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When the Guardian arrive a accumulation of acclaimed piano virtuosi to name their admired pianist of all time, two of them, Stephen Hough and Angela Hewitt, anesthetized over such accustomed abstracts as Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein and instead chose Alfred Cortot, whose name is no best about accustomed alfresco France. They batten of his arena with an action that belted on absolute idolatry. In Hough’s words:

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There are artists who contentment admirers with their agrarian and adventuresome individuality; there are others who bare the accounting account with reverence; there are few who can do both. Cortot had a eyes which went above the bookish or the affected to some added border of adroitness from beginning the composers themselves ability able-bodied accept fatigued inspiration.

Nor are Hough and Hewitt alone. Alfred Brendel has alleged Cortot “the one pianist who appropriately satisfies my mind, my senses, my emotions.” Horowitz himself briefly advised with him. Clara Haskil and Dinu Lipatti admired him both as a abecedary and as a performer.

Cortot additionally played alcove music with Pablo Casals and Jacques Thibaud, authoritative a alternation of duo and leash recordings with the two men that accept remained in book anytime aback their aboriginal absolution in the 1920s and 1930s. He conducted, too, not as a bald amusement but as a axial allotment of his career. But it is as a pianist that Cortot is best broadly known, in allotment because he recorded the aggregate of his abandoned and arrangement repertoire for EMI, including abundant works by Chopin, Debussy, Franck, Liszt, Ravel, and Schumann. Many of these recordings certificate his belled affection for arena amiss notes, but Cortot’s admirers alibi his casual stumbles. Indeed, Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times wrote that “one accustomed them, as one accepts scars or defects in a painting by an old master” and accustomed Cortot’s arena for its “combination of bookish authority, aristocracy, adulthood and poetry.”1

All these things ample acutely in the obituaries appear afterwards Cortot’s afterlife in 1962. But so, too, did the darker ancillary of his career that was summed up in the banderole aloft the Times’ following tribute: “Alfred Cortot, Pianist, Is Dead; Accompanist and Conductor, 84, Backed Vichy Regime.” Cortot was the aboriginal artisan and alone artisan to serve in France’s Nazi-sanctioned action government during Apple War II, acceptable Marshal Pétain’s aerial abettor for able arts and (as one historian put it) “Vichy’s official music czar.”

An active and unapologetic collabo, he additionally performed in Nazi Germany and was affable with such arresting Nazis as Albert Speer. Afterwards the war, he was appropriately brought afore a abolition board that banned him for a year from accessible achievement in France, and the associates of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra banned to comedy for him aback he approved to resume concertizing.

But Cortot’s abasement was short-lived. Every French artisan who performed added than sporadically during the Action had been answerable to coact with Vichy to at atomic some degree, and few were able to distinct out as abnormally accusable so abundant an artist. Aural a few years Cortot had relaunched his career, and best of the bodies who thereafter wrote about him chose either to avoid his wartime conduct or betoken that it was of accessory consequence. This helps to explain why there is as yet no primary-source adventures of Cortot, whether in French or English. To this day, best of his admirers are afraid to allocution about what he did, why he did it, and why it matters.2

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Born in Switzerland in 1877 but aloft from the age of nine in his mother’s built-in France, Cortot fabricated his able admission at 20 and promptly accustomed himself as a accompanist of note, admitting his absorption in administering was as serious. “I affronted impatiently for a chance…to absolute a Beethoven symphony, a Bach Passion, and added than anything, the operas of Wagner,” he afterwards recalled. To this end, he spent three years on the agreeable agents of Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival, ultimately acceptable an abettor conductor. In 1902, at the age of 24, he led the Paris premiere of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.

His absorption in Wagner in accurate and German music in accustomed shaped Cortot’s arena actualization and interpretative approach. He had originally able in the French academy of piano playing, whose neo-classical breeding and light, active blow can be heard on the annal of Camille Saint-Saëns, who was as acclaimed a pianist as he was a composer. But while Cortot aspired to and able a like amount of elegance, he was afflicted no beneath effectively by the aerial affect of Wagner, and he played Beethoven, Schumann, and Liszt as generally and able-bodied as he did his countrymen Saint-Saëns, Franck, Fauré, and (later) Debussy and Ravel. “We are action to acknowledge war on the adorning art, on arena that is technically absolute in every delicate detail but has no soul,” he told his students.

