Ernest Bour was the son of an organist who was also active as a founder and conductor of amateur choirs and orchestras. He studied the piano, organ, music theory and conducting at the Strasbourg Conservatoire, where his teachers included Hans Münch, the brother of Charles, and above all Hermann Scherchen, with whom he worked between 1933 and 1934. His predilection for contemporary music soon manifested itself with the creation of a series of concerts of modern music in Strasbourg in 1934, organised with the composer Fritz Adam.
In the same year Bour started his conducting career, as choirmaster for Radio Geneva, quickly followed by a similar appointment with Radio Strasbourg (1935–1939). He spent 1940 teaching piano at the Strasbourg Conservatoire, before taking up the post of chief conductor of the Mulhouse Orchestra in 1941, and of director of the Mulhouse Conservatoire in 1945. During this period he was active as a guest conductor for Radio Paris, appeared at the Aix-en-Provence and Strasbourg Festivals, and toured throughout mainland Europe. He returned to Strasbourg as chief conductor of the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra in 1950, and five years later took on a similar appointment with the Strasbourg Opera, once again in conjunction with Fritz Adam. Even before this appointment he had been leading a number of important local premières, such as Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (1941), Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (1953) and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1954).
Following the death of Hans Rosbaud in 1962 Bour, who had a similar unswerving commitment to contemporary music, took up in 1964 the post of chief conductor of the South West German Radio Orchestra, based at Baden-Baden. The orchestra’s stated purpose from its foundation in 1946 was to bring the music of the twentieth century to a wider public, expanding the standard symphonic repertoire of the last two hundred years. Bour, like Rosbaud, was extremely well qualified to help it to realise this vision. He remained with the orchestra until 1979, having become permanent guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra in 1976, a position that he retained until 1987. With these and other orchestras he gave the first performances of numerous new works, by composers such as Wolfgang Rihm (Sub-Kontur, 1975), György Ligeti (Apparitions, 1960; Lontano, 1967), Karlheinz Stockhausen (Trans, 1971) and Henryk Górecki (Symphony No. 3, 1977). Many of these have been preserved in the various archives of German radio, with several appearing on commercial record labels.
Ernest Bour was a meticulous as well as rigorous conductor. He had the greatest respect for music, and sought to achieve the most faithful interpretation of the composer’s ideas. In addition to his staunch support of modern music he was an elegant and stylish interpreter of the music of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, notably Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, and of French music of the earlier part of the twentieth century, especially the works of Ravel, Debussy and Honegger. His performances were notable for their extreme transparency and intellectual control, characteristics to the fore in many of his recordings, from his early account of Ravel’s opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges to his recording with the South West German Radio Orchestra of Ligeti’s Atmosphères, heard to great effect on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s legendary film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).