Kurt Masur

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Kurt Masur
Masur-Dresdner-Philharmonie-Albertinum-2012 (cropped).jpg
Masur conducting the Dresdner Philharmonie (Dresden) in 2012
Born(1927-07-18)18 July 1927
Died19 December 2015(2015-12-19) (aged 88)
Burial place Südfriedhof (Leipzig), Germany
Alma mater University of Music and Theatre Leipzig
Years active1955–2014
Style Classical music
Spouse(s)Brigitte Stütze (div. 1966)
Irmgard Elsa Kaul (to 1972, her death)
Tomoko Sakurai (1975 – his death in 2015)
Website www.kurtmasur.com

Kurt Masur (18 July 1927 – 19 December 2015) was a German conductor. Called "one of the last old-style maestros", [1] he directed many of the principal orchestras of his era. He had a long career as the Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and also served as music director of the New York Philharmonic. He left many recordings of classical music played by major orchestras. Masur is also remembered for his actions to support peaceful demonstrations in the 1989 anti-government demonstrations in Leipzig; the protests were part of the events leading up to the fall of the Berlin wall.

Conducting Directing a musical performance by way of visible gestures

Conducting is the art of directing a musical performance, such as an orchestral or choral concert. It has been defined as "the art of directing the simultaneous performance of several players or singers by the use of gesture." The primary duties of the conductor are to interpret the score in a way which reflects the specific indications in that score, set the tempo, ensure correct entries by ensemble members, and "shape" the phrasing where appropriate. Conductors communicate with their musicians primarily through hand gestures, usually with the aid of a baton, and may use other gestures or signals such as eye contact. A conductor usually supplements their direction with verbal instructions to their musicians in rehearsal.

Kapellmeister is a German word designating a person in charge of music-making. The word is a compound, consisting of the roots Kapelle and Meister ("master"). The word was originally used to refer to somebody in charge of music in a chapel. However, the term has evolved considerably in its meaning in response to changes in the musical profession.

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra symphonic orchestra

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is a German symphony orchestra based in Leipzig, Germany. The orchestra is named after the concert hall in which it is based, the Gewandhaus. In addition to its concert duties, the orchestra also performs frequently in the Thomaskirche and as the official opera orchestra of the Leipzig Opera.



Masur was born in Brieg, Lower Silesia, Germany (now Brzeg in Poland), and studied piano, composition and conducting in Leipzig, Saxony.

Brzeg Place in Opole Voivodeship, Poland

Brzeg is a town in southwestern Poland with 36,110 inhabitants (2016) and the capital of Brzeg County. It is situated in Silesia in the Opole Voivodeship on the left bank of the Oder.

Province of Lower Silesia province of Prussia

The Province of Lower Silesia was a province of the Free State of Prussia from 1919 to 1945. Between 1938 and 1941 it was reunited with Upper Silesia as the Province of Silesia. The capital of Lower Silesia was Breslau. The province was further divided into two administrative regions (Regierungsbezirke), Breslau and Liegnitz.

Weimar Republic Germany state in the years 1918/1919–1933

The Weimar Republic is an unofficial historical designation for the German state from 1918 to 1933. The name derives from the city of Weimar, where its constitutional assembly first took place. The official name of the republic remained Deutsches Reich unchanged from 1871, because of the German tradition of substates. Although commonly translated as ’German Empire’, the word Reich here better translates as ’realm’, in that the term does not have monarchical connotations in itself. The Reich was changed from a constitutional monarchy into a republic. In English, the country was usually known simply as Germany.

His father was an electrical engineer, and as a young boy he completed an electrician's apprenticeship; he occasionally worked in his father's shop. However, Masur's calling lay elsewhere: in music. From ages 10 to 16, he took piano lessons with Katharina Hartmann. Reportedly, at the age of 16 the little finger on his right hand grew stiff due to an unusually shortened tendon, which hampered his piano lessons. It may have also partially led to his choice of becoming a conductor. His desire to become a conductor was likely cemented in 1943, when he and a friend saw a live performance of Beethoven's works; the orchestral performance led by Herbert Albert had a great effect on the young Masur. In 1943 and 1944 he took piano lessons at the Landesmusikschule in Breslau, which at the time was part of Germany but is now known as Wrocław in Poland.

Herbert Albert was a German conductor.

Wrocław City in Lower Silesian Voivodeship, Poland

Wrocław is a city in western Poland and the largest city in the historical region of Silesia. It lies on the banks of the River Oder in the Silesian Lowlands of Central Europe, roughly 350 kilometres (220 mi) from the Baltic Sea to the north and 40 kilometres (25 mi) from the Sudeten Mountains to the south. The population of Wrocław in 2018 was 640,648, making it the fourth-largest city in Poland and the main city of the Wrocław agglomeration.

