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.
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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.
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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.”


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