Conductor Kurt Masur was raised in communist East Germany and went on to lead some of the world’s great orchestras, including the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, the New York Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic. The 87-year-old announced in 2012 that he has Parkinson’s disease, but still chairs the foundation that runs the Felix Mendelssohn Home in Leipzig. He recent spoke with Handelsblatt about his colorful career and the importance of resurrecting patronage of the arts.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Masur, why is classical music important?
Kurt Masur: It triggers something. It makes people look at how they feel. For example, with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Or why Mahler moves them in such a way. Music can be good to dance to – and unfortunately also to march to. It can stir people in their core, make them remember something, open them up.
Why are you so involved with the legacy of Felix Mendelssohn, especially in Leipzig, a city more associated with Bach?
We decided that the name Mendelssohn should take the place it actually deserves. One can indeed put his great “Elijah” oratorio next to Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis.” Why should Mendelssohn still suffer today because of his Jewish heritage, and because his music was banned during the Nazi era? Mendelssohn played a prominent role in the history of music, and not only as a composer.
How would you describe his impact?
He composed much of the music that makes Leipzig what it is today. He also conducted and broke new ground by doing so. Before him, orchestras generally played without conductors. Symphonies were led by concertmasters – and only when they were lucky did musicians actually play together.
Music needs sponsors. Has it become more difficult to find them?
Actually, we need patrons, not sponsors. Just like how the orchestra began at the Gewandhaus years ago. The people of Leipzig founded the first civic orchestra, when sixteen merchants, civil servants and traders paid 16 musicians back in 1743. Before that there were only court orchestras, which played to amuse the nobility. In Leipzig, it was civic pride that founded an orchestra for the city’s society. Even then, organizers were concerned about issues like how to sell subscriptions or attract people’s interest.
Have patrons completely died out these days?
There is still private patronage in Germany. For example Werner Otto, to whom the Werner Otto Hall is dedicated in the Berliner Schauspiel. He grasped what patronage meant, and he lived it.