The Discomfiting Legacy of the Virtuoso Pianist Who Became Vichy France’s Commissar of Music

April 21 2020

Considered by critics one of the most talented classical performers of the modern era, the Swiss-born French pianist Alfred Cortot (1877–1962) was also a Germanophile and admirer of Wagner, who sought to put his talents and reputation to the service of the Vichy regime only a few days after it was established. After the war, he was imprisoned for three days, banned from playing for a year, and in 1947 was still a controversial figure. Two years later, French public opinion had more or less forgiven him. Terry Teachout, while admitting that Cortot deserves to be called a genius, examines the moral dimension of his career, and notes those of his admirers who “feel obliged to mention . . . that he was also among the most notorious of France’s collabos typically do so in muted, almost apologetic tones.”

Cortot was the first artist and only musician to serve in France’s Nazi-sanctioned occupation government during World War II, becoming Marshal Pétain’s high commissioner for fine arts and (as one historian put it) “Vichy’s official music czar.” An energetic and unapologetic collabo, he also performed in Nazi Germany and was friendly with such prominent Nazis as Albert Speer. . . . Within a few years Cortot had relaunched his career, and most of the people who thereafter wrote about him chose either to ignore his wartime conduct or imply that it was of minor consequence.

Cortot . . . claimed after the war that he had used his position to protect Jews and Resistance members. True or not, it is known that he did nothing whatsoever to protect the Jewish pianist Vlado Perlemuter, one of his most gifted pupils, who was placed on a Gestapo arrest list in 1942 and immediately sought to emigrate to Switzerland with his wife. Perlemuter eventually made it there—but without any help from the well-placed Cortot. When he later confronted his former teacher and asked why he had offered no help, Cortot replied, “My friends didn’t inform me.”

How, then, are we to come to terms with the fact that they are the work of a man who collaborated enthusiastically with the most monstrous regime that the world has ever known? Ultimately unsatisfying as it is, the answer is that we cannot, and should not. What Cortot did during World War II will taint to the end of time the memory of his supreme artistry. Yet it cannot alter the indelible fact of that artistry, or help us understand how an artist capable of bringing such art into being was also capable of behaving as he did at the supreme moment of moral choice. For as Clement Greenberg so wisely said, “art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art.”

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Read more at Commentary

More about: Anti-Semitism, Classical music, Holocaust, Music, Vichy France

 

Gaza’s Quiet Dissenters

Last year, the Dubai-based television channel Al-Arabiya, the Times of Israel, and several other media organizations worked together to conduct numerous interviews with residents of the Gaza Strip, taking great pains to protect their identities. The result is a video series titled Whispers in Gaza, which presents a picture of life under Hamas’s tyranny unlike anything that can be found in the press. Jeff Jacoby writes:

Through official intimidation or social pressure, Gazans may face intense pressure to show support for Hamas and its murderous policies. So when Hamas organizes gaudy street revels to celebrate a terrorist attack—like the fireworks and sweets it arranged after a gunman murdered seven Israelis outside a Jerusalem synagogue Friday night—it can be a challenge to remember that there are many Palestinians who don’t rejoice at the murder of innocent Jews.

In one [interview], “Fatima” describes the persecution endured by her brother, a humble vegetable seller, after he refused to pay protection money to Hamas. The police arrested him on a trumped-up drug charge and locked him in prison. “They beat him repeatedly to make him confess to things he had nothing to do with,” she says. Then they threatened to kill him. Eventually he fled the country, leaving behind a family devastated by his absence.

For those of us who detest Hamas no less than for those who defend it, it is powerful to hear the voices of Palestinians like “Layla,” who is sickened by the constant exaltation of war and “resistance” in the Palestinian media. “If you’re a Gazan citizen who opposes war and says, ‘I don’t want war,’ you’re branded a traitor,” she tells her interviewer. “It’s forbidden to say you don’t want war.” So people keep quiet, she explains, for fear of being tarred as disloyal.

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Read more at Boston Globe

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Palestinian dissidents, Palestinian public opinion