Cortot’s affiliation of civic styles is abnormally axiomatic in the music of Chopin, abundant of which he recorded. Like Cortot, Chopin lived in Paris for best of his action but was in no way a accurate Frenchman—he was Polish through and through—and his music does not accumulation from actuality played in a accurately French manner. Nowhere is Cortot’s own access to Chopin added credible than in his 1933 adaptation of the op. 28 Préludes (which he recorded three altered times). The interpretative affection on affectation is that of an artisan able in the 19th century: acutely romantic, generally foolishly so, but never in the extravagant, alike baroque address of added pianists of Cortot’s generation.

And for all his Gallic elegance, Cortot sounds annihilation like a archetypal French pianist, skating agilely aloft the apparent of the music. Instead, he plays with a rich, abysmal tone, absolute tempos, and ample adroit freedom, yet in a way that is controlled, abounding of fantasy but never eccentric. Moreover, he plays Chopin’s two dozen broadly assorted miniatures as if they were a distinct composition, across-the-board from allotment to allotment while giving anniversary one its own alone character. To apprehend his recording is to apprehend a chiefly abundant adept at the aiguille of his powers.

It is not, however, the arena of a artlessly French artist, and therein lies one of the keys to compassionate Cortot’s alertness to coact with Vichy. Because of his Swiss bearing and alloyed parentage, he explained to a affectionate announcer afterwards the war, Cortot did not anticipate of himself as a Frenchman pur sang. As a musician, he articular at atomic as carefully with the German “soul,” in abundant the aforementioned way as did Wilhelm Fürtwangler, addition agreeable adept who took a fatefully amiss about-face aback the Nazis came to power. “Collaboration…in the apple of music amid Germany and France is commodity I accept been affianced in for added than 40 years, admitting contest in added spheres which argue it,” Cortot said in 1942, a advertisement he never had break to retract.

An able biographer and a acclaimed beneficiary of paintings, sculpture, and arcane and agreeable manuscripts, Cortot was able to the accomplished degree. But he was additionally a atrociously aggressive opportunist, and his active anxious to become a aqueduct had accomplished him what it takes to ascend the anointed pole of success. Reputedly homosexual, he entered into what was universally taken to be a accord of accessibility with an older, socially affiliated woman from a affluent ancestors to beforehand his career. Moreover, his ambitions were added than alone professional: Cortot longed to accommodate the absolute French classical-music enactment in his own Germanophile image. Nor did his pro-German inclinations stop there. Indeed, Bernard Gavoty, Cortot’s aboveboard affectionate biographer, went so far as to affirmation that “in his affection of hearts he would accept adopted a abutment amid France and Germany over an accord with America.”

To this end, he chock-full concertizing aback war bankrupt out in 1939 and offered his casework to the new government at Vichy aural canicule of the abatement 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 allegation of French agreeable life, eventually acceptable the admiral of Vichy’s Board for the Able Organization of Music, which issued licenses to anyone who capital to action as a able musician. So far as can now be known, such licenses were not issued to Jews. In the aforementioned year, he resumed his own career as a pianist and conductor, consistently actualization at German-sponsored contest and, starting in 1942, assuming throughout Nazi Germany as well.

Cortot, like Furtwängler, claimed afterwards the war that he had acclimated his position to assure Jews and Resistance members. Accurate or not, it is accustomed that he did annihilation whatsoever to assure the Jewish pianist Vlado Perlemuter, one of his best able pupils, who was placed on a Gestapo arrest account in 1942 and anon approved to immigrate to Switzerland with his wife. Perlemuter eventually fabricated it there—but afterwards any advice from the well-placed Cortot. Aback he afterwards confronted his above abecedary and asked why he had offered no help, Cortot replied, “My accompany didn’t acquaint me.”

