Conductor  Kurt  Masur
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


In science and technology, the human race lurches forward and grasps each new idea so as to make day-to-day living better for us than it was for our ancestors, and we hope the next generation will have it better than we do today.  On the other hand, tradition is important in many aspects of life, especially in the arts where unbroken lines are necessary to move things forward without having to reinvent the wheel at each turn.  Kurt Masur [pronounced KOORT mah-ZOOR] has the distinction of having been the Music Director of the longest-surviving orchestras in Europe [the Leipzig Gewandhaus] and America [the New York Philharmonic].  He is also in great demand as a guest all over the world, and he has made many recordings.

Chicago was fortunate to have his services on several occasions both downtown during the regular season and at their summer home of Ravinia in suburban Highland Park.  In June of 1988, we met backstage at Orchestra Hall after he had rehearsed, and while certainly not exhausted, he was a bit physically tired after such hard work.  However his mind was eager to continue with musical thoughts and ideas.  As with others whose first language is not English, he has learned it well, but occasionally a strange but lovely turn of phrase will pop up . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Thank you for seeing me after a long rehearsal!

Kurt Masur:    Sure.

BD:    I want to start in by asking you about repertoire.  You have about three hundred years worth of music from which to select.  How do you decide which pieces you will do now, which pieces you will postpone and which you will just not do at all?

KM:    It’s a kind of a development throughout the whole life.  At first you like a lot of things which you do if you are young.  You like fresh music, modern music and something which surprises you.  The more and more you get through that, then you need other things; you read other books and you need other kinds of music.  You are growing up into a field which you avoided before, so for myself as a young conductor I decided very often to avoid conducting pieces which are so well known that every other conductor could do it better than I could at that time
— the Fifth of Beethoven, the Fourth of Brahms and so.  When you are coming along you have a huge repertory.  I didn’t count, but I conducted such a lot of different pieces from different times in history and different styles, that at my age now I am starting to reduce because I feel that I am now at the main point of life, one of the high points of my professional and human being abilities.

masur BD:    By
reduce do you mean you are learning fewer new pieces?

KM:    No, reducing pieces I want to go out with.  Not at home.  At home people know me and they have heard everything that I’ve conducted, so I still am learning a lot of new pieces which are recently composed.  And each year we are commissioning two or three new symphonies or compositions for orchestra.  So I have to learn those of course.  No, what I mean is you have a central repertory as a conductor which you want to present.  If I go to Chicago Symphony, I wouldn’t bring some pieces from young composers which I would conduct at home to learn how they go.  To hear it first time, sometimes it’s not a masterpiece but it’s proof that they have talent enough.  So I am conducting those, but I wouldn’t conduct them here.  For going out, I select pieces which I feel are from my center; there I can say more than other people say.

BD:    Are those only masterpieces?

KM:    No, no.  I bring a lot of talented young composers from our country if I’ve found out its worth and the people understand.  And of course there are different places.  If I’m going to Boston, for instance, I know exactly that they have an audience with a very good understanding in different styles.  If I’m coming here to Chicago, it’s the same.  If I’m going other places, I know people will not understand it.  In Italy I have to make another choice.  This is a kind of selection you have to do as an artist.  I believe repertory means you should conduct only those pieces where you feel you have something special to say; then the people will accept it.

BD:    This
something special that you have to say — is that in the music, or is that in you, the conductor?

KM:    It’s both.  I admire some music but I leave it to other conductors because I like to hear it, but they are more in the center of this music to conduct it.  So then I am not doing it.  The repertory is too widespread now, so you cannot do everything.

BD:    For you, what makes a work a masterpiece?

KM:    A masterpiece is a work which can be understood by everybody all over the world.  This is the really so-called great music, great pieces.  If you go with Bach to Japan or China or even to Africa, it is understood.  Understood in different ways, of course, but the music is so complex that everybody cuts another piece of the cake for himself and finds it beautiful and somehow impressive.

BD:    So then a masterpiece has plenty of cake for everyone?

KM:    Yeah, yeah!  Sure!  [Both laugh]  There are some pieces where we’d say they’re masterpieces but for a limited number of people.  In America, Bruckner is not well known and not loved all over the country.

