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.

(page 2 of 2)

A chapter of “Music in Paris during the Occupation” describes how, when Messiaen was released from the Görlitz camp, he was offered a job at the Paris Conservatory replacing André Bloch, a professor of harmony who was dismissed by French authorities in obedience to anti-Semitic laws. While other non-Jewish musicians, such as Nadia Boulanger, refused to profit from the sufferings of Jewish colleagues, Messiaen did not hesitate to do so. In all future accounts, Messiaen would falsely claim that he had been released from the prison camp only in 1942, as if hesitating in retrospect to admit his avid careerism at a time of tragedy.

Over 20 years ago, I spoke to the French Jewish composer Odette Gartenlaub, a onetime student of Messiaen who was thrown out of the Conservatory and forced into hiding by French officials in obedience to anti-Semitic laws. She explained that Messiaen never dared communicate with her during the war: “Messiaen had my address; he just didn’t want to compromise himself. After the war when I returned, all the Conservatory people were very friendly and pleasant again, but these were the same people who ignored me after I’d been thrown out. I might have wound up in a crematory oven.”

Sometimes solid documentary research can add extra certainty to preexisting impressions, such as the Nazi collaboration of the French pianist Alfred Cortot, who served as the Vichy regime’s high commissioner of fine arts and on the National Council, a consultative body of appointees who vigorously enforced anti-Semitic legislation. I remember a chilling dinner that I attended in the early 1990s at the apartment of Cortot’s son, the artist Jean Cortot, on the rue du Bac, decorated by museum-quality oil portraits of and framed manuscripts by composers such as Schumann and Schubert. One had to wonder if any of these works had been confiscated from homes of French Jewish deportees and presented by Nazi officials to Cortot, their favorite pianist.

Acclaim continues for Cortot’s playing: In 2012, a 40-CD set, “Alfred Cortot: The Anniversary Edition” was released by Warner Classics, following the 2005 issuing by Sony Classical of a 3-CD set, “Alfred Cortot: The Master Classes”. The latter was produced and edited by a perhaps surprising fan of Cortot’s legacy, Murray Perahia, the American pianist of Sephardic Jewish origin.

In “Music in Paris during the Occupation,” essayist François Anselmini states that Cortot proudly claimed to have collaborated not merely since France’s defeat, but “for the past forty years.” When Cortot conducted a performance of “Tristan und Isolde” at Vichy in 1941, it was the first time he had led a Wagner opera since 1903, when he conducted the French premiere of “Parsifal.” Cortot was the first French musician to travel to the Reich after his country’s defeat, and in 1942 published a text attacking the libretto of Claude Debussy’s unfinished 19th century opera “Rodrigue et Chimène,” possibly because it was written by a French Jewish poet, Catulle Mendès, as Anselmini underlines: “It should be observed that [Cortot] proclaimed that the writing of a Jewish author was incompatible with the genius” of Debussy. Published information continues to increase about Cortot’s personal iniquity to Jewish colleagues, the mercilessness with which he dismissed even longtime colleagues such as Lazare Lévy.

The French government may one day reconsider its posthumous honoring of this musician, after whom conservatories and streets have been named in the cities of Paris, Montpellier, Béziers and elsewhere.

Benjamin Ivry writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.

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