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!
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • 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.