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Alfred Cortot, French Pianist

By October 26, 2022March 19th, 2023No Comments

Alfred Cortot, French Pianist

Alfred Cortot is widely considered to be one of France’s greatest pianists, if not the greatest. He was also a conductor and a teacher. Additionally, he was a Germanophile, and this factored into his collaboration with the Vichy Régime in France. I will touch on these points later in the fuller summary of Cortot’s life and art. I think that this is one of the cases where we have to look at the art as separate and apart from the person, although the memory of Cortot is tainted by his WWII activities.

In the clip below, Cortot, through the use of very imaginative language, is trying to have his students play more musically.

Alfred Cortot
September 26, 1877 – 15 June 15, 1962

Alfred Cortot was born in 1877 in Switzerland to a French father and a Swiss mother, and he based his long career as a pianist, conductor and teacher in Paris. Cortot was one of his era’s most renowned interpreters of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Saint-Saëns and Franck, his best recordings setting an enduring standard for poetry in motion. In 1925, the pianist made the first electrical recording of classical music, for the Victor label in New Jersey, featuring music by Chopin and Schumann. Among his hundreds of subsequent recordings was the first complete version of Chopin’s Preludes Op. 28.
Cortot’s way with the Gallic modernism of Debussy and Ravel was also marked by a deeply personal sense of color and feeling. Not only a soloist, Cortot co-founded one of Europe’s most famous chamber groups in 1905 with violinist Jacques Thibaud and cellist Pablo Casals, the trio recording of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms.

In 1896, Alfred Cortot made his debut the same year in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. Soon he became widely acclaimed as a performer of L.v. Beethoven concertos, appearing as a soloist in two prominent Parisian concert series. In 1898 he went to Bayreuth to study Wagner’s music and was hired as a choral coach and then as an assistant conductor. Cortot brought Wagner to Paris, leading the first Paris performance of Götterdämmerung (May 1902), and a remarkable performance of Tristan und Isolde the next month. Also in 1902 he established his own concert series, the Association des Concerts A. Cortot. Although it lasted only two years, it did a lot towards breaking down the conservative French resistance to Wagner, particularly with a concert performance of Parsifal, and even the first French performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Johannes Brahms’ Requiem. He also served contemporary French music by premiering works of Roussel, Magnard, and others.

In 1904, Alfred Cortot became the conductor of the Concerts Populaires at Lille, and the following year he joined with cellist Pablo Casals and violinist Jacques Thibaud to form one of the greatest of permanently established piano trios, one which became a model of its type, touring frequently. This drew him back to the piano, which he had never given up despite his fame as a conductor. In 1907 he joined the faculty of the Paris Conservatory, teaching piano, but remained very active as a piano soloist and chamber music player. He gave up that position in 1917, feeling that his busy concert schedule had made it impossible to devote sufficient uninterrupted periods to teaching. In 1919 he founded the École Normale de Musique, assembling a faculty of famous musicians. As the director, he taught a summer course in interpretation, which became famous. Among his outstanding pupils were Clara Haskil, Solomon, Gina Bachauer, and Dinu Lipatti.

As an editor, Cortot made important editions of the keyboard music of Chopin, Schumann and Debussy, among many others. Cortot was one of the most inspirational piano teachers of the mid-20th century, his pupils including Dinu Lipatti, Gina Bachauer, Samson François, Clara Haskil, Magda Tagliaferro and Vlado Perlemuter. Tagliaferro described the virtues of her teacher’s playing this way: “His sound was pure enchantment…. The images that he conjured up were absolutely visionary.” Like Artur Schnabel, Cortot represents a bygone era, one when music was an aspirational art and note-perfect performances were not the be-all-to-end-all. His recordings were always spontaneous creations, and his concerts — especially in later years — could be marred by memory lapses, smudged notes, outright clinkers. Yet the poetry was always there. Subsequent generations of top pianists were inspired by his example on record. Alfred Brendel praised Cortot’s “three-dimensional playing,” saying: “He is the one pianist who equally satisfies my mind, my senses, my emotions.” Murray Perahia, another Cortot devotee, supervised a set of recordings that feature Cortot masterclasses taped between 1954 and 1960, two years before his death. Perahia said: “He represents a kind of piano playing that has virtually disappeared: free, impulsive, personal, daring; yet at the same time, cogent and intelligent… First and foremost, he thought music ‘must live’.”

