When the Guardian invited a group of noted piano virtuosi to name their favorite pianist of all time, two of them, Stephen Hough and Angela Hewitt, passed over such familiar figures as Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein and instead chose Alfred Cortot, whose name is no longer generally known outside France. They spoke of his playing with an enthusiasm that bordered on outright idolatry. In Hough’s words:
There are artists who delight listeners with their wild and daring individuality; there are others who uncover the written score with reverence; there are few who can do both. Cortot had a vision which went beyond the academic or the theatrical to some wider horizon of creativity from whence the composers themselves might well have drawn inspiration.
Nor are Hough and Hewitt alone. Alfred Brendel has called Alfred Cortot “the one pianist who equally satisfies my mind, my senses, my emotions.” Horowitz himself briefly studied with him. Clara Haskil and Dinu Lipatti revered him both as a teacher and as a performer.
Cortot also 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. Indeed, Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times wrote that “one accepted them, as one accepts scars or defects in a painting by an old master” and praised Alfred Cortot’s playing for its “combination of intellectual authority, aristocracy, masculinity and poetry.”1
All these things figured prominently in the obituaries published after Alfred Cortot’s death in 1962. But so, too, did the darker side of his career that was summed up in the headline atop the Times’ posthumous tribute: “Alfred Cortot, Pianist, Is Dead; Soloist and Conductor, 84, Backed Vichy Regime.” Alfred 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. After the war, he was duly brought before a purge committee that banned him for a year from public performance in France, and the members of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra refused to play for him when he sought to resume concertizing.
But Alfred Cortot’s disgrace was short-lived. Every French musician who performed other than sporadically during the Occupation had been obliged to collaborate with Vichy to at least some degree, and few were prepared to single out as uniquely guilty so great an artist. Within a few years Alfred 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. This helps to explain why there is as yet no primary-source biography of Alfred Cortot, whether in French or English. To this day, most of his admirers are reluctant to talk about what he did, why he did it, and why it matters.2
Born in Switzerland in 1877 but raised from the age of nine in his mother’s native France, Alfred Cortot made his professional debut at 20 and promptly established himself as a soloist of note, though his interest in conducting was as serious. “I chafed impatiently for a chance…to direct a Beethoven symphony, a Bach Passion, and more than anything, the operas of Wagner,” he later recalled. To this end, he spent three years on the musical staff of Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival, ultimately becoming an assistant conductor. In 1902, at the age of 24, he led the Paris premiere of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.
His 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.
Alfred Cortot’s melding of national styles is especially evident in the music of Chopin, much of which he recorded. Like Cortot, Chopin lived in Paris for most of his life but was in no way a true Frenchman—he was Polish through and through—and his music does not profit from being played in a specifically French manner. Nowhere is Alfred Cortot’s own approach to Chopin more apparent than in his 1933 version of the op. 28 Préludes (which he recorded three different times). The interpretative sensibility on display is that of an artist trained in the 19th century: intensely romantic, often impulsively so, but never in the extravagant, even flamboyant manner of other pianists of Alfred Cortot’s generation.
And for all his Gallic elegance, Alfred Cortot sounds nothing like a typical French pianist, skating lightly atop the surface of the music. Instead, he plays with a rich, deep tone, wide-ranging tempos, and considerable rhythmic freedom, yet in a way that is controlled, full of fantasy but never eccentric. Moreover, he plays Chopin’s two dozen widely varied miniatures as if they were a single composition, sweeping from piece to piece while giving each one its own individual character. To hear his recording is to hear a supremely great master at the peak of his powers.
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 pur sang. 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.
An accomplished writer and a noted collector of paintings, sculpture, and literary and musical manuscripts, Alfred Cortot was cultivated to the highest degree. But he was also a ruthlessly ambitious opportunist, and his youthful longing to become a conductor had taught him what it takes to climb the greasy pole of success. Reputedly homosexual, he entered into what was universally taken to be a marriage of convenience with an older, socially connected woman from a wealthy family to advance his career. Moreover, his ambitions were more than merely professional: Alfred Cortot longed to remake the entire French classical-music establishment in his own Germanophile image. Nor did his pro-German inclinations stop there. Indeed, Bernard Gavoty, Cortot’s unabashedly sympathetic biographer, went so far as to claim that “in his heart of hearts he would have preferred a union between France and Germany over an alliance with America.”
To this end, he stopped concertizing when war broke out in 1939 and offered his services to the new government at Vichy within days of the fall of France. His dream, in the words of one of his disillusioned pupils, was to become “the Gauleiter of French music,” and that, in essence, was what he did. By 1941, he was in charge of French musical life, eventually becoming the president of Vichy’s Committee for the Professional Organization of Music, which issued licenses to anyone who wanted to function as a professional musician. So far as can now be known, such licenses were not issued to Jews. In the same year, he resumed his own career as a pianist and conductor, regularly appearing at German-sponsored events and, starting in 1942, performing throughout Nazi Germany as well.
Cortot, like Furtwängler, 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, Alfred Cortot replied, “My friends didn’t inform me.”
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.
What ought to have happened to Alfred Cortot?
Frederic Spotts argues in The Shameful Peace, his landmark 2008 study of the conduct of French artists and intellectuals during the Nazi occupation, that “Cortot should have ended his days before a firing squad.” Spotts claims that Cortot’s wartime transgressions were directly comparable to those that led the postwar French government to either execute or sentence to life imprisonment more than a dozen writers, among them Robert Brasillach, who were tried and convicted of treason for collaborating with the Germans. According to Spotts, the pianist’s “celebration of collaboration” was “not merely voluntary but deliberate, gratuitous and purposive.”
Such a fate, however, was never in the cards for Cortot, just 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 collabos typically do so in muted, almost apologetic tones. The English music critic Martin Cooper, who wrote the article about Cortot in the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, is a case in point:
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 hard not to sympathize with such apologists, since recreative geniuses like Cortot—and no lesser word is strong enough—are always thin on the ground. For me as for other musicians and listeners, his recordings are revelatory, and it is impossible for me to imagine willingly doing without them. They prove that Cortot was worthy to have been ranked alongside the likes of Josef Hofmann, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Artur Schnabel, the tallest giants of the golden age of classical piano playing.
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.” Least of all can it solve the impenetrable mystery of how beautiful art can be made by ugly men who—human, all too human—succumb to the temptation to serve evil and sell their souls. In the end, all we can do is love their art, but remember their deeds.
1 Alfred Cortot: The Master Pianist (EMI), a seven-CD boxed set, contains a representative selection of his solo and chamber-music recordings (including the 1933 version of Chopin’s Préludes discussed below).
2 The only full-length biography of the pianist, Bernard Gavoty’s Alfred Cortot (1995), is an exercise in hagiography that has yet to be translated into English.
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