Jean Martinon initially studied the violin, first at the Lyons Conservatoire and then at the Paris Conservatoire, where he took the first prize for violin in 1928; subsequently he studied composition with Roussel and conducting with Munch and Désormière. He also took a master’s degree, awarded in 1932, at the Sorbonne, was a violinist in the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, gave solo recitals and composed. His debut as a conductor took place at a concert with a programme that included one of his own compositions, and in which he was also playing the solo violin; soon afterwards he was asked to deputise for Munch at short notice. With the outbreak of World War II Martinon joined the French army but was taken prisoner in 1940. He spent two years in a German prisoner-of-war camp, escaping and being recaptured three times; while a prisoner he composed several works, including a symphony. His setting of Psalm 136, later known as the Chant des Captifs, was performed by Munch in Paris in 1942 and received a warm reception.
Released in 1943, Martinon was invited to conduct his symphony with the Pasdeloup Orchestra in Paris. This success led to his first permanent appointment, as chief conductor of the Bordeaux Symphony Orchestra, which he held at the same time as being assistant conductor to Charles Munch with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. He appeared as a guest conductor in Britain and South America, and served as associate conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1946 to 1948. Having been appointed as chief conductor of the Irish Radio Symphony Orchestra, based in Dublin, in 1947, Martinon stayed with this orchestra for three years until 1950. This was followed by a series of similar appointments, as chief conductor of the Lamoureux Orchestra from 1951 to 1957, of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra from 1957 to 1959, and of the city of Düsseldorf from 1959 to 1963.
From 1963 to 1968 Martinon held probably his most prestigious post, as chief conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in succession to Fritz Reiner. His period with the Chicago orchestra was marred by hostility from the local critic, Claudia Cassidy, as had been the case with one of his predecessors Rafael Kubelík, and, as John Holmes has noted, the character of the orchestra was Germanic rather than French. Nonetheless Martinon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra continued the tradition of making excellent recordings for RCA. After his departure from Chicago Martinon became chief conductor of the Orchestre National de Radio France, the principal French radio orchestra, and later of The Hague Residentie Orchestra. He also taught at the Paris Conservatoire during the last two years of his life, 1975 and 1976.
Martinon was a conductor very much in the French style, whose performances were uniformly elegant and always delivered with great taste as well as intensity when required. He conducted with a wide and consistently clear beat. Although he himself evidently preferred to conduct the Austro-German repertoire, and particularly cherished the award of the Gustav Mahler Medal in 1968, it is by his interpretations of the French repertoire that he is best remembered. Martinon continued to compose during his conducting career: his Symphony No. 4 ‘Altitudes’ was commissioned to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and was recorded by composer and orchestra for RCA.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).
Role: Classical Composer