Cortot was arrested about anon aloft the liberation of Paris. He was appear three canicule later, but in October 1944 he went afore an official tribunal, which abeyant him from all able action as a artisan for a year. He anon resumed concertizing afterwards the ban was lifted, but aback he approved to accomplish at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in January 1947, a near-riot resulted as he came on date to accomplish Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata. “Do you address that to your acquaintance Hitler?” shouted one affiliate of the audience. He promptly went aback to Switzerland, abiding in 1949 to accomplish at a Chopin commemorative concert. By that time, his adolescent Frenchmen had absitively either to absolve him or attending the added way at his wartime conduct, and his actualization was a success. For the blow of his life, he performed and accomplished to accustomed acclaim, authoritative one final actualization in 1958 at Pablo Casals’s Prades Festival, accepting been forgiven his political sins by his old colleague.


What care to accept happened to Alfred Cortot?

Fredric Spotts argues in The Shameful Peace, his battleground 2008 abstraction of the conduct of French artists and intellectuals during the Nazi occupation, that “Cortot should accept concluded his canicule afore a battlefront squad.” Spotts claims that Cortot’s wartime transgressions were anon commensurable to those that led the postwar French government to either assassinate or book to action imprisonment added than a dozen writers, amid them Robert Brasillach, who were approved and bedevilled of crime for accommodating with the Germans. According to Spotts, the pianist’s “celebration of collaboration” was “not alone autonomous but deliberate, chargeless and purposive.”

Such a fate, however, was never in the cards for Cortot, aloof as Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, and around all of the added arch German musicians who cooperated with the Hitler administration were acceptable to resume their careers, adversity alone the lightest of sanctions for their offenses. Few war-weary music lovers admired to abide Apple War II by added means, and except for a bashful cardinal of arresting musicians who, like Adolf Busch and Arthur Rubinstein, banned thereafter to accomplish with such artists, their colleagues added than agreeably accustomed them aback into the fold.

As for Cortot, he is now admired as the greatest of all French pianists, and best of those writers who feel answerable to acknowledgment in the aforementioned animation that he was additionally amid the best belled of France’s collabos about do so in muted, about atoning tones. The English music analyzer Martin Cooper, who wrote the commodity about Cortot in the additional copy of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, is a case in point:

His ability and adulation of German ability agreeable him favourably appear the German occupiers of France in 1940–44, and he accustomed affecting positions in the Vichy government and opportunities to accord concerts in Germany. These activities acquired him to be advised persona non grata in France and abroad for some time afterwards the war.

It is adamantine not to ache with such apologists, aback absorbing geniuses like Cortot—and no bottom chat is able enough—are consistently attenuate on the ground. For me as for added musicians and listeners, his recordings are revelatory, and it is absurd for me to brainstorm agreeably accomplishing afterwards them. They prove that Cortot was aces to accept been ranked alongside the brand of Josef Hofmann, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Artur Schnabel, the tallest giants of the aureate age of classical piano playing.

How, then, are we to appear to agreement with the actuality that they are the assignment of a man who collaborated agilely with the best aberrant administration that the apple has anytime known? Ultimately unsatisfying as it is, the acknowledgment is that we cannot, and should not. What Cortot did during Apple War II will taint to the end of time the anamnesis of his absolute artistry. Yet it cannot adapt the enduring actuality of that artistry, or advice us accept how an artisan able of bringing such art into actuality was additionally able of behaving as he did at the absolute moment of moral choice. For as Clement Greenberg so wisely said, “art solves nothing, either for the artisan himself or for those who accept his art.” Atomic of all can it break the bulletproof abstruseness of how admirable art can be fabricated by animal men who—human, all too human—succumb to the allurement to serve angry and advertise their souls. In the end, all we can do is adulation their art, but bethink their deeds.

1 Alfred Cortot: The Adept Pianist (EMI), a seven-CD boxed set, contains a adumbrative alternative of his abandoned and chamber-music recordings (including the 1933 adaptation of Chopin’s Préludes discussed below).2 The alone feature adventures 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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