Kurt Masur: the conductor who brought down a country

Thursday, August 23, 2018 - 13:48

When you work somewhere as eclectic and diverse as Southbank Centre it’s easy to become blasé to the out-of-the-ordinary. But even here, in a place where it’s not uncommon to find a meeting in your diary labelled ‘Giant Gnome phone call’, there are still occasions when you stumble upon a sentence that stops you in your tracks.

Earlier in August came one such instance. Buried in a bullet point list, on an email regarding points of interest about the Gewandhausorchester, sat the following line.

‘...apparently their former Kapellmeister was indirectly responsible for the downfall of East Germany’

That’s not a sentence you can easily skip past. I had to know more. How exactly can the conductor of an orchestra bring down a whole country? The answer - you’ll be glad to hear - is a truly fascinating story of determination, bravery, and above all the power of peace.

The conductor at the heart of this story is Kurt Masur, a man who, as chance would have it, has often captivated classical music audiences in our own Royal Festival Hall. Between 2002 and 2007 Masur regularly frequented our stage in his role as principal conductor of one of Southbank Centre’s Resident Orchestras, the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Born in inter-war Germany, Masur trained as an electrician - the trade of his father - but it was in music that his true passion and happiness lay. A keen pianist he returned from conscription to the Second World War to study conducting, composition and piano at Leipzig’s University of Music and Theatre. However, in 1948 he gave up his studies in order to take up a position with the Halle Opera House. From there Masur moved onto roles as conductor with the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra and the Komische Oper of East Berlin, before returning to Leipzig in 1970 to take up the role of Kapellmeister of the city’s famous Gewandhausorchester.

"I need music" - Kurt Masur (May 25, 2015) | Charlie Rose


The Leipzig to which Masur returned was very different to the one he had left. The city had become the industrial production centre of the communist run German Democratic Republic (GDR). A third of the city’s 300,000 inhabitants were now employed in heavy industry at foundries, chemical plants, and open cast mines, and these huge new plants, created on the outskirts of Leipzig, were severely polluting the city’s air, land and waterways. Housing was in short supply, and though Leipzig’s turn of the century housing blocks had survived two world wars they were in serious disrepair. Add in the general difficulties borne of living in a controlled state, with sporadic shortages of imported foodstuffs and very limited access to luxury goods, and for the people of Leipzig times had rarely been tougher.

These were testing times too for the Gewandhausorchester. Without a home since the destruction of the city's main concert hall during the Second World War, for the first decade of Masur’s tenure as Gewandhauskapellmeister, the orchestra remained temporarily housed in a convention hall at the city’s zoo. ‘When the music was quieter you could hear the lions roar,’ Masur told the magazine Der Spiegel in 2010, 'we were on the verge of embarrassing ourselves’.

Determined for his orchestra to be taken seriously by the rest of the music world Masur wrote to the leader of the GDR’s ruling Socialist Party, Erich Honecker, to campaign for a new concert hall for the Gewandhausorchester. Recognising the cultural and symbolic importance of the orchestra to Leipzig, and in acknowledgment of Masur’s passion and commitment to the city at a time when many and artists and musicians were turning their back on East Germany, Honecker was won over. The leader duly gave the order for the construction of a new venue - it was to be the only dedicated concert hall to be built in the 41 years of the German Democratic Republic. The Neue Gewandhaus was opened, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the orchestra taking up residence in the original Gewandhaus, in October 1981.

The significance of the hall’s construction hadn’t gone unnoticed. Masur, though never a member of the Socialist Party, had been recognised by authorities and Leipzigers alike as someone with considerable standing in the city; a man of influence. As the journalist Michael White would later write in The Independent, it was widely acknowledged in the city and beyond that Masur was ‘someone who could ring up Erich Honecker and get through’.

