He's a living legend among conductors. From Leipzig's Gewandhausorchester to the New York Philharmonic and Orchestre National de France, Kurt Masur has shaped musical life around the world. He turns 85 on July 18.
Germany's reunification was the springboard for Kurt Masur's international career - a conductor frequently dubbed the "master with the magical wand." Kapellmeister of Leipzig's Gewandhausorchester for nearly three decades, he has received countless awards, including a German Echo Classical Music Award in 2010 for his life work.
"Whichever composers Kurt Masur devotes his attention to, for him music is a passionate matter of the heart and mind," the award laudation proclaimed. "He embodies classical music's tradition, experience and endless ability to change in a new age."
But he views his 85th birthday to be a day like any other, Masur said. Despite health problems, he is planning his next concert tours and still continues to teach, relaying his experience in master classes and rehearsing with young conductors. He's not even dreaming of retirement. He would miss too much, he said, because music is like breathing for him.
First electricity, then music
Masur was born on July 18, 1927 in Brieg, Silesia - now Brzeg, Poland. He discovered his passion for music as a small child, teaching himself to play piano. His parents encouraged him to complete his training as an electrician before he took up music studies in Breslau in 1942. Following World War II, he moved to Leipzig to study piano, composition and orchestra leadership.
Leipzig remained a hub for Masur for decades to come. After jobs in Dresden, Schwerin and Berlin, he took the position of Kapellmeister of Leipzig's Gewandhausorchester in 1970, with the work forming the foundation of his artistic career and life, he said. He helped the orchestra once again achieve world renown and gave it a distinct character, with musicians and orchestras around the world admiringly dubbing it the "Gewandhaus sound."
Masur believes that an orchestra's distinct sound is its capital, and in the case of the Gewandhaus, it has a historical foundation. "Mendelssohn founded the conservatory in Leipzig with the intention that Gewandhaus musicians teach there and bring their own students into the orchestras as their successors. That established a tradition," he noted. "As a conductor, it would very stupid to change that."
Similarly laughable would be the attempt to teach the Vienna Philharmonic how to play a Viennese waltz, Masur said. But he added that one must still teach an orchestra every day during work.
Speaking his mind
Masur has never been one to mince words or fail to take up a clear position - whether in music or political and social issues. He butted heads with leaders of the former GDR, performing in the 1970s the complete symphonies by Dmitri Shostakovitch, who had fallen from grace among leaders in the Eastern Bloc and particularly in the Soviet Union. In 1980, he passionately advocated the new construction of the Gewandhaus, which had been destroyed during the war, rather than the creation of a multi-functional hall as planned by East Berlin functionaries. He prevailed again in 1981 when, against the wishes of GDR officials, he conducted the premiere of Alfred Schnittke's "Third Symphony" in 1981 in the new Gewandhaus.
In the 1980s, he advocated peaceful change and prudence on the part of GDR police in dealing with protestors in the Monday demonstrations that contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall. His speech on Leipzig State Radio played a major role in keeping the demonstration on October 9, 1989 - where 8,000 GDR police and soldiers were present - from escalating.
The unbelievable happened. Armed brigade groups, soldiers of the National People's Army and police retreated. The Gewandhaus Orchestra gave its concert as planned, though musicians would have played Beethoven's "Eroica" funeral march had there been deaths in the street.
In the days and years thereafter, Masur continued to advocate citizen participation in politics. In 1993, his name was floated as a German presidential candidate.
Joy, not hate
Masur himself has said that he has only tried to spread a humanistic message, with music being the most central means for that. The language of music is the language of understanding, he pointed out. "The message I have wanted to convey my entire life has been the same: one of understanding, friendship and humanism," he said. "Through music, I have always tried to show people that there is a purpose higher than everyday disputes."
Referring to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which incorporates a text based on Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy" in the fourth movement, Masur said the message of that legendary piece is what brings people together: "Joy is what should unite human beings, not hate."
At the forefront
Masur's international career kicked off after the fall of the Berlin Wall, turning him into one of the world's most-sought-after guest conductors. At the start of the 1990s, he became chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic in 2000, and musical director of the Orchestre National de France in Paris in 2002.
Masur never lost sight of his commitment to social issues. Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Masur immediately changed the concert program for the New York Philharmonic, choosing to perform Johannes Brahms' "German Requiem" to pay tribute to the deceased and offer comfort and hope to the living.
The performance was originally supposed to be the opening night gala of the Philharmonic's new season, but instead was transformed into a benefit concert to aid the families of the fire fighters, police officers and others who died in the attacks.
It also prompted Anthony Tommasini to write in the New York Times, "Kurt Masur's unabashed belief in the power of music to make big statements and foster healing has sometimes invited kidding. No longer. If ever there was a moment when Americans, particularly New Yorkers, needed musical inspiration and healing it is now," Tommasini noted.
Masur worked at Leipzig's Gewandhaus for nearly 30 years
"Maestro of the moment"
Masur took up the New York Philharmonic Orchestra post in 1991, with the New York Times enthusiastically calling him the "maestro of the moment." "Become what you are in Leipzig - the cultural leader of this city," wrote the paper.
Masur led the US' oldest orchestra for 12 years, receiving the title of music director emeritus when he gave up the position. It was an honor that had been given only once in the orchestra's 150-year history - to Leonard Bernstein.
Masur is convinced that his ability to listening very intently has been the recipe for his huge success. "I have always tried to be a good listener to an orchestra; maybe that's the secret," he mused. "I don't give a lecture; I don't tell them what I want beforehand and then they have to behave like pupils and learn it.
"Instead, I just get started and listen. And when we don't agree with each other, then we talk about it," he said.
Author: Marita Berg / als
Editor: Kate Bowen