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