Beethoven Symphony No. 9 - Finale - Masur


Whilst Masur and his orchestra were settling into their new home, just a couple of hundred metres away on Ritterstraße, the seeds of future political change were being sewn. In Nikolaikirche (St Nicholas Church) the recently appointed pastor, Christian Führer, sensing a restlessness among Protestant youth organisations, began to bring the group together with a series of peace prayers. In September 1982, Pastor Führer opened up these sessions for anyone in the city to attend, and Nikolaikirche’s Prayers for Peace became a Monday night staple.

Initially the congregation was small; people were still fearful of being seen to be attending anything which the Stasi (the State Security Service) may view as being subversive. However, word began to spread that, unlike in wider East German society, Führer’s church was a place where people could express themselves freely. The Pastor had made it clear, there was to be no censorship in Nikolaikirche.

Here the young could say openly what made them angry; the suppression and the patronisation. And it was expressed without restraint.
Pastor Christian Führer, speaking in the documentary One Fine Day, by Klaas Bense

At the other end of Leipzig’s Augustusplatz, despite his unique position between the voice of the people and the ears of Herr Honecker, Kurt Masur had long kept his distance from the country’s political situation. ‘I was busy with music for too long,’ he told Der Spiegel in a 2014 interview. But in the summer of 1989, Leipzig’s music tradition and the politics of the GDR came crashing together, and Masur could distance himself no longer.

On 19 June, Straßenmusikfestival, a street music festival organised by a collection of the city’s grassroots action groups, was violently suppressed by the police. Musicians were beaten by officers, and forcibly removed from the city’s streets. ‘When I learned that all of a sudden street musicians were being arrested for wanting to protest peacefully, I realised that change was overdue,’ said Masur. In the following months the conductor would reach out to, and begin to work closely with civil rights group Neues Forum (the New Forum), to try and facilitate peaceful discussions with local GDR politicians.

By now the numbers attending the weekly Prayers for Peace at Nikolaikirche had grown so much that they could barely be accommodated inside the church itself. Growing frustration among citizens at not being permitted to travel beyond the GDR’s borders, coupled with anger at the way the Stasi had cracked down on Straßenmusikfestival, had seen attendances at Pastor Führer’s weekly gatherings rise sharply. But with greater numbers of people inevitably came greater interest from the Secret Police. Tensions across Leipzig were high.

The fear spread deliberately by the system was hard to bear. You didn’t even know whether your friends were working for the Secret Police.
Pastor Christian Führer, speaking in the documentary One Fine Day by Klaas Bense

Though word of the weekly gatherings had spread across Leipzig, the GDR’s lock down on western media access meant that few beyond the city were aware of the growing unrest. Any Western media entering the GDR had to apply for special permission and their access to subjects would be heavily restricted. However, for the annual Muster Messe (Leipzig’s traditional trade fair) these restrictions were relaxed to enable coverage of the fair’s city-wide events. In early September 1989 a number of western media outlets took advantage of this fact to head to Nikolaikirche and shine a light on the Prayers for Peace.

At the end of the 4 September prayers people spilled out into the streets in a peaceful protest. A banner was produced for the cameras; ‘Für ein offenes Land mit freien Menschen’ (For an open country with free people). The banner was quickly pulled down by plain clothes officers of the Stasi. But the people of the GDR could receive western television broadcasts. They had the seen the protests, and more importantly they had seen the way in which they were silenced. Throughout September the crowds streaming to Nikolaikirche grew and grew, as too did nationwide unrest.

On 7 October the GDR celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of the state with a series of celebrations in East Berlin. On the night of the anniversary a protest by youths outside the city’s Palace of the Republic was crushed, whilst army units and plain clothes Stasi operatives also attacked demonstrators in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district. Again, the people of the GDR saw western footage of the protests being silenced; the anger only served to swell their numbers.

Two days later, whilst 2,000 people packed Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche for the weekly Prayers for Peace, a further 68,000 massed outside to join in a peaceful protest. Via television broadcasts and newspapers Honecker made it known that any demonstrations would be stopped, and potentially with force. It wasn't an empty threat. Earlier that summer, East German politicians had praised the Chinese decision to use violence against democracy activists camping in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. And in the past month, East German police had cracked down forcefully on protesters in Dresden, Berlin and Plauen. That evening, as the protestors left Nikolaikirche and massed on the city’s streets, so too did a huge number of soldiers, policemen and secret agents, issued with live ammunition, and with order to shoot if necessary.

