Amongst the thorniest of issues surrounding the role of music and musicians during the French occupation is the question of Alfred Cortot: was he a collaborator or a resistance fighter?
Cortot already enjoyed an international career as a pianist and conductor before the start of the war; he also taught at the Conservatoire and founded a music school. On the one hand, Cortot simply continued his work during the Occupation, acting as a defender of France with a keen protective instinct for her musical heritage. From September 1939, with France fearing an attack from Germany, he cancelled all his engagements and put himself at the disposal of the Beaux Arts (Fine Arts) administration. He started an initiative to comfort and provide a distraction for soldiers on the front line through music, taking charge of the umbrella organisation L’Action Artistique aux Armées (Arts Activities for the Army) in November. Fearing the signing of the Armistice, he fled south, taking advantage of the confusion in Vichy to set up another branch of the arts organisation Beaux Arts. However, he was forced to quit ten days after Pétain took over as head of Free France, and turned instead to writing reports about cultural propaganda, music and the defence of the French canon. In September 1940 he was named director of the Service d’Initiative Artistique (The Arts Initiative Service), through which he set up concerts of choral music and radio programmes about folk songs on Radio-Jeunesse.
From March 1941, however, the picture becomes more muddied. Cortot was charged by Pétain's government with suggesting a general musical reform, and he decided to place the majority of musical activities under the control of Vichy, giving Pétain authority in musical decisions. He also became increasingly involved in government musical politics and worked more closely with Pétain himself. In May 1942, he was named president of the Comité d’organisation professionelle de la musique (The committee for the professional organisation of music), nicknamed Comité Cortot, where he worked in direct collaboration with Laval’s cabinet. He was also involved with the creation of the Chantiers de Jeunesse (Youth Camps).
Cortot's politics became even more evident through his piano playing. In December 1941 he took part in the Propaganda Staffel (Propaganda Squad) festival in Paris, and in 1942 played with Wilhelm Kempff for the exposition of Nazi artist Arno Breker. He also met Breker with Laval at the house of Paul Morand, a collaborator, in the company of the education minister for the Vichy regime, Abel Bonnard. Cortot made such an impression that Morand had a statue made of Cortot’s bust. In June 1942 Cortot went to Berlin, where he played with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Wilhelm Furtwängler before touring the rest of Germany. This made him the first artist to perform for a German audience since the signing of the Armistice. When he returned, the group Collaboration held a ‘welcome-home’ party for him. In light of this, at the liberation, he was suspended from his function as president of Comité Cortot, and on 2nd September 1944, was arrested.
Despite all this, Cortot was released due to the involvement of Claude Delvincourt, director of the Paris Conservatoire, who argued that Cortot had been preserving French culture. Cortot himself argued:
I’ve given 50 years of my life to the helping the French cause [...] when I was asked to become involved with the interests of my comrades, I felt I couldn’t refuse. [...] I represented the interests of the French government less than the interests of France. [...] I have never been involved in politics.
Indeed, in February 1943 Cortot had argued that musicians should not take part in the Service du travail obligatoire (Compulsory work service) introduced by Hitler, as it might compromise their future musical career. He had also called for musical prisoners to be able to join German orchestras. In May 1943 he had even succeeded in liberating twenty musician prisoners. His work extended to fighting in favour of Jewish musicians, such as the Polish soprano Marya Freund: after she was arrested in 1944 and moved to Drancy, Cortot helped to get her transferred to a hospital where she survived and escaped. Cortot was also not French, but Swiss, and claimed never to have felt the same nationalistic sentiment towards France that caused many other French musicians to flee the Nazis and emigrate to the US. He was married (although estranged) to a woman of Jewish origin, and was friends with Jewish intellectuals such as Leon Blum, the first Jewish Prime Minister of France.
Following his trial, organisations such as the orchestra of the Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire (The conservatoire concert society) refused to work with him again, and Cortot moved to Switzerland in 1947 to escape some of the ill feeling. However, from 1949 he was able to play in France once more, beginning with a concert in Paris; the demand for tickets was so great that 3,000 people were turned away. This is symptomatic of how, despite his sometimes dubious dealings during the Occupation, Cortot has generally been accepted by the French on friendly terms. But a number of Cortot's personal documents have recently come to light, and what they are able to reveal about his allegiances during WWII may yet cause public opinion to change.
Chimènes, Myriam, ‘Alfred Cortot et la politique musicale du gouvernement de Vichy’ in La Vie Musicale Sous Vichy, ed. Chimenes (Brussels, 2001).
Gavoty, Bernard, Alfred Cortot (Paris, 1995)
Nichols, Roger ‘Alfred Cortot, 1877-1962’, The Musical Times Vol. 123, No. 1677 (Nov., 1982), pp.762-763.