Kurt Masur was one of the last great orchestra conductors of the late 20th century. He played a heroic role in the ex-GDR's transition to democracy, but always declined any political role in the new government, preferring instead to focus on an outstanding musical career.
Kurt Masur was born into a non-musical family of Polish origin. His father was an engineer. He started learning the piano very young. But his real musical awakening came in 1936 at a concert in Breslau, which left a vivid impression on him for days. He decided at that point to become a musician and began studying composition and then conducting at the Musikhochschule in Leipzig. In 1948 he became rehearsal conductor, then conductor at the Halle State Theatre in Germany. In 1955, he was appointed second conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden. He honed his conducting skills with the principal conductor, Heinz Bongartz. From 1955 to 1958 and then from 1967 to 1972, he conducted the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra. In the intervening period, he was first conductor at the Komische Oper Berlin. In 1970, he was appointed musical director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a position he held up until 1996 and which confirmed his international reputation. Kurt Masur went on to conduct the greatest orchestras. His engagements followed in quick succession, sometimes even overlapping. In 1988, he was invited by Herbert von Karajan to the Salzburg Easter Festival. From 1991 to 2002, he was musical head of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, taking over from Zubin Mehta. In 1992, he was awarded the lifetime title of honorary guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2000, he was appointed principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Two years later, the Orchestre National de France chose him as musical director. He took up this position in 2003. In 2008, he was succeeded by Daniele Gatti, but regularly returned to conduct the French orchestra. It was during one of these concerts at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, in April 2012, that he tripped and fell during the performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique). Fortunately the accident did not have any serious consequences. A few months later, he announced, in a letter sent to the management of the Leipzig Orchestra, that he had Parkinson's Disease.
Despite the heavy demands of such a full career, Kurt Masur nevertheless set aside time for teaching. In 1975, he became a teacher at the Musikhochschule in Leipzig, where he had begun his musical training. Aside from his musical career, the domain in which Kurt Masur would leave his mark was politics. At the age of 12, he had witnessed the dramatic events known as Crystal Night, and in 1944, he had been mobilised into the Volksturm. Deeply marked by Nazism, Kurt Masur sympathised with the pacifist reform movement that was gathering force in the 1980s behind the Iron Curtain. In response to the arrests of musicians during protests, he took a stand against the authorities and organised political debates at the Gewandhaus. On 9 October 1989, he co-drafted a call for non-violent dialogue during a protest by 70,000 people, thereby preventing a violent repression. The East German leader, Erich Honecker, resigned on 18 October. Kurt Masur received a number of distinctions during his career, including Member of the Berlin Academy of Arts, Knight then Commander of the French Legion of Honour in 1990 and 1997, and Grand Commander of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2007.
Six landmark dates in the life of Kurt Masur:
- 1948: first conductorship at the State Theatre in Halle
- 1970: musical director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
- 1989: contributed to the fall of the Communist government in East Germany
- 1991: musical director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra
- 2000: principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra
- 2003: musical director of the Orchestre National de France
Biography compiled from Radio France Documentation, May 2017