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The real Charles Munch?

The unflattering observation has been made that in post- World War II France, almost everyone claimed to have been working for the Resistance. One such person was Charles Munch, the distinguished conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1949 to 1962. "He told me that during the war he was in the Resistance movement," recalls Roger Voisin, who played trumpet for Munch's entire BSO career. "He did not conduct during the [German] occupation of Paris, he was very clear about that."

But research conducted by Boston University foreign languges professor Jeffrey Mehlman tells a different story. Several books published in France in the past decade mention Munch as the premier wartime orchestra conductor in Paris, which was occupied by the Nazis and nominally ruled by the collaborationist Vichy government. Says Mehlman: "He was a superstar of the cultural scene of occupied Paris who made the transition without missing a beat to the postwar scene in Boston."

Munch (who spelled his name during the war with an umlaut over the "u") was born a German citizen in Strasbourg before World War I. He served in the German army in that war but later became a French citizen and pursued his musical career in Berlin, Leipzig, and Paris. His 1954 memoir barely mentions World War II. "He didn't like to talk about either war," an American friend recalls.

Mehlman's article, "The Boston/Vichy Connection," published in the current issue of Skidmore College quarterly Salmagundi, places Munch squarely in the center of Vichy cultural life. He conducted the prestigious Paris Conservatory orchestra during the war and received glowing reviews from the collaborationist press. More ominously, Mehlman says Munch headed a section of the notorious "Cortot Committee," headed by Alfred Cortot, a pianist and conductor who was in charge of music under Vichy. "Somewhere along the line," he writes, "Munch would have had to submit to the authorities a list of the Jews in his [orchestra], the very Conservatoire, we have seen, that had been uniquely thorough in its practice of de-Judaization."

In fairness to Munch, who has no descendants to defend him, Mehlman does not explain why Cortot was ostracized after the war, and Munch lionized. Nor does he account for Munch's receiving the prestigious Legion of Honor medal from the French government in 1945.

A 1962 Associated Press biographical sketch of Munch confirms he conducted throughout World War II but emphasizes that "he scrupulously and often ingeniously avoided conducting offers from the Nazis. Every franc of his proceeds from concerts went to the French underground." Munch's 1968 Globe obituary adds "he performed innumerable kindnesses, all dangerous to himself, on behalf of French Jewish musicians."

Munch became a favorite of Charles de Gaulle's cultural minister, Andre Malraux, who drafted him to take over the Orchestre de Paris after Munch left the BSO. Perhaps Munch's most enduring legacy was championing the career of 25 year-old Japanese prodigy Seiji Ozawa, whom he first heard conduct at a competition in France, in 1959.

Open Door

I feel much better knowing that I live in a country that publishes an entire magazine devoted to religious satire. It is called The Door, and it emanates from Dallas. It's hard to dislike a magazine that publishes a standing feature called "Ugly Christian Band of the Week" or - as the editors explain on their Web site www.thedoormagazine.com - loads up on libel insurance and devotes a cover story to Scientology.

The Door caught my attention because of a recent lengthy interview with Tom Lehrer, who has satirized religion ("The Vatican Rag"), his sometime employer ("Fight Fiercely Harvard!"), and much in between. "What is it that drives you to be the J. D. Salinger of musical satire?" The Door asked the notoriously reclusive, sometime-Cambridge resident Lehrer. "Oh, I did it for a few years and that was it," Lehrer replied. "It was fun. I said what I had to say and shut up."

Elsewhere, Lehrer is asked, "Is there any room for hope?" He says, "No. Why?"

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com

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