Pierre Monteux

1875 1964

Pierre Monteux

Conductor

Biography

After his stint in Boston, Monteux returned to Europe, where he was appointed first conductor, together with Willem Mengelberg, of the Royal Concertgebouw orchestra in Amsterdam. Several years later, he also became the director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris, conducting from 1929 to 1935. He returned to the U.S. in 1935 to direct the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra until 1952. During his time in San Francisco, Monteux was involved in many recordings at the War Memorial Opera House with the orchestra and RCA Victor beginning in 1941.

In 1942, Monteux became a permanent US resident, settling in the rural town of Hancock, Maine, where his second wife, Doris Hodgkins Monteux, grew up. There, he founded a summer school to train conductors and orchestral musicians in 1943. He famously said, “Conducting is not enough. I must create something. I am not a composer, so I will create fine young musicians”. As Monteux possessed a superior conducting technique, it is only natural that he founded a conducting school. In addition to his fantastic baton technique, which Arturo Toscanini claimed to have been the best he had ever seen, Monteux was also “that rarest of beings—a conductor who was loved by his orchestras”, according to record produced John Culshaw.

Monteux once explained, “Our principal work [as conductors] is to keep the orchestra together and carry out the composer’s instructions, not to be sartorial models, cause dowagers to swoon or distract audiences by our ‘interpretation’” Furthermore, he would advise conductors to leave the orchestra alone when they are playing well, otherwise it is interference.

During his lifetime, many aspiring conductors came from all over the world to Hancock to be taught by him, including Anshel Brusilow, Lorin Maazel, Neville Marriner, André Previn, Werner Torkanowsky and David Zinman.

The 20th-century French conductor Pierre Monteux made a name for himself as the conductor of many prestigious orchestras and operas, including the Ballets Russes, Metropolitan Opera, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. He was the conductor of the notoriousRite of Spring premiere with the Ballets Russes, during which a massive riot broke out.

Monteux was born in Paris, France on 4 April 1875. It was there that he learnt the violin as a young boy, entering the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 9. His talent as a violinist was immense, earning him the Conservatoire violin prize in 1896, together with Jacques Thibaud. When time permitted, he also enjoyed playing at the Folies Bergères during this period. Following his violin studies, Monteux took up the viola, studying with Théophile Laforge. As a violist, he joined Quatuor Geloso, with which he performed for Johannes Brahms and Edvard Grieg. He also worked as a violist in the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, where he had the opportunity to lead the viola section in the premiere of Debussy’sPelléas et Mélisande in 1902.

Monteux’s first conducting position was at the Dieppe casino in 1910. This was followed by his appointment as conductor of the famous Ballets Russes in 1911. From this position, he premiered a number of notable 20th-century works including Igor Stravinsky’sPetrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913), Ravel’sDaphnis et Chloé and Debussy’s Jeux (1913). It was during his time with this ballet company that Monteux established himself as a worthy interpreter of both Russian and French music.

The outbreak of World War I disrupted his career, as he was called up for service, though this was very brief as he was discharged in 1916. It was then that Monteux left Europe, travelling to the US where he introduced the French repertoire to American audiences with the Metropolitan Opera between 1917 and 1919. Some of his US premieres with the Metropolitan Opera include the operaThe Golden Cockerelby Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Mârouf, savetier du Caire by Henri Rabaud.

Following a two-year period with the Metropolitan Opera, Monteux was appointed director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, post he held from 1919 to 1924. Due to a large-scale strike in the orchestra, which resulted in 30 members leaving, Monteux was able to fill the vacancies with the players of his choice. Between this and his demands upon the orchestra, he shaped the orchestra’s unique sound. As with his previous post, Monteux introduced many new works to the orchestra especially those of French Conductors. He even gave the New York premiere ofThe Rite of Spring in 1924 with the orchestra.

Several years after becoming an American citizen in 1946, Monteux became reacquainted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a regular guest conductor, beginning in 1951. He conducted the orchestra in their hometown and also at Tanglewood, and three (inter)national tours. Recordings of Monteux and the Boston Symphony Orchestra were also made on the RCA Victor label. His association with the orchestra would continue until his death. Monteux also recorded Richard Wagner’sSiegfried Idyll and Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfigurationfor RCA Victor with the San Francisco Symphony during this period.

Monteux’s final post was as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, where he served from 1961 to 1964. His contagious sense of humour showed upon his acceptance of the job offer, which he only agreed to on the condition that he received a 25-year contract with the option of a 25-year renewal. Keep in mind, he was 86 at the time, but the LSO agreed to Monteux’s conditions. Monteux conducted a 50th anniversary concert of The Rite of Spring in Royal Albert Hall in London, at which Stravinsky himself was present. He also recorded a number of albums with the orchestra, namely for Philips Records. Among the albums one of his son, flautist Claude Monteux, and the LSO. This is a special recording as it is the only one father and son made together.

Despite disliking recordings due to their artificial nature and lack of spontaneity, Monteux recorded many albums throughout his career, many of which still thrive in the catalogue today. In addition to his RCA Victor recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Philips recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra, Monteux also recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for RCA Victor and with the Vienna Philharmonic for Decca.

In addition to his recorded legacy, Monteux’s legacy as a teacher still exists today. After his death, Charles Bruck was named music director of the Monteux School by Monteux’s wife, Doris. This was a fitting arrangement as Bruck had been one of Monteux’s pupils in Paris and had also enjoyed a close friendship with him. For more than a quarter of a century, Bruck carried on the traditions of Monteux’s school, becoming one of the greatest conducting teachers of his time. The music director position was passed down to Bruck’s long-time student and associate Michael Jinbo in 1995. Under Jinbo’s excellent yet stern teaching, Monteux’s ideals are still being passed on today.

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