Remembering Terry Teachout: On the pianist who sold his soul – Slipped DiscSlipped Disc

Norman Lebrecht

January 27 2022

From an article by Terry, dated May 2020:

When the Guardian invited a group of famous pianists to name their favorite pianist of all time, two of them, Stephen Hogg and Angela Hewitt, skipped familiar figures like Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein and instead chose Alfred Courtaut, whose name is not generally well known outside France. . They talked about his playing with the zeal of explicit paganism. In Hogg’s words:

There are artists who delight listeners with their unbridled individuality and daring. There are others who solemnly reveal the written score; There are few who can do both. Corto had a vision that went beyond the academic or the theatrical to a broader horizon of creativity from which the composers themselves might have drawn inspiration.

Nor are Hogg and Hewitt alone. Alfred Brindel called Alfred Corto “the only pianist who satisfies my mind, my senses, and my feelings alike.” Horowitz himself briefly studied with him. Revered by Clara Haskell and Dino Lipati as teacher and artist.

The dark side of his career was summed up in the headline that came The Times’ highest posthumous honor: “Alfred Cortot, pianist, dead; Alfred Cortot, pianist, dead; soloist and conductor, 84, Vichy backed system.” Alfred Corto was the first and only artist and musician to serve in the Nazi-approved French occupation government during World War II, becoming Marshal Pétain’s High Commissioner for the Fine Arts and (as one historian described him) “the official music czar of Vichy”.

Active and unapologetic cooperation, he also performed in Nazi Germany and was friendly with prominent Nazis such as Albert Speer. After the war, he was duly exhibited before the Purge Committee which for a year prevented him from performing publicly in France, and members of the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra refused to play with him when he sought to resume the concert.

“Cooperation … in the field of music between Germany and France is something I have been engaged in for more than 40 years, despite events in other fields to the contrary,” said Corto in 1942, a statement which I have never had the opportunity to retract.
He stopped the party when war broke out in 1939 and offered his services to the new government in Vichy within days of the fall of France. His dream, in the words of one of his disillusioned pupils, was to become a “gauleiter of French music”, which he did in essence. By 1941, he was in charge of French musical life, eventually becoming head of the Vichy Committee for the Professional Regulation of Music, which issued licenses to anyone wanting to work as a professional musician. As far as he can now know, no such licenses were issued to Jews. That same year, he resumed his career as a pianist and conductor, appearing regularly at German-sponsored events and, beginning in 1942, performing throughout Nazi Germany as well.

Cortot, like Furtwängler, claimed after the war that he used his position to protect Jews and members of the resistance. Whether this is true or not, it is known that he did absolutely nothing to protect Jewish pianist Vlado Perlimuter, one of his most talented pupils, who was put on the Gestapo arrest list in 1942 and immediately sought to emigrate to Switzerland with his wife. Perlmutter eventually made it there – but without any help from the well-placed Cortot. When he later confronted his former teacher and asked him why he hadn’t offered any help, Alfred Courtot replied, “My friends haven’t told me.”

Corto was captured immediately after the liberation of Paris. He was released after three days, but in October 1944 he appeared before an official court, which suspended him from all professional activities as a musician for a year. He immediately resumed the concert after the ban was lifted, but when he attempted to perform at the Paris Champs-Elysees theater in January 1947, riots resulted in his likeness when he went up on stage to perform the “funeral walk” sonata of Chopin. “Have you dedicated it to your friend Hitler?” shouted an audience member.

Soon he returned to Switzerland, returning in 1949 to perform at the Chopin Memorial Concert. By that time, his French colleagues decided either to forgive him or otherwise look at his wartime behavior, and his appearance was a success. For the rest of his life, he performed and taught to universal acclaim, making one final appearance in 1958 at the Pablo Casals Paradise, after his old colleague forgave him for his political sins.
“Courtot should have finished his days before shooting a team.” Frederic Spotts in The Shameful Peace (2008)
According to Spotts, the pianist’s “celebration of collaboration” was “not only voluntary, but deliberate, unjustified and purposeful.”

However, such fate was not in the Cortot papers, just as Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan and all other prominent German musicians who collaborated with Hitler’s regime were allowed to resume their careers, suffering only the lightest punishments. for their crimes.

His recordings are suggestive. They proved that Cortot was worthy of arranging alongside the likes of Josef Hoffmann, Sergey Rachmaninoff and Artur Schnabel, the tallest giants of the golden age of classical piano playing.

How, then, can we come to terms with the fact that it was the work of a man who enthusiastically cooperated with the most odious regime the world has ever known? Although ultimately unsatisfactory, the answer is that we can’t and shouldn’t. What Cortot did during World War II will be tainted until the end of time by the memory of his superior art. However, it cannot change the indelible truth of those works of art, or help us understand how the artist capable of bringing such art into existence was also able to act as he did at the supreme moment of moral choice. Because as Clement Greenberg wisely said, “Art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art.” At least it can solve the impenetrable mystery of how beautiful art can be made by ugly men who – human, all human – are tempted to serve evil and sell their souls. In the end, all we can do is love their art, but remember their works.

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