BD:    That’s surprising!

KM:    Yeah, it’s surprising.  In music centers there is no doubt about it, but the main audience still says, “Ah, Bruckner — the poor man’s Mahler.”  Or they say, “I like Mahler more.  I will avoid Bruckner.”  But in some places in Europe, Bruckner is one of the centers of the musical life.  In Vienna or in Leipzig or in Berlin, if you play a Bruckner symphony the audience is attracted by it.  But in London, Bruckner is not so settled as Mahler or Beethoven or Bach.

BD:    Is that because of the audience, or because of the technical abilities of their orchestras?

KM:    No, no, absolutely not!  I believe it’s the kind of typical German language mentality, the Austrian and German mentality which makes something quite simple sometimes too straight for people.  If you go to Italy, the people are impatient.  They don’t like to listen to such long pieces!  [Both laugh]  They like more to listen to Mahler because it’s always changing colors.  For them, it’s more theatrical music.

BD:    Once you have decided on repertoire to take with you, do you conduct the same piece differently in different cities?

KM:    Surely not.  It comes out differently with different orchestras because an orchestra has a character.  A good orchestra has a very straight character, of course, and even if you try to come very close to the idea you have of your own, it still is a combination of both.  And that’s wonderful, of course.  Experience with such orchestras as the Chicago Symphony is always new.  It sometimes brings me new ideas about pieces and about the possibilities to look at pieces newly, especially in the repertory which is not so traditional in our country.  On the other hand, I know that the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra grew up with Brahms conducting and playing, with Schumann conducting and playing there, with Mendelssohn conducting and playing.  That makes a stamp on the orchestra, it makes a style of the orchestra which is now settled, and if they play Brahms, you can say it’s still authentic.  It’s a kind of way that I would never try to change.  On the other hand, to refresh ideas about those composers it’s very helpful often for me to play Brahms with the Chicago Symphony, as we did last time at Ravinia.

BD:    Obviously there’s no one still in Leipzig who played with Brahms and Schumann...

KM:    No, but we have a very lucky organization because Mendelssohn founded the Conservatory of Music nearby a hundred fifty years ago, with the idea that the members of the orchestra are teaching there and bringing their students into the orchestra.  And this still works.

BD:    So there is a constant thread.

masur KM:    There is a thread from the professors to the students, which is always the same style.  We have very old members who told me that the sound of orchestra hasn’t changed in fifty years.

BD:    Is it right that you play Brahms and Schumann the same way in the late part of the twentieth century as they did in the middle of the nineteenth century?

KM:    I believe the sound is very similar.  Of course we are younger and we are living in another, more technical time.  Surely we are not a kind of museum, and we don’t want to do that.  It would be boring.  But I believe that the basic sound of a Schumann symphony or a Brahms symphony, which needs a special string technique, is very authentic.  The interpretation changes with the conductor; a piece can be very different.  It doesn’t mean that in Leipzig, with its Bach tradition, everybody goes the same way.  It’s very different of course, but I believe that the basic sound and the basic style of playing it has a similarity; it has a ground.

BD:    Now when you come with that same repertoire to Chicago, do you try to teach the Chicago Symphony that kind of technique and that kind of sound, or do you let the Chicago sound infiltrate you and meld it together?

KM:    I always have to try to bring them up to a sound which I find authentic enough.  It’s always melding together, because I respect the orchestra; I respect their playing.  On the other hand, they know that I have grown up with this kind of sound, as we say,
With a mother’s milk.  This kind of sound.  So then they accept and they always try to come close to that.  We are only coming close during the whole life.  In compositions like symphonies of Brahms or Beethoven, you never can say you’ve got it.  If we have a very good performance, I tell my people, “You came very close.”  That’s all.  You never can come all the way.

BD:    You never achieve that perfection?

KM:    Never, never.

BD:    Even on recording?

