Kurt Masur: How the Arrest of Street Musicians Inspired His Activism
Masur helped ease restrictions on street musicians in Leipzig.
On what would be his 91st birthday, Wednesday’s Google Doodle celebrates Kurt Masur, a legendary German conductor and music director emeritus of the New York Philharmonic from 1991 to 2002. Masur worked in top posts in some of the world’s most famous orchestras, including the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orchestre National de France in addition to the Philharmonic in New York.
But even as he gained recognition as a world-renowned maestro, Masur was also doing the important work of an activist. Masur lived in Leipzig, Germany during a revolt against communism in East Germany that began in 1989, The New York Times reported in 2015. He was somewhat involved in the movement, but truly made strides when he intervened on behalf of the city’s street musicians, who were often arrested for not holding official licenses issued by the government.
Masur was asked to lend his support for the musicians and convened a meeting at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a German symphony orchestra. He invited the affected musicians, the Stasi — the East German secret police — and Communist Party officials to meet, at great risk to his professional reputation. Over 600 people were invited in all, the Times reported. And everyone came.
An “amicable meeting” followed, according to the The Times, and the restrictions on street musicians were eased, all thanks to Masur’s influence and activism. And his advocacy didn’t stop there. Later that same year, pro-democracy demonstrations began in Leipzig in an area near the Gewandhaus. Armed police officers prepared to confront the protestors, but Masur invited everyone into the concert hall to talk once again.
Masur also recorded a message urging nonviolence and blasted it on the radio and over loudspeakers, and amazingly, both sides listened. That day and those talks helped urge on a peaceful nationwide revolution. Masur later told The Independent about the occasion, saying:
No one knew what would happen, and I had only some minutes to decide …. But I also knew that if I didn’t do something I would regret it for the rest of my life.
Today, Masur may be more well-known for his skill as conductor than for his activist work. But his activism helped turn the tides of a revolution, and it all started because he used his position and prestige to support street musicians. That’s quite a legacy to leave behind.