However the events of World War II would soon put a temporary halt to his practicing. As the war dragged on, Nazi Germany's casualties had been mounting and were leading to a manpower shortage. In response, Hitler's government instituted increasingly desperate conscription measures. In October of 1944 the Nazis announced that all men between the ages of 16 and 60 could be conscripted, which included the young composer. Masur was drafted into the paratroopers late in 1944. [2] He was sent to fight; "[o]ut of the 150 people of his unit, only 27 [including Masur] survived", before being captured by American and British forces on May 1, 1945. Masur and his family were lucky: not a single family member died in the war. [2]

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 70 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Adolf Hitler Leader of Germany from 1934 to 1945

Adolf Hitler was a German politician and leader of the Nazi Party. He rose to power as Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and later Führer in 1934. During his dictatorship from 1933 to 1945, he initiated World War II in Europe by invading Poland on 1 September 1939. He was closely involved in military operations throughout the war and was central to the perpetration of the Holocaust.

From 1946 until 1948, he studied conducting, composition and piano at the University of Music and Theatre Leipzig. He left at 21, never finishing his studies, when offered a job as répétiteur at the Landestheater Halle an der Saale (since renamed as the Halle Opera House, or Opernhaus Halle in German). [2]

A répétiteur is an accompanist, tutor or coach of ballet dancers or opera singers.

Halle Opera House opera house in Halle, Germany

The Halle Opera House is an opera house in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt. Originally named the Halle Town Theatre, the theatre was built in 1886. A bomb attack on 31 March 1945 destroyed much of the original building. Restorative work ensued a few years later, and the theatre reopened in 1951 under the name Landestheater Halle. In January 1992 it was renamed to its current title. The theatre is currently used for performances of opera, ballet, and orchestral concerts. It is also the main performance venue for the annual summer Handel Festival held in the city.

Kurt Masur, wife Tomoko, daughter Carolin and son Ken David in 1981 Bundesarchiv Bild 183-Z0209-023, Kurt Masur mit Familie.jpg
Kurt Masur, wife Tomoko, daughter Carolin and son Ken David in 1981

Masur was married three times, and had a total of five children. His first marriage to Brigitte Stütze produced three children, two sons and a daughter, and it ended in divorce in 1966. He and his second wife, Irmgard Elsa Kaul, had a daughter, Carolin Masur, who became an opera singer. [3] Irmgard Masur died in 1972 in a car accident in which Masur was severely injured. [4] In 1975, he married his third wife, soprano and violist, Tomoko Sakurai: they had one son, Ken-David, a classical singer and conductor. [5]

Conducting career

Masur conducted the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra for three years ending in 1958 and again from 1967 to 1972. He also worked with the Komische Oper of East Berlin. In 1970, he became Kapellmeister of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, serving in that post until 1996. With that orchestra, he performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the celebration of German reunification in 1990. [6]

In 1991, Masur became music director of the New York Philharmonic (NYP). He was an unexpected choice who brought needed change to that orchestra. [7] "Masur's appointment was a clear signal that it was time for the orchestra to begin anew." [7] Former concertmaster Glenn Dicterow said in 2012 "It takes a big personality to unite 105 players onstage — to get everybody to be as inspired as he is — and, uh, it's hard work, . . And he's just so demanding and intense that I think that he got, just by his sheer intensity of his personality, I think it sort of transformed most of us." [7] Masur directed the Philharmonic in a performance of Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. [6] During his tenure, there were reports of tension between Masur and the NYP's Executive Director at the time, Deborah Borda, which eventually contributed to his contract not being renewed beyond 2002. [8] In a television interview with Charlie Rose, Masur stated that regarding his leaving the NYP, "it was not my wish". [9] Masur stood down as the NYP's music director in 2002 and was named its Music Director Emeritus, a new title created for him. The critical consensus was that Masur improved the playing of the orchestra over his tenure. [10]

In 2000, Masur became principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) and held this position until 2007. In April 2002, Masur became music director of the Orchestre National de France (ONF) and served in this post until 2008, [11] when he took the title of honorary music director of the ONF. On his 80th birthday, 18 July 2007, Masur conducted musicians from both orchestras at a Proms concert in London. [12] Masur held the lifetime title of Honorary Guest Conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2012, following a series of cancellations of concert engagements, Masur disclosed on his website that he had Parkinson's Disease. [13]


Masur left an extensive list of recordings of music by classical composers, conducting major orchestras. His work included a rich repertoire, his most famous recordings include the works of Bruckner, Dvořák, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky and the nine symphonies of Beethoven. The latter he played several times with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Masur also has recordings by Bach, Brahms, Britten, Bruch, Cerha, Debussy, Mahler, Shostakovich, Schubert, Schumann and Sibelius; but also by Gershwin, whose works he published on vinyl in 1975.