KM:    No, you never can.  On recordings there is another rule.  Recordings must be very perfect, and you try to add the kind of atmosphere of a live concert, but you only can achieve a percentage of it.  You never can do it all because if you play with such a risk, you never will make the recording really perfectly!  You have to accept that nobody’s perfect.  Maybe after we die we will be perfect, but in the end it’s a wonderful profession to be like this.

BD:    What are the differences in conducting in the recording studio and in the concert hall?

KM:    In the studio I have to control much more than in the concert hall.  In the performance I try to bring the spirit of the piece without any compromise to the audience, so that everybody feels,
That’s it!  There you are not asking to be forgiven for a small mistake or a transition which was not done so perfectly in the moment.  I avoid trying to be as perfect as on recordings because then you have to keep yourself so under control that the spirit is diminished; you have not enough power to be as straight as you would be normally.  With the recordings I always have to watch and to control.  I must say, “We have to do it again because this and this was not okay.”  That’s clear.  That’s always a compromise, but on the other hand it’s wonderful that you can do it, and if you have an orchestra with such a mastership as you have here in Chicago, then you can reach very well a high level of fulfillness.

BD:    You don’t feel that by not putting that spirit into the recordings, that you’re cheating the record-buying public?

KM:    No, no.  I try, always, to do it with a lot of risk.  We are doing a lot of risk, and sometimes we are happy that it happens very, very well.  But at the other hand, you never can say, “I’m conducting as I would be in a concert and I forget the microphones.”  That’s not possible.  Nobody can do that.  Somebody would be lying!

BD:    For each set of concerts you have a number of rehearsals.  Is all of your work done in rehearsal, or do you leave a little bit of that spark for the night of performance?

KM:    I always am rehearsing only to have an understanding with the orchestra, and that I know that each transition and each small changing in the evening will work.  I’m working only that we are familiar enough that we feel it works.  It’s a better way to keep the whole performance a little bit more creative, not only to make it through and to let it go at that.  So I leave everything, thereby, for the concert; we are rehearsing very hard but leaving the musical performance more for the concerts.

BD:    Are you ever surprised at how the concerts turn out?

KM:    [Laughs] No, no.  Normally never because all orchestras are normally playing better in the concerts than in rehearsal.  They are more attentive, more concentrated.  If you know an orchestra, you can trust in the evening they will keep an eye for things, and then it will be the best of all.  It’s better than to train it and to leave nothing to chance.  Then nobody will take care because they know already how it goes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are we still getting the masterpieces written today?  I don’t mean specifically this piece or that piece, but are masterpieces still being written?

KM:    Absolutely!  I’m absolutely clear!  We are not poor in our time; we have a lot of different composers, intelligent people and a lot of people who have to say something, and who say it with different musical language.  Normally I’m very, very happy about our time and how many possibilities exist to bring up young talents.  Of course everybody tells you there will be no Beethoven anymore, but if I’m conducting Shostakovich, I say it’s one of the great symphonic composers of our century.  These are great works
the form and the humanistic idea of what he wants to tell the people.  It’s wonderful!  And even composers in another field, I would say.  Bernstein’s West Side Story is a great piece; he’s a great composer!  They have not done it as a classical piece, but it’s a kind of new form to tell really humanistic stories, to give a message to people of our time.  That’s a very, very important point.

masur BD:    What do you feel is the purpose of music in society?

KM:    In society, the music now has a great deal because of radio and television.  In former times, what did it mean if somebody was a very good singer strumming with his guitar and singing beautiful songs?  In our times, if he comes on television the world wide will know him.  It’s astonishing.

BD:    He will be known instantly!

KM:    Instantly!  And this is a wonderful happening, because it combines the intimacy of such a performance.  It’s not an entertainment, it’s somehow touching, meeting, this artist of this caliber.  I’m always moved if I see somebody who’s able to do everything on his own and to give people a message.

BD:    In the concert hall or in the opera house, where is that balance between the artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

KM:    I’ve led the opera a little bit because I was long time opera conductor, but very often you cannot find the truth.

BD:    Why not?