Cortot continued a career performing piano around the world, including lecture recitals, and also guest conducted many orchestras. He also continued to premiere new French piano music. Cortot was a skillful and scholarly editor of great piano music, famous for his editions of most of Frédéric Chopin’s piano music. Cortot’s teacher was a student of Chopin, and the grace of his Chopin performances; he also had a remarkable way with the music of Robert Schumann.

As above, Cortot played chamber music with Pablo Casals and Jacques Thibaud, making a series of duo and trio recordings with the two men that have remained in print ever since their original release in the 1920s and 1930s. He conducted, too, not as a mere sideline but as a central part of his career. But it is as a pianist that Alfred Cortot is most widely known, in part because he recorded the bulk of his solo and concerto repertoire for EMI, including numerous works by Chopin, Debussy, Franck, Liszt, Ravel, and Schumann. Many of these recordings document his notorious penchant for playing wrong notes, but Cortot’s admirers excuse his occasional stumbles.

Cortot’s interest in Wagner in particular and German music in general shaped Alfred Cortot’s playing style and interpretative approach. He had originally trained in the French school of piano playing, whose neo-classical elegance and light, nimble touch can be heard on the records of Camille Saint-Saëns, who was as distinguished a pianist as he was a composer. But while Alfred Cortot aspired to and attained a like degree of elegance, he was influenced no less powerfully by the high romanticism of Wagner, and he played Beethoven, Schumann, and Liszt as often and well as he did his countrymen Saint-Saëns, Franck, Fauré, and (later) Debussy and Ravel. “We are going to declare war on the decorative art, on playing that is technically perfect in every lacy detail but has no soul,” he told his students.

His knowledge and love of German culture predisposed him favourably towards the German occupiers of France in 1940–44, and he accepted influential positions in the Vichy government and opportunities to give concerts in Germany. These activities caused him to be considered persona non grata in France and elsewhere for some time after the war.

It is not, however, the playing of a characteristically French artist, and therein lies one of the keys to understanding Cortot’s willingness to collaborate with Vichy. Because of his Swiss birth and mixed parentage, he explained to a sympathetic journalist after the war, Alfred Cortot did not think of himself as a Frenchman sang pur. As a musician, he identified at least as closely with the German “soul,” in much the same way as did Wilhelm Fürtwangler, another musical master who took a fatefully wrong turn when the Nazis came to power. “Collaboration…in the sphere of music between Germany and France is something I have been engaged in for more than 40 years, despite events in other spheres which oppose it,” Cortot said in 1942, a pronouncement he never had occasion to retract.

Cortot was arrested almost immediately upon the liberation of Paris. He was released three days later, but in October 1944 he went before an official tribunal, which suspended him from all professional activity as a musician for a year. He immediately resumed concertizing after the ban was lifted, but when he tried to perform at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in January 1947, a near-riot resulted as he came on stage to perform Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata. “Do you dedicate that to your friend Hitler?” shouted one member of the audience. He promptly went back to Switzerland, returning in 1949 to perform at a Chopin commemorative concert. By that time, his fellow Frenchmen had decided either to forgive him or look the other way at his wartime conduct, 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 Pablo Casals’s Prades Festival, having been forgiven his political sins by his old colleague.

Colleagues such as Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, and virtually all of the other leading German musicians who cooperated with the Hitler regime were permitted to resume their careers, suffering only the lightest of sanctions for their offenses. Few war-weary music lovers wished to continue World War II by other means, and except for a modest number of prominent musicians who, like Adolf Busch and Arthur Rubinstein, refused thereafter to perform with such artists, their colleagues more than willingly accepted them back into the fold.

As for Cortot, he is now esteemed as the greatest of all French pianists, and most of those writers who feel obliged to mention in the same breath that he was also among the most notorious of France’s collaborators typically do so in muted, almost apologetic tones.

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.

The question that Cortot’s story poses to us is “how can beautiful art be made by ugly men who, in the end, succumb to evil?” There is no rapprochement here. One must love their art but remember what they have done. If their deeds negatively outweigh the value of their art, they must be forgotten.