I am listening to Alfred Cortot playing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies No 2 and 11, from the "Master Pianist" CD set. I was ambivalent about buying the set, which I found in New York by chance, because of the controversy surrounding Cortot's association with the Nazis during World War II - as I've written elsewhere, people of remarkable talent but with questionable ethics dismay me, and I don't want to contribute royalties to someone who condoned Nazism. Since Cortot has been dead for forty-nine years this week, though, it is safe to assume royalties don't go to him, and we can focus instead on the question of genius in the face of evil.
Because the pianist in the first chapter of my book is loosely inspired by Cortot, I decided, that day in New York, that I could at least judge by myself whether he was a good musician or not. It turns out he plays very well. I probably shouldn't be surprised: I had read before that his talent had saved him, career-wise, after the war.
As I mention at the beginning of my novel's first chapter (ostensibly referring to the pianist in my book, who remains nameless, and using Frederic Spotts's A Shameful Peace as my source), Cortot had been vilified in 1947 because of his recent unsavory past - the orchestra had refused to play with him - and yet celebrated in 1949 as a national hero when he played a recital to mark the centennial of Frederic Chopin's death. What a difference two years make.
One might be tempted to conclude that the French have a short memory, and yet I remember to this day how my grandmother and my aunt recalled Arletty's behavior during the war (Wikipedia states that she had an affair with a German officer during the war, no less), when the famous French actress died in 1992 at age 94. She resumed her work as an actress after the Liberation, but the stain always remained on her reputation, and rightfully so. (It seems that she was not quite as successful after 1945 as before the war.)
It shocks me that people with such enormous talent would associate with the Nazis - it is tempting to assume that petty folks did much of the hobnobbing with evil, that they seized every opportunity to denounce their neighbors or colleagues to gain positions they would not have achieved otherwise - it is tempting to reduce what happened during the war to the actions of jealous individuals who dreamed of their time in the spotlight, because it is rational and gives us an easy way to identify people who, in the future, might do the same.
But it would be an over-simplification. The actions of talented people without conscience are much more dangerous and damaging than those of untalented people, because they already receive a lot of attention and can succeed in their own right at what they do, while untalented people, sooner or later, will be found out for what they are. Some people will use their talent to resist and some will not. The fact that their association with evil seems so gratuitous (they were already at the top of their field, they did not need the Germans) is the great tragedy.
As for Cortot, Eric Siblin in The Cello Suites states that he was ultimately forgiven by none other than the great cellist Pablo Casals, with whom he played chamber music. Casals, though, never forgave the violinist in the group, Jacques Thibaud, for "perform[ing] with Cortot at a Mozart festival in Paris organized by the Nazis."