KM:    Because beautiful singing doesn’t mean it’s a complete theater evening.  It’s one part of it, and good playing in the orchestra, that’s fine.  But if Otello and Desdemona are not loving each other, only loving the conductor because they’re always looking at him, then it starts to be a question mark for me.  I feel that everything should be as high level as possible, and this is not so often.  Normally people are going to have a kind of entertainment in the opera because they are enjoying beautiful clothes, going out to have a wonderful meeting place to surely have a wonderful experience that evening.  But I find that in the concert hall I am able to bring a more true kind of a message of a composer to the audience than in the opera house.  In the opera house I’m too much dependent on the surroundings, even the decoration or outfits or something like that.

BD:    Is it possible to achieve this true message of the composer in the opera house?

KM:    Oh, yes.  In our time it will be too expensive.  My experience in opera with Walter Felsenstein was wonderful and moving for me, and we had some years where we could say we came close.  We had some evenings where really everybody went home and said, “For God’s sake!”  If you have such an evening, you can be glad that it happened and that everybody who was involved felt this was outstanding, and it was believable for the audience.  Believable.  I think young people of our time are looking for believable things.  They don’t want to have a demonstration of richness, of high level of expensive things; they want to have the truth.  Therefore, singers are often very, very admired by young people.

BD:    Do you conduct opera at all anymore?

KM:    Oh sometimes, yes.  I had a wonderful task to lead the recording of Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss.  It was not staged, but I was glad enough to have Jessye Norman and Gruberova and Fischer-Dieskau and Varady all in the same opera.

BD:    When you listen to your recordings, perhaps years or even decades later, are you still pleased with what you hear on the plastic?

KM:    No, I’m very critical!  Some pieces you’re conducting quite often, like Beethoven symphonies, and they are growing with each performance.  So after three years, I say, “I would like to do it now, again.”  That’s very normal.  I’m lucky now to start the cycle again, but I’m sure when they come out I will say, “It’s not good enough; I can do it better now.”  So if you still feel that, you are not too old.

BD:    [Laughs]  So you want to re-record everything every three to five years?

KM:    Not everything; some of it I know couldn’t be better!  Some things I know it’s not good to repeat.  A recording with Jessye Norman of the full songs of Strauss cannot be better.  That was it, so we know this is not to be repeated.  And some of our other things are not to be repeated, but the main repertory
which grows with you more and more and you grow into more and morewhen you are older and have another viewpoint, then you normally like to do it again.

masur BD:    Are performers getting better as the years go by?  Are the young performers today perhaps better than the young performers of twenty years ago?

KM:    I would say the education in our time is much higher than before.  Great conductors of the beginning of this century very often had no professional education in that field.  Now, more and more we have professional education.  I would say that the knowledge about conducting is higher.  It depends how high the talent is, of course.  Nobody gives you more for education if you have no talent, and the talent in our time is in danger because if somebody is talented, he is pushed by managements to start too early; he has not enough time to grow up inside.   But I would say that the professional level, mainly of the orchestras, is much higher than it was fifty years ago.  That is absolutely clear!  I don’t mean musically, I mean only the education, the spirit, the abilities.  And that makes it beautiful to be a conductor in our time.  On the other hand, to grow up in a time where nearly everything is possible, there is a danger for young musicians in all countries.  I’ve discovered that because the concentration to do this, and only this, is not so high as before.  I had one experience with a very, very talented young horn player from Brazil.  He grew up there and was first horn player in the orchestra at the age of fifteen.  Then he came to the Juilliard School because the horn professor is a fantastic man.  Now he’s twenty-one and he doesn’t know if he even wants to be a musician!  He just told me that.

BD:    Is he burned out?

KM:    No, I wouldn’t say so, but his interest goes also in other ways.  So now he makes a question to himself, “What should I do?  But I didn’t try if I’m not talented in other fields, too.”  In our time it’s much more difficult to find out
as I did, or as a lot of people my age could doI only want to be this.  I had no choice!  I decided at the age of sixteen that I wanted to be a conductor.  I have no mentality for that; I have no education for that.  I was a shy young man; everybody laughed at it because they thought I never will come to this point!  But I had no choice for myself, and I went through.

BD:    Was it like having tunnel vision?

