The world lost one of its great orchestra conductors when Kurt Masur died this week at age 88. He helped to prevent a massacre in East Germany in 1989, and helped to sustain American spirits after the attack on New York’s World Trade Center in 2001.
On October 9, 1989, after the fifth successive Monday demonstration in Leipzig against the East German Communist government, Socialist Unity Party (SED) leader Erich Honecker amassed combat troops, police, and militia in Leipzig’s Karl-Marx-Platz and ordered them to shoot and kill to control more than 70,000 demonstrators. A few months before, Chinese communist leaders had massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands of demonstrators against the government in Tiananmen Square. However, in Leipzig, the military generals refused to open fire on the demonstrators. The following Monday, October 16, 120,000 people demonstrated in Karl-Marx-Platz, which was next to Leipzig’s Gewandhaus symphony hall.
With incredible courage against the many guns on both sides, some pointed at him, Kurt Masur went into the crowds with loud speakers and invited the rebel and government leaders to negotiate in his symphony hall. His recorded messages were broadcast over radio and loudspeakers everywhere. The leaders of both sides agreed to meet in the symphony hall. Almost single handedly, Masur had averted a Tiananmen Square-like massacre. Soon after that, the communist government in East Germany fell and Masur was an international hero. As a result, some of the new government leaders offered him the chance to run for the presidency of the new government, but he declined that honor.
Early Life and Musical Career
Masur was born on July 18, 1927, in Brieg which was then in Germany, but is now called Brzeg in Poland. He learned to play the piano, organ, cello, and drums, but at age 16, injured the tendons in his right hand and lost any chance of becoming a concert musician. He loved classical music so much that his only really open door was to become a conductor. This childhood accident also prevented him from using a standard baton for the rest of his life. He was drafted into the German Wehrmacht during World War II. In 1970, after conducting all over Europe, he became the principal conductor of The Leipzig Orchestra and stayed there for 26 years.
The people of East Germany loved Masur. Leipzig was one of the cultural capitols of the world. It was the home of Bach, Telemann, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Wagner, but the city had no symphony hall for 37 years. In 1944, allied bombing had destroyed the previous symphony hall that was built in 1835 for the orchestra’s first music director, Felix Mendelssohn. Mr. Masur convinced the East German premier, Erich Honecker, to build a new concert hall and it was opened in 1981.
Masur’s act of helping to stop the Leipzig riot was part of the progression toward destruction of the Berlin Wall and the end of communist rule in East Germany. One month later, the communist government opened East Germany’s heavily fortified border with the West. On Oct. 3, 1990, East Germany and West Germany reunited and Masur conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the official celebrations.
He Boosted Morale in New York City After 9/11
In 1991 he had accepted appointment as the New York Philharmonic’s music director and stayed in that position for 11 years. At that time, the orchestra had no director for a year and a half because Bernard Haitink, Sir Colin Davis and Claudio Abbado had turned down offers to conduct that orchestra. He took over a mediocre orchestra that was in rebellion, and without recording contracts and made it one of the premier orchestras in the world.
Just days after September 11, 2001, Masur led the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Brahms’ Requiem in a nationally televised memorial service for the victims of 9/11. To emphasize the seriousness of the occasion, he requested that instead of applause, the audience observe moments of silence to think about the more than 3000 people who died during the attack on the World Trade Center. Afterwards, musicians from the orchestra gave free chamber concerts near Ground Zero, and the free Memorial Concert has been held every year as a remembrance of the September 11 attack on all Americans.
Masur was married three times and had five children. His first marriage ended in divorce. His second wife, Irmgard, died in 1972 in an automobile collision in which Masur was seriously injured. In 1974, he married Tomoko, a soprano and violist from Japan, and they stayed married for 41 years until his death. Their son, Ken-David Masur, is associate conductor of the San Diego Symphony and assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Health Problems and Cause of Death
I could not find reliable information on Masur’s medical history and have to depend on scattered newspaper reports that mentioned medical episodes. His publicists appear to have actively shielded his medical records. The New York Philharmonic publicity department said that he died at a hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut, from complications of Parkinson’s disease.
On May 22, 1990, the New York Times reported that he was hospitalized at a heart clinic in West Germany after suffering chest pains on a flight from New York to Frankfurt. They said, “He has high blood pressure and a circulatory problem but that he had not had a heart attack.” Another report stated that “in 2002 he returned to the Philharmonic podium just nine weeks after undergoing a kidney transplant.” Diabetes is one of the more common causes of kidney transplants. In 2012 while conducting the Orchestre National de France in Paris, his shakiness from Parkinson’s disease caused him to fall off the podium into the front row of the audience and he broke his shoulder blade. In 2014, he withdrew from his annual birthday concert in Paris with the Orchestre Nationale de France because of his Parkinson’s Disease. That same year he was hospitalized for anemia and cancelled concerts because of “visual problems”.
What We Know About Parkinson’s Disease
Since I have almost no specific health data on Kurt Masur, I can only provide general information on Parkinson’s disease. We don’t know very much about the disease except that:
• it causes a person to shake,
• it is usually a disease of older people,
• it is sometimes hereditary, and
• it is more common in men than in women.
We do not know what causes Parkinson’s disease, but it is associated with:
• head trauma
• exposure to toxins such as herbicides or pesticides, industrial emissions of metals such as manganese or copper, welding, solvents, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls)
• a history of muscle weakness. People who have weak muscles in their teens are at markedly increased risk for Parkinson’s disease thirty years later (Neurology, 2015 May 5;84(18):1862-9).
Factors that appear to reduce risk include:
• coffee and tea,
• anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen,
• high levels of Vitamin D, and
Recent reports show that exercise should be a major part of the treatment. If the person is unable to exercise independently, placing him or her on a device that moves the muscles may help. One report showed a marked improvement in controlling shaking for several hours after riding the back of a tandem bicycle.
Parkinson’s disease rarely kills. However, it can cause pneumonia from aspirating food into the lungs, or brain hemorrhage from falling and banging your head. This is what is likely to have happened when “complications of Parkinson’s disease” is given as the cause of death. Since there is no diagnostic laboratory test, up to 25 percent of Parkinson’s disease diagnoses are incorrect. To distinguish Parkinson’s disease from less serious causes of shaking, see my report on Parkinson’s Disease vs Benign Tremors.
July 18, 1927 to December 19, 2015