The French musician Charles Munch was a widely celebrated violin soloist and conductor during the first half of the 20th century. Throughout his career he held various prestigious positions including as concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, Germany and as the chief music director of theBoston Symphony Orchestra. He was welcomed everywhere he went due to the spontaneity found in his performances.
Charles Munch, originally Münch, was born on 26 September 1891 to a musical family in the province of Alsace-Lorraine, which was controlled by Germany at that time. While the cultural and political conflict of this area certainly affected Munch negatively in some ways, he also benefitted from both French and German musical training.
Charles’ father, Ernst Münch, was a successful and respected organist and choral conductor who taught at the Strasbourg Conservatory. His brother, Fritz, became a choirmaster and professor of music. Charles first studied violin in Strasbourg at the conservatory before moving to Paris in 1912 to study with Lucien Capet.
Despite being in Paris at the time World War I broke out, and coming from a disputed province, Munch was conscripted into the German army. During the war, he served as an artillery sergeant and was gassed (at Peronne) and wounded (at Verdun). Nonetheless, he survived the horrors of the war and returned to Alsace-Lorraine in 1919, which was back under French control, and took French citizenship. At this time, he was also appointed violin professor at the Strasbourg Conservatory.
Despite his French allegiance, Munch was soon back in Germany, where he studied violin with Carl Flesch in Berlin. He then went on to Leipzig, where he taught violin at the conservatory and served as concertmaster inFurtwängler's Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1926 to 1933.
While much of Munch’s success as a violinist took place in Germany, it was in France that he established his reputation as a brilliant conductor. He made his conducting debut in a self-financed concert in Paris in 1933 with the Straram Orchestra. He remained in Paris for the next 15 years, during which time he conducted the Lamoureux Orchestra, the Concerts Siohan, Concerts Staram and the newly established Orchestre Symphonique de Paris. Munch became the director of the Société Philharmonique de Paris in 1935 (remaining until 1938) and the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire in 1937. During this period, he also served as a professor at the École Normale de Musique.
A main factor in his decision to remain in Paris was that he would have been required to take the German nationality if he had stayed in Germany, something he strongly refused.
In addition to the praise he received for the spontaneity of the performances and his adherence and comprehension of the large structures of the music, he was also known for the variety of tone colours he was able to create with the orchestras and for introducing a variety of new music, including works by composers such asHonegger, Roger-Ducasse, Ropartz, Roussel and Schmitt. He also premiered Messiaen’sL’Ascension in 1945.
While Munch was forced to serve with the Germans in the first world war, he refused to cooperate with them in World War II, supporting the French resistance instead. For this, he was awarded the Légion d'honneur in 1945.
International tours after the war led to Munch’s increased popularity. He also made guest appearances beginning in 1946 with American orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He also toured the US in 1948 with the French National Radio Orchestra.
In 1949, Munch was appointed the successor to Koussevitzky as chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he remained until 1962. He used the BSO as a platform to introduce new French works to the public, as Monteux had done years before. He also introduced the American public to works byBarber, Foss, Piston, Schuman and Sessions, among others. In addition to many French works, Munch also premiered many American works and was dedicated to promoting the music of American composers. Furthermore, he promoted the works of his Franco-Swiss colleagues Roussel, Milhaud and Honegger.
Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra recorded a tremendous number of albums with RCA, many of which are still considered to be the most elite performances to date. Particularly impressive are his recordings of Berlioz’sGrande messe des mortsand Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. He also took the orchestra on tour to Europe in 1952 and again in 1956. During the second tour, the orchestra also visited the Soviet Union, becoming the first American orchestra to do so.
After retiring from the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1962, Munch returned to France, though he continued to conduct the BSO as a guest conductor. In 1967, together with Serge Baudo, Munch founded and directed the Orchestre de Paris in 1967. Munch died in Richmond, Virginia on 6 November 1968 during a tour of the US with his newly established orchestra.
Unlike conductors such as Toscanini and Szell, Munch was able to achieve world-class performance levels and discipline from his orchestras in a friendly and enthusiastic manner. He also wrote the bookJe suis chef d’orchestre (Paris, 1954), which was translated into English in 1955.