Political views

Although Masur spent most of his professional career in East Germany, he never joined the SED. [7] In 1982, he received the National Prize of East Germany. His attitude to the regime began to change in 1989, after the arrest of a street musician in Leipzig. [14] On 9 October 1989, he intervened in anti-government demonstrations in Leipzig in communist East Germany, negotiating an end to a confrontation that could have resulted in security forces attacking the protesters, [15] one month before the fall of the Berlin wall.


Kurt Masur burial site in Sudfriedhof (Leipzig) Ehrengrab Masur.jpg
Kurt Masur burial site in Südfriedhof (Leipzig)

In 2015, Masur died at the age of 88 in Greenwich, Connecticut, from complications of Parkinson's disease. His funeral was held in Leipzig, with music played by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Burial took place in the South Leipzig Cemetery, called Südfriedhof. He was survived by his third wife, as well as his daughters Angelika and Carolin, his sons, Ken-David, Michael and Matthias, and nine grandchildren. [4]


A professor at the Leipzig Academy of Music since 1975, Masur received numerous honors. In 1995, he received the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. He received the Gold Medal of Honor for Music from the National Arts Club in 1996. [16] in 1997 he received the titles of Commander of the Legion of Honor from the French government (Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur), and New York City Cultural Ambassador from the City of New York; in April 1999 he received the Commander Cross of Merit of the Polish Republic.

In March 2002, the President of Germany, Johannes Rau, awarded him the Cross with Star of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany; in September 2007, the President of Germany, Horst Köhler, bestowed upon him the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit with Star and Ribbon; in September 2008, he received the Wilhelm Furtwängler Prize in Bonn, Germany. Masur was also an Honorary Citizen of his hometown Brieg. In 2001, Masur became an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music. [17] In 2010, he received the Leo Baeck Medal (Leo Baeck Institute) for his humanitarian work promoting tolerance and social justice. [18] He received a Goldene Henne  [ de ] award in 2014 for his work in public policy. [19]

On 18 July 2018, which would have been Masur's 91st birthday, Google featured him in a Google Doodle in the United States, Germany, Belarus, Iceland, and Japan. [20]

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  1. "In praise of... Kurt Masur". Opinion: classical music. The Guardian. 18 July 2007. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  2. 1 2 3 "Kurt Masur biography: The early years of the conductor". Cosmopolis. 1 January 2016. Retrieved 17 July 2018.
  3. Tagliabue, John (2 January 1992). "Kurt Masur in Leipzig: A Favorite Son at Home". New York Times. Retrieved 25 November 2014.
  4. 1 2 Fox, Margalit; Oestreich, James R. (19 December 2015). "Kurt Masur Dies at 88; Conductor Transformed New York Philharmonic". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  5. Shihoten, Kevin (18 July 2007). "Ken Masur Named Resident Conductor of San Antonio Symphony". Playbill Arts. Retrieved 24 July 2007.
  6. 1 2 Pengelly, Martin (19 December 2015). "Kurt Masur, great conductor who led New York Philharmonic, dies at 88". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Tsioulcas, Anastasia (19 December 2015). "Remembering Kurt Masur, the Conductor Who Rebuilt the New York Philharmonic". NPR.
  8. Sandow, Greg (5 June 2002). "Kurt, We Hardly Knew Ye". Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on 7 October 2007. Retrieved 12 August 2007.Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  9. "Interview with Kurt Masur". The Charlie Rose Show (Interview). Interviewed by Charlie Rose. PBS. 21 May 2002. Archived from the original on 7 March 2008. Retrieved 13 August 2007.Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  10. Davis, Peter G. (17 June 2002). "Soul Man". New York. Retrieved 13 August 2007.
  11. Westphal, Matthew (23 July 2007). "Daniele Gatti to Succeed Kurt Masur at Orchestre National de France". Playbill Arts. Retrieved 24 July 2007.
  12. Hall, George (20 July 2007). "LPO/ONF/Masur". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 July 2007.
  13. Smith, Steve (10 November 2012). "A Maestro Returns With a Brahms Double Concerto and a Surprise Soloist". New York Times. Retrieved 25 November 2014.
  14. Walsh, Michael (23 April 1990). "New York Gets a Revolutionary". Time. Retrieved 12 August 2007.
  15. Gaddis, John Lewis (2005). The Cold War: A New History . New York: Penguin Press. p. 37. ISBN   978-1-59420-062-5.
  16. "Medal of Honor Recipients, Music". New York: The National Arts Club Music Committee. Retrieved 18 July 2018.
  17. "Honorary Members of the Royal Academy of Music". Royal Academy of Music. 14 October 2009. Archived from the original on 3 December 2009. Retrieved 14 October 2009.Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  18. "The Leo Baeck Medal". The Leo Baeck Institute. Retrieved 18 July 2018.
  19. "Kurt Masur – Biography". Kurt Masur, official site. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  20. "Kurt Masur's 91st Birthday". 17 June 2018.