KM:    Yes, yes!  I was not stupid at all.  I was educated in technical ways; I’m electrician, perfectly educated that way.  My father was an engineer.  So I had a lot of other choices, but at last it came to that point that I said, “I have to be a conductor.”  Very often young musicians tell me, “I would be interested to study philosophy, too.”  I find that wonderful, but to say in the end, “I have to make music otherwise I die,” is not so often anymore.

BD:    So you have no desire to go back to electrical engineering?  [Both laugh]

KM:    No!  But I like it as a hobby.

BD:    Do you ever feel when you’re conducting that you’re wiring up a piece of music?

KM:    [Laughs]  No, never!  No, no, but if I make a recording it helps me very much because I have some knowledge about those things.

BD:    What advice do you have for young people who want to be conductors?

KM:    I always try to find out what’s the reason.  That’s very interesting.  If they are very young, they have sometimes a very, very fantastic imagination.  I always tell them, “Friend, look, if you are not successful as a conductor, you will be the most unhappy man of the world.  So try to find out.  If you have no other choice, do it.  Otherwise, do other things.”

BD:    If there is a second choice, better take that second choice?

KM:    Yeah, absolutely!  If I say, “I have to be a conductor.  I don’t mind to go to Chicago or to any small city, but I have to conduct and I’m happy with that,” then it’s fine; then it’s okay.  But if you say, “Oh, I would like to have success by being a great man,” it never works!

BD:    Would you be happy conducting in a little tiny town?

KM:    I was happy everywhere I was in my life.  And I always thought, “It could be your last station.  Handle it like that.”

BD:    What advice do you have for young composers coming along?

KM:    Not looking too much to be very special; only to find out who you are and what you want to say with your music.  Decide if you really have some ideas to tell people, because like a poet, if you have no idea what you want to tell your partner, or anybody else, you shouldn’t write a poem.  [Laughs]  You should be silent — it’s much better.  And as a composer, it means you should feel the desire and have the ability to tell people something with music, to tell something from your own experiences, from your ideas, from your fantasy.  A lot of young composers are starting with experiments, which is fine, but most of them then are sticking with these experiments and forgetting that music is only important if you say something to the audience.  Otherwise it’s nothing.

BD:    What advice do you have for audiences who want to come to the concert hall?

KM:    To be always open for new experiences.  That’s the only advice I could give.  Not only looking for Beethoven and Brahms, which you know already and like very much, but try to find out which new things are impressive for you.  If you keep that in mind, you will discover new things also in the common pieces.  So it is the only advice I would give the audience.

BD:    One last question
— is conducting fun?

KM:    Oh, I love it!  In my house, I feel like I am a villager who has seed, and everything grew and now I can go and harvest it.

BD:    Thank you for being a conductor.

KM:    Thank you.  Those were nice questions.

Kurt Masur - A Leader in Music and Politics

Jul 16, 2009

In celebrating the 20th anniversary of the peaceful revolution that brought down the Wall, we will profile over the course of 2009 important East Germans who have shaped beyond all physical borders the cultural, intellectual and political life of postwar Germany and Europe.

Kurt Masur is one of the most widely admired and respected conductors of his generation. Having played an influential role in East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down, he was even considered for the office of the president of the Republic of Germany.

Masur was born the son of an engineer on July 18, 1927, in the city of Brieg in Silesia, Germany (now Brzeg, Poland). He discovered his love for music in early childhood and taught himself piano and enjoyed singing alone or alongside his sister and friends. Music always made him feel at home. “I discovered that music-making not only helped me overcome loneliness and sadness but also brought me joy and happiness in the special moments of my life,” he said.

masur From 1946 to 1948, Masur studied piano, composition, and conducting at the Leipzig Conservatory, which was later renamed Leipzig Academy of Music and Theatre. Despite not having completed his college studies, he began his conducting career at the Halle County Theater in 1948. Masur then spent the ensuing years conducting in regional East German opera houses and the Dresden Philharmonic until his breakthrough in 1970, when he was appointed Gewandhaus Kapellmeister (music director) of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Masur still remains most closely associated with this musical ensemble. Under Kurt Masur’s direction, the Gewandhaus Orchestra once again garnered international recognition. Upon his retirement in 1996, the Gewandhaus named him its first-ever “conductor laureate.”

