A consummate artist whose approach to the cello was directed toward breathing life into the music, Paul Tortelier earned the respect and affection of countless colleagues. An enduring friendship with Pablo Casals found him playing, in the words of a French critic, Apollo to Casals' Jupiter. Like Casals, Tortelier emphasized using but one finger at a time on the string to allow free vibration. Fantasy and emotional freedom marked his performances and attracted numerous young players.
Given a cello by his mother at age six, Tortelier was prompted toward a career from the beginning. His first teacher, Beatrice Bluhm, exposed young Paul to the flexible wrist and free bowing arm favored by the Franco-Belgian School. At ten, Tortelier entered the Paris Conservatoire, where his studied with Gérard Hekking, who encouraged a sense of rhythmic freedom and instilled in his pupil an abiding love for Bach. While his lessons continued, he performed in Paris cafés and cinemas; at 16, he graduated from the Conservatoire with a first prize.
After joining the Paris Radio Orchestra as assistant principal, Tortelier made a debut with Lamoureux Concert Association, all the while studying harmony with Jean Gallon at the Conservatoire. Completion of those courses brought another first prize, this time in composition. As a member of the Monte Carlo Symphony Orchestra, Tortelier played under the direction of Toscanini and Walter and performed as soloist in Richard Strauss' Don Quixote under the composer's direction.
Though his career advanced in the late 1930s, taking him to Asia and Africa, as well as North and South America, WWII curtailed his activities. After the war, he resumed his concert appearances. Impressed by efforts to establish Israeli statehood, Tortelier (a Catholic) moved his family to Mabaroth, a kibbutz only several hundred yards from the enemy border. The first Prades Festival, celebrating the 200th anniversary of Bach's death in 1950, drew an invitation from Casals to be principal cellist. From 1956 to 1969, Tortelier was a professor at the Paris Conservatoire; from 1969 to 1975, he taught at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen, Germany. Conducting occupied more of his time in later years, as did composition (two concertos included). His book, How I Play, How I Teach, has become a standard text for performance of modern cello works.