that friendship was to lead indirectly to one of Masur’s last key appointments.
A number of posts in German regional opera houses and two spells as conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic followed his Halle debut and much of Masur’s conducting work was done in East Germany. In 1970 he took on the role for which he is perhaps best known, the principal conductorship of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. He would stay in this post until 1996.
When Masur arrived in Leipzig the orchestra was not in the eminent condition that is nowadays the case. The orchestra did not enjoy the luxury of a proper concert hall in which to perform for the Gewandhaus had been destroyed in World War II and had not been rebuilt. Masur lobbied hard for the construction of a new hall and his goal was achieved with the opening of the new Gewandhaus in 1981. Standards also rose significantly during Masur’s tenure and he and the orchestra made a significant number of recordings together and toured abroad. Masur stepped down from the orchestra’s leadership in 1996 and was named Conductor Laureate, a distinction that was subsequently bestowed also on his successor, Herbert Blomstedt.
Though Masur’s reputation will surely rest on his musical achievements he also attracted significant and justified praise for his contribution to the peaceful reunification of Germany. In October 1989, when the Communist government of East Germany was coming under significant pressure inside the country one of the demonstrations that took place was in Leipzig on 9 October. A very large crowd gathered in front of the Gewandhaus in defiance of government orders. Tension was running very high until Masur arranged for the hall to be opened and at least some of the crowd allowed in. He then delivered a speech urging restraint on both the demonstrators and the authorities. Disorder was avoided in Leipzig and within days the government of Erich Honecker had fallen. Masur was lauded for his role and there was even talk of him being given political office but he would have none of it.
In 1991 Masur was chosen to succeed Zubin Mehta as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Though Masur had conducted the orchestra as a guest he was, perhaps, a surprise choice; there was quite a contrast between the fairly sober Masur and his more flamboyant predecessor. But Masur’s tenure in New York was a success in many ways and he made a number of innovations intended to widen audiences. Unfortunately, tensions eventually arose between him and the orchestra’s management, as is chronicled in John Canarina’s book about the NYPO: The New York Philharmonic from Bernstein to Maazel. In 1998 it was announced that he would step down at the end of the 2001-02 season. He left with many of the players expressing genuine regret. Canarina relates that one member told him that “of all the Music Directors under whom he had played, starting with Bernstein, Masur was the only one who knew what the job was really about. He had been brought in to improve the orchestra and restore its standing in the community and he had succeeded.”
However, as one chapter in Masur’s career closed another had already begun. While his friend, Klaus Tennstedt, was principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra Masur had been invited to conduct the LPO. In 1988 the relationship blossomed when he was named principal guest conductor and in 2000 he became principal conductor, serving until 2007. Between 2002 and 2008 he was also Music Director of the Orchestre National de France. In July 2007 he celebrated his 80th birthday by conducting at the BBC Proms a composite orchestra made up of members of the LPO and ONF (review).
Masur contracted Parkinson’s disease and the debilitating effects of the condition brought about his retirement from conducting in 2012. One of his last London appearances, in February of that year, found him in fine form conducting the Philharmonia (review).
Kurt Masur was a conductor of the old school in the best sense of the term. Like many other conductors who learnt their craft in provincial German opera houses he had a solid grounding and his work was always impeccably musical. Though he is likely to be best remembered for his performances of the mainstream Austro-German symphonic repertoire he programmed a fair amount of contemporary music, not least during his New York years. His significant recorded legacy should ensure that his reputation endures, as it deserves to do.
As Classical Editor I am also grateful to Colin Clarke for the following
personal reminiscences of Kurt Masur:
I remember when I was young asking for my first set of Beethoven symphonies (on LP). I begged my parents for Solti and the Chicagoans (!) but their budget didn’t stretch and instead they bought complete symphonies and complete
overtures with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Kurt Masur, a hefty box that stretched to nine LPs, I seem to remember. The set grew on me over time until it was difficult to imagine finer performances; this despite the occasionally strange recording balances.
When it was announced Masur was to work more in London, it was a cause of great joy for me. His humanity seemed enormous: when I finally met him, briefly, it was while I was working as a manager in the Classical department in the Piccadilly branch of Virgin Megastores. He was after a Brahms Violin Sonata played by David Oistrakh. Our stock of historical was at an all-time low so of course we didn’t have the disc, but what I remember was his patience, and his gentleness. There was no trace of ego, no expectation whatsoever that he might be recognised. Yet his work, musical and humanitarian, is staggering. He will be missed. CC