In a career that spanned both sides of the Iron Curtain over more than 60 years, Kurt Masur made his name as one of the most distinguished conductors of his generation.
Holding a succession of major posts in Leipzig, New York and London, he was someone who regularly confounded expectations: part of the East German establishment in the Communist era, he became something of a political hero in the early years of German unification; and typically considered something a traditionalist, he would go on to champion new music and education and outreach work. His many years at the top had their fair share of conflict and controversy, but he was almost universally respected.
Born in the Germn town of Brieg (now Brzeg in Poland) in 1927, Masur defied his father’s wishes for him to become an electrician and pursued a career in music instead, though an operation on his hand at the age of 22 put paid to his ambition to be pianist – the same operation also prevented him from holding a baton as a conductor.
After service in World War II and two years of study at the Leipzig Conservatory, Masur’s conducting career began in earnest with posts in Halle, Dresden, Schwerin and Berlin. It was in 1970 that he became the chief conductor at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a post he would hold for 26 years. During that period, he campaigned for, and saw the completion of, a new concert hall in the city, with the orchestra’s old home having been destroyed in the War. He also became a close friend of East Germany’s Communist leader Erich Honecker, but nonetheless played a pivotal role in pressing for social reforms and supporting the protests in 1989 that would eventually lead to Honecker’s resignation.
Soon after, Masur added a second conductor’s post to his CV – that of music director of the New York Philharmonic. Always a single-minded figure, Masur would eventually clash with the NYPO’s similarly forthright executive director Deborah Borda, leading to his replacement by Lorin Maazel in 2002. His 11 years in charge, however, saw the playing standards of the orchestra improve significantly and its repertoire enlarged as Masur brought works by contemporary composers such as Hans Werner Henze and Sofia Gubaidulina into the fold.
Shortly before his New York exit, he had also taken up the position of principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, where he would remain until 2007. There, he was a largely popular, if not exactly trailblazing, figure.
On the podium, Masur was in his element in Germanic repertoire, and it is recordings of the likes of Brahms, Beethoven and Bruckner that take pride of place in his large discography.