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Masur's Milestone

Jefferson Chase
July 18, 2007

For over three decades, Kurt Masur was both one of the world's best classical-music conductors and the most prominent one from communist East Germany. But perhaps his finest hour came on the political stage in 1989.

At 80, Masur continues to conductImage: PA/dpa

Masur was born on July 18, 1927 in what is now the city of Brzeg in Poland. The son of an engineer, he taught himself piano as a young child and quickly specialized in conducting -- despite suffering from a nervous stutter.

In 1970, Masur became Kapellmeister at Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra -- the musical ensemble with which he remains most closely associated. He stayed in the post for 27 years, putting the orchestra back on the international map and presiding over the building of a new concert hall to replace the former one that had been badly damaged by Allied bombing during World War II.

In Leipzig, Masur established an international reputation as a sensitive and innovative interpreter of the Classical and Romantic repertoire -- and specifically Mendelssohn, Brahms and Tchaikovsky.

A master of the requiem

Tens of thousands of Leipzigers protested every Monday in 1989Image: dpa

His best-known recording came in 1982 with an interpretation of Richard Strauss's "Four Last Songs." Masur drastically slowed the tempi to create expressive space for soprano Jessye Norman's booming, gospel-tinged voice, turning what is often a quiet meditation on impending mortality into a hike through a particularly lush cemetery.

Decried by some as sluggish bombast, the recording is still in print after 25 years and regularly shows up on classical-music critics' "best-of" lists.

Masur has also wielded the baton for New York and London Philharmonic Orchestras. Despite plans to scale back his activities, he continues to be one of the world's most sought after and active conductors.

Calls for Non-Violence

Masur reads declaration
Masur publicly came out in support of the demonstratorsImage: PA/dpa

Masur declined offers to leave East Germany through much of his career and enjoyed cordial relations with former GDR leader Erich Honecker. But he never joined the Communist Party.

In 1989, amidst growing anti-government protests in Leipzig, Masur criticized violence by riot police against the demonstrators. On Oct. 9 of that year, he read a public appeal for freedom of discussion in the socialist state -- an act widely regarded as helping convince Leipzig police to disregard orders from Berlin and allow the weekly "Monday protests" to continue.

"In the same century that saw two world wars, I was witness to a peaceful revolution," Masur told the DPA news agency. "No television cameras captured the entire drama of what happened on that night in Leipzig."

A musical and political icon

Kurt Masur
Masur says, for him, music is a passion, not a careerImage: AP

In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, Masur was sometimes mentioned as a possible candidate for the German presidency, but he demurred, saying he was a musician, not a politician. In interviews since then, Masur has played down his role in the "peaceful revolution" of 1989.

"I was only one among many people who overcame their fear," he said.

Masur has received numerous honors from Leipzig and Germany for his musical achievements and personal courage.

The night of July 18 has been set aside for a concert as part of the London proms with Masur conducting the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France in performances of Bruckner and Tchaikovsky -- a fitting way for a musician who's always close to the people to spend his eightieth birthday.

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