Leipziger Montagsdemonstration, 09.10.1989

Masur had been sitting in his office at the Gewandhaus on the Monday morning when he received word that the police had been instructed to beat down the evening’s gathering. ‘It was a clear message: they would shoot,’ Masur told The Independent, ‘I phoned my wife and said, I think I have to intervene. She said OK’. Masur’s office very quickly became an impromptu communications centre as he worked with Neues Forum to open dialogue with local government officials to ensure orders to shoot would not be given. Between them they drafted an appeal for peace from all sides, which Masur then rushed to record.

To a chant of “Wir sind das Volk” (we are the people) the protestors moved from Nikolaikirche onto the city’s ring road, under the full glare of the massed ranks of army and police. As they did so Masur’s statement for calm was broadcast on city radio stations, and from loudspeakers in the city itself.

‘Our common worries and responsibilities have brought us here together today. We are concerned about the developments in our city and are searching for a solution. We all need the chance of a free discussion about the future of socialism in our country. We urge you to remain level-headed in order to enable a peaceful dialogue. This is Kurt Masur speaking’.

As the protestors reached Augustusplatz, Masur opened the doors to the Gewandhaus and invited them inside to continue a free discussion about the city’s future. Knowing that Masur had a direct line to Honecker, local police officials refused to give orders to interrupt the march, or to infiltrate the Gewandhaus. And so, despite provocation, thanks to Masur’s statement, and the repeated mantra of the crowd for ‘keine Gewalt’ (no violence), the protest passed off peacefully.

"We are the people": Peaceful Revolution in the GDR | 1989


High above the thousands of marchers, on the tower of the city’s Evangelisch Reformierte Kirche, journalist Siegbert Schefke had filmed the demonstrations as they unfolded below. His footage was smuggled out of the country that night, and the following day appeared on West Germany’s main evening news, Tagesschau. The broadcast was seen across the GDR, and throughout the state people, having seen how peaceful protest could take place without incurring police action, began Prayers for Peace in their own cities.

At the time, we weren't thinking about changing the world. The most important thing was to act. For weeks, the public mood had been at breaking point.
Kurt Masur, in an interview with Der Spiegel

In the wake of the Monday demonstrations the GDR’s Politburo convened a crisis meeting, and a week later Honecker was removed from office. But the protests against the ruling Socialist Party didn’t let up, and on 9 November, under pressure from peaceful protests nationwide, the party gave the order to allow citizens of the GDR freedom to travel into the west. In Berlin, the gates of the city’s dividing wall were opened; within hours people from the East and West began to tear down the wall. By the following October the GDR had ceased to exist; Germany had been reunified as a single country once again.

Ever loyal to his city, Masur remained with the Gewandhausorchester until 1996, but from 1991 his duties were split either side of the Atlantic, as he took up the role of music director for the New York Philharmonic, a role he held until 2002. Masur then returned to Europe, dividing his time between his role with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orchestre National de France, of which he was music director until 2008. Four years later Masur revealed that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He would die from complications related to the disease in 2015; his funeral took place in Leipzig, with music played by his beloved Gewandhausorchester.

Right up to his death, despite receiving numerous honours for his role in maintaining peace in Leipzig, Masur always played down his part in the fall of the GDR. ‘I am a politician against my will’, he told The Independent in 1994, ‘I have the most wonderful profession a person can have. I'm not cut out to be a politician. I only tried to stop something bad.’


The Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, led by new Kapellmeister Andris Nelsons, performed two very special concerts at Southbank Centre on 8 & 9 October 2018.

Our 2018/19 Classical Season includes a great range of new music and premieres, as well as long-standing favourites from established orchestras and performers.

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by Glen Wilson

Lead image of Kurt Masur conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, kindly provided by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.