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.
Today, it is no longer so common for young people to learn an instrument. And in concert halls, older musicians dominate.
We have a duty to our younger generations. The saturation of pop music is huge. If we do not watch out, Chinese orchestras will soon be playing Beethoven for us. We have to start educating the young generation, so that by 18 or 20 they don’t want to live without music. That has to be promoted by music lessons at six years old – if they learn “Hänschen Klein” [a German children’s song, Eds.], then they should also know Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
And yet there is less and less music being taught.
Yes. One has to blame the schools. Music lessons should be taken as seriously as mathematics.
Do you like working with younger people?
Yes, I always go back home feeling very happy after master classes. The young people carry that into the whole world. And then they come to the concerts. Not because I am called Masur – my name will soon be forgotten. How it still gets under your skin when Louis Armstrong sings: “Oh, What a Wonderful World” – everyone gets that.
Are you strict with your students?
No, but demanding.
Video: Kurt Masur with one of his students.
Can you remember the moment you realized music was your life?
Probably when I was sitting with my mother in church and heard the organ. I wanted to be an organist. When my older sister took piano lessons, I tried to play back the melodies. Then I put together harmonies, and suddenly, everyone around me and was astonished. When I was 10, a relative who was a conductor from Breslau heard me. He asked: “Where did you learn how to play piano?” I answered: “Not at all.” And he cursed my mother: “Your son has talent and you let him grow like a weed.” After that I immediately got lessons.
And that shaped you?
The first teacher said later: “Young man, if you want to play music, do it for the people. Don’t do it to show how good you are. The purpose of making music is something different, and when you understand that, you will be happy.”
Let’s talk about your big political moment. In 1989, you made history with your call for civility and calm (in the last days of the former East Germany). Where did you get the courage?
It began with the building of the Gewandhaus. Everyday, I was at the construction site and knew the workers. Everyone got a record from the Gewandhaus. For many, that was the first time they had heard classical music. I had a lot of trust from the people, not only as a conductor. And then in 1989, I opened the Gewandhaus and invited everyone to talk – city leaders, police, politicians and citizens. There was nothing like that in East Germany before – the opportunity to speak openly.
And then, on October 9?
I had a morning dress rehearsal for an evening concert. When I found out that a lot of police had been called to Leipzig, I called the party and asked what would happen with my concert. Everyone was afraid. The man said: “Mr. Masur, there is an order to crush the demonstration.” I asked: “What can I do?” He replied: “I don’t know, we will see to it that nothing will kick off.” And then I said: “Good. Please tell the radio station to have the microphone ready.” There were speakers across the whole city.
And what happened then?
Together, we made an appeal, and I read it. To the effect of: “Our concern for Leipzig has brought us together. We ask you: No violence. We guarantee that we will lead talks with the government and with the party, to change the situation in Leipzig.” And it went well.
How did you feel later?
Not one windowpane was broken. It was like a miracle. I held my breath. In the days before, I had said to my wife: “Tomoko, can you pack quickly?” My appeal wasn’t an act of heroism, it was an attempt to keep the peace.
How do you see the future of Leipzig?
Up to today, in all of former East Germany, we have no executives from the board of a big blue-chip German company, and thus we don’t have access to the real sources of money, from either industry or private fortunes. But percentage-wise, we have the second highest spending on culture in Germany.A larger sense of engagement is missing.
When you look back, what was the most intense and important time of your life?
The time with the New York Philharmonic was my crowning experience. It was a master orchestra. The New Yorkers could sometimes play faster than the Leipzigers, but not more beautifully. The spirit of Leipzig always accompanied me, regardless of where I conducted.
Video: Kurt Masur conducting a Johannes Brahms waltz.
Regina Krieger and Regine Müller conducted the interview. To contact them: Krieger@handelsblatt.com