[Photo at right - Kurt Masur was awarded the Great Cross of the Legion of Honor with Star and Shoulder Ribbon for his musical accomplishments and his contributions to the reunification of Germany. 
(© picture-alliance/dpa )]

In 1991, the New York Philharmonic invited Masur to serve as music director, an offer which he eagerly accepted. Maestro Masur soon revitalized the Philharmonic and transformed it into one of the world’s most renowned orchestras, restoring it to its former glory. Moreover, he achieved this tremendous reformation without replacing the musicians. Instead, using simple motivational techniques, he improved the musicians’ attitudes about themselves and their music. He once told a young participant: "Success is not what I'm looking for, I'm looking for the truth: your heart, your mind, your feelings." With inspiring and uplifting words, he changed the orchestra from a sullen group into an excellent musical organization. The orchestra was once again receiving rave reviews from the critics. One of the musicians once said, “Conductors would come to us to further their own careers or to be the chief.  Masur came to play music with us.”

Even though Masur was immensely popular, over the years, he unfortunately was overcome by office intrigues and ousted prematurely in 2002. Whatever problems Masur may have encountered toward the end of his tenure at the New York Philharmonic, today he looks back on that time as a high point of his career. The final years, in particular, he said, were “like a dream.”

Maestro Masur went on to become principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, a position he held until 2007, and music director of the Orchestre National de France in Paris. During his tenure at those two orchestras, he also served as guest conductor for a number of major orchestras in the United States and Europe.

Throughout Masur’s career, education has played an important role. Having witnessed the long and painful rebuilding of Germany’s musical culture after World War II, he has remained devoted to strengthening musical traditions at every level of society and taken part in many educational projects. Maestro Masur has also taught as a professor at the Leipzig Academy of Music since 1975 and holds honorary degrees from the Juilliard School, Leipzig University, the Manhattan School of Music, and Yale University, among others.

Maestro Masur has received numerous honors for both his musical achievements and his personal courage. In 1997, he received the Commander of the Legion of Honor award from the French government and New York City Cultural Ambassador award from the City of New York. In September 2007, the president of the Federal Republic of Germany, Horst Köhler, bestowed on him the Great Cross of the Legion of Honor with Star and Shoulder Ribbon. Since the 2008/2009 season, Masur has held the title of Honorary Music Director for Life of the Orchestre National de France, ensuring his close and active involvement with that orchestra for many years to come. These are but a few of the many recognitions he has received.

Maestro Masur’s contributions are unique in the history of music. Mild-mannered in his style, he conducts with intense expression and focus, minimal gesture, and subtle charisma. Despite plans to scale back his activities due to health reasons, the conductor, who celebrated his 82nd birthday on July 18, 2009, is not yet ready for his swan song; he continues to be one of the world's most sought-after and active conductors.

Maestro Masur is known to both orchestras and audiences as a distinguished conductor and a musical icon. Lesser known is the fact that he has also been an important political figure. One of his finest hours on the political stage took place in the GDR in 1989, amid growing anti-government protests in Leipzig, when thousands of East Germans went to the streets to demand more freedom, civil rights, and democracy. The people were rising up in protest against a state which had long suppressed its own citizens. For several weeks, they marched peacefully through Leipzig every Monday to demand their rights. On October 9, 1989, Kurt Masur read a public appeal for freedom of speech in the GDR and criticized riot police violence against the demonstrators. Many believe this helped avert a massacre. The public appeal is widely regarded as having helped convince the Leipzig police to disregard orders from Berlin and allow the "Monday protests" to continue. Masur, however, always downplays his role in the "peaceful revolution" of 1989. "I was only one among many people who overcame their fear," he says. Afterwards, many supporters wanted to nominate Masur for the office of the president. Masur, however, was finished with politics, preferring instead to return his attention to music.


© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on June 8, 1988.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB two months later, and in 1992, 1997 and 1999.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2010.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.