Were They Heroes or Were They Collaborators?

French Musicians Took Different Sides During the Occupation

Portrait of an Artist as a Collaborator: Pianist Alfred Cortot served as the Vichy regime’s high commissioner of the arts.
Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of an Artist as a Collaborator: Pianist Alfred Cortot served as the Vichy regime’s high commissioner of the arts.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published March 08, 2014, issue of March 14, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The 1940, Nazi invasion of France turned that country’s musical scene into a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. “Music in Paris During the Occupation,”) a book recently released in France, allows readers to draw conclusions about how music world celebrities behaved in difficult times. Edited by Myriam Chimènes and Yannick Simon, the book reveals that some villains, such as the French-Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot, were even worse than suspected. Others usually lauded are now compromised, such as the composer Olivier Messiaen, who wrote the famous “Quartet for the End of Time.” And a few who were accused in the past based on insufficient evidence, such as the conductor Charles Munch, prove to have been largely blameless.

First the good news. “Music in Paris During the Occupation” exonerates the beloved Munch, a longtime mainstay at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 2002, “The Boston/Vichy Connection,” an article by Jeffrey Mehlman in Salmagundi, raised questions about Munch’s wartime record, pointing out that he had conducted in wartime Paris. Local media reacted, finding such accusations against Munch shocking.

In “Music in Paris During the Occupation,” the musicologist D. Kern Holoman cites documentary evidence surrounding the 1942 concert in question. Fritz Piersig, head of the music section at the Nazi Propaganda-Staffel, had ordered Munch to conduct a concert featuring the German pianist Wilhelm Kempff. Munch “unambiguously refused.” However, when Munch returned after conducting in Brussels, he found posters around Paris announcing this concert with Kempff. When Munch again demurred, he was told if he did not conduct it, the younger players in his orchestra would be deported as slave laborers.

Munch belonged to the National Front of Musicians, a resistance organization. He refused to lead broadcasts for Radio-Paris, the station notorious for Nazi propaganda that inspired a BBC parody by the Free French humorist Pierre Dac, who sang “Radio-Paris lies, Radio-Paris lies, Radio-Paris is German” to the tune of “La Cucaracha.” Munch rejected invitations to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mozart’s death in Vienna and to lead the Berlin Philharmonic. Holoman shows that while accusations after the fact are easy, solid documentation clarifies conduct, even decades later.

This is also true of the composer Olivier Messiaen. In 1939, Messiaen was mobilized as a stretcher-bearer, until he was imprisoned at Görlitz in Silesia along with other defeated French servicemen. There, he won the sympathy of a German sergeant, who gave Messiaen extra bread rations and time as well as materials to compose undisturbed during afternoons. Messiaen wrote the “Quartet for the End of Time,” which other prisoners were forced to stand and listen to during its world premiere performance.

Messiaen was always grateful to the Nazis for being lenient with him; in a 1987 interview with Claude Samuel he stated: “As Germans always admire music, wherever it may be found, not only did they leave me my scores, but an officer gave me pencils, erasers, and music paper.” In the 1960s, Messiaen objected when an American recording was published with a cover design of a swastika torn into pieces, implying the “Quartet” was an anti-Nazi work: “This hideous and stupid drawing is the complete opposite of what I intended to do!”

By contrast, Messiaen expressed lofty anti-Semitism to Samuel: “What I am going to say is horrible, but the Jews as a people committed a deicide.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.