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!
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • 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.