October 29, 2004
Fritz Werner rescues Pierre Pierlot

FritzWerner.jpgSo, Fritz Werner's Bach Cantata recordings are wonderful. But have a read of this, from the sleeve notes:

Fritz Werner was born in Berlin on 15 December 1898. At the end of the First World War he was taken prisoner by the British, and he only began to study music in 1920. In 1936, on the recommendation of Wilhelm Kempff, he was appointed organist and choirmaster of the Nikolaikirche in Potsdam, a Neo-classical church designed by the famous German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Two years later, in 1938, Werner was appointed to Potsdam's Garrison Church, the Prussian "Holy of Holies" where the Prussian Kings were buried. At the outbreak of the Second World War he fought in the Polish campaign and in the battles around the Maginot Line in France. The Nazis then gave him the job of Musikbeauftragter in Occupied France. In this position, part of which put him in charge of music for the radio, he came into close contact with the composer and director of the Paris Conservatoire, Claude Delvincourt (1888-1954), who, like Werner, possessed humanist qualities which were widely recognised. Another part of Werner's job was to send French musicians to Germany for travail obligatoire (forced labour), and his protection of many of them made him a much-loved figure in the musical life of Occupied France, which he upheld with conviction. An illustration of Werner's compassion is contained in a charmingly mischievous anecdote concerning the twenty-year-old oboist Pierre Pierlot, whose playing features prominently in this Edition. Pierlot was told that he had to go to Königsberg in eastern Prussia for forced labour. He replied that his father would not let him go because it was too far. By the time the German official involved had found out who his father was, Pierlot had escaped his clutches. But not for long; a month later the German bumped into him again in the orchestra where he was principal oboe. Pierlot hid as best he could behind his desk until the leader called out "Pierlot, give us an A!". The German pretended he had heard nothing. He was Fritz Werner. After the war, when Erato needed a first-rate oboist to play in the Bach cantata recordings in Germany, Pierlot eagerly offered his services by way of thanking Werner, to whom he owed so much. The story has it that when Werner apologised to Pierlot for not at once recognising him because he looked so well, the oboist replied: "Since you Germans were driven out of France we can eat as much as we want, just as we used to. And, by the way, you look much better in a shirt than in a uniform". In August 1944 Werner again became a prisoner, this time of the Americans. He later returned to Germany, where he was interned in the Heilbronn-Böckingen camp, from which he was released in 1946.

The spine-chilling phrase here, just in case you missed it, was that bit about his protection of "many of them". So, Werner saved Pierlot, and "many of them". Good for him. But who did he not manage to save, or worse, who did he choose not to save? I'm not saying he's evil, but it certainly seems that this man got pretty close to some evil things, an impression that is reinforced by this biography of Werner (which is where I found the photographs of him), which, on the matter of Werner's war, has only this to say:

In 1936 he stated his career as a church musician at Berlin and Potsdam, where he became Kirchenmusikdirektor in 1938. He served as organist at Potsdam until the outbreak of World War II, when he left Germany and became a music director of the German radio in occupied France.

After the war he returned to Germany, settling this time at Heilbronn. …

My guess would be that Werner, like many other of his musical compatriot contemporaries, loved and worshipped music above everything, and did as much as he had to, and as little as he had to, to become a good and successful musician in those bad, bad times. Anybody know any different to that? All I really know about this man is his Bach conducting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:10 PM
Category: Classical musicHistory