Conductor Kurt Masur's Role in 3 Pivotal Moments in History
The famous conductor lived through some of Germany's darkest hours.
Kurt Masur, considered one of the last “old-style maestros,” was a famed German conductor who rebuilt the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and led Leipzig’s Gewandhaus. His musical prowess was well-documented, and July 13’s Google Doodle commemorated what would have been his 91st birthday.
Outside of his professional acclaim, Masur was involved in major political conflicts throughout his life, including World War II (when he was forced into a German militia), the rise and fall of communist East Germany, and the aftermath of 9/11 while he served as director of the Philharmonic.
Why Kurt Masur Fought for Germany in World War II
Masur was born in 1927 in a city now considered part of Poland but was at the time Germany’s Lower Silesia. He began piano, composition, and conducting lessons at the age of 10 before being unwillingly drafted into Germany’s Volkssturm national militia. One of the final components of Adolf Hitler’s “Total War,” the militia was composed of boys aged 16-60 who were not already serving under the German Army.
Masur was one of the youngest soldiers in his unit and narrowly avoided dying at the hands of the British and American forces. In November of 1944, the Volkssturm militia sent 150 members into battle, and only 27 men returned, including Masur.
After Germany’s surrender, Masur was able to pursue conducting at the Music College of Leipzig. But he left his studies to take a job as an orchestra coach in the Halle Opera House, and his career blossomed from there.
How Kurt Masur Intervened in Communist East Germany
In his tenure as a conductor, Masur led five orchestras, the first being the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra for eight years total. Notably, he never used a baton, due to a childhood hand injury.
The bulk of his career took place at Leipzig’s Gewandhaus orchestra, during which political furor raged in Germany. While the Socialist Unity Party controlled East Germany as Masur worked in Leipzig, his political views never aligned with communism, as he never officially joined the party. But while he received the 1982 National Prize of East Germany, Masur began to grow disillusioned with the regime, especially after a street musician was arrested in 1989.
Masur famously intervened in an anti-government demonstration in Leipzig later that year, to stop security forces from attacking the protestors. He went on to receive awards of merit from the Federal Republic of Germany, the French government, the city of New York, and the Polish Republic, largely in part for his humanitarian actions.
Why Kurt Masur Left New York After 9/11
While Masur is credited with reinvigorating the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, thanks to his internal changes to the show’s structure, his directorial leadership was challenged by the Executive Director at the time, and his contract was not renewed after 2002.
Before leaving New York, Masur conducted one of its most iconic performances. In a televised memorial for the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Masur and the Philharmonic performed “German Requiem” by Johannes Brahms. The New York Times credited the memorial performance as a facilitation for healing after the devastation of 9/11, and Masur went on to perform until his retirement in 2014.