Paul Paray’s father, an ivory sculptor, was also an active musician, serving as organist of the Church of St Jacques, Le Tréport, and during the summer season as musical director of the town’s municipal band and Orphéon Theatre; he conducted major works such as Haydn’s Die Schöpfung and Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ with guest soloists from the Paris Opera. His mother was the sister of the Vicar General of Rouen, and both his elder brother and sister were accomplished musicians; all received their first music lessons from their father. When he was nine Paul joined his brother as a member of the choir of Rouen Cathedral, where he first met Marcel Dupré, his senior by three weeks. He became an excellent organist, pianist and cellist, and at the age of fourteen he composed his first Magnificat, which is still performed at Rouen Cathedral; by sixteen he had learnt almost the whole of J.S. Bach’s music by heart. Having become a protégé of Henri Dallier, organist of the Madeleine Church in Paris, Paray was helped by him to enter the Paris Conservatoire in 1904, where he studied harmony with Xavier Leroux and counterpoint and composition with Georges Caussade. He continued to play the piano, organ and cello as well as the timpani, and was awarded a premier prix for harmony and counterpoint. In 1911 he entered for the Prix de Rome, and was awarded first prize for his cantata Yanitza by a jury that included Fauré, Pierné, Saint-Saëns, and Widor.
Shortly after he returned from Rome in 1914, Paray joined the French army following the outbreak of World War I; however he became a prisoner of war, spending several years in an internment camp at Darmstadt, where he composed his string quartet, also known as the Symphonie d’archets. With the end of the war he conducted professionally for the first time at the Casino in Cauterets, and shortly afterwards in 1919 he was recommended by Pierné to become the assistant conductor of the Lamoureux Orchestra. Following the death of Camille Chevillard, the orchestra’s chief conductor, Paray was elected to replace him in 1923. His concert programmes from this period included the works of numerous French composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Ernest Chausson, Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Jacques Ibert, Gabriel Pierné, Maurice Ravel and Florent Schmitt. In addition he conducted the Paris debuts of many distinguished solo instrumentalists, including those of Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein and Yehudi Menuhin.
Having left Paris to spend a short period in Romania during 1927, in the following year Paray accepted the posts of chief conductor for the Monte Carlo Casino and, for the summer months, of the Vichy Casino. After four years that involved enormous amounts of travelling between Paris and the south of France, he accepted the posts of chief conductor of the Colonne Orchestra in Paris, succeeding Pierné, and of conductor at the Paris Opera, where he conducted several operas by Wagner, including Siegfried and Tristan und Isolde. During 1934 he visited Denmark and travelled across Europe. 1939 was an eventful year for Paray: he was sent by the French government to America to represent France at the World’s Fair, conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Here he made a sufficiently positive impression to be offered the post of co-conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra with Toscanini, but decided to return to France instead, just as World War II was about to commence.
In Paris the Colonne and Lamoureux Orchestras had merged together to form a single ensemble, and Paray agreed to share its musical direction jointly with Eugène Bigot. However, when the Nazi administration wished to dispense with the name Colonne (after its Jewish founder Édouard Colonne) and replace it with that of Pierné, Paray, himself a Catholic, resigned and refused to appear in occupied Paris. In Limoges and Marseilles he conducted French Radio’s Orchestre National, but when asked to supply the names of Jewish members of the orchestra he refused and resigned once again, settling in Monte Carlo where he helped many musicians as well as becoming an active member of the French resistance. In 1942, the day after a concert given by a German orchestra in Lyons, he conducted a programme of French music which included L’Apprenti sorcier by Paul Dukas (a Jew). At the end of the concert the applause of the public was intense. Paray said to the musicians, ‘Stand up! Let’s have the Marseillaise, in B flat.’ Then he turned towards the audience and conducted them, the French national anthem resounding both on stage and throughout the concert hall.
With the return of peace Paray once again led the Colonne Orchestra in Paris between 1945 and 1952. Meanwhile in 1945 he was invited by Serge Koussevitzky to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but once again hesitated to accept an appointment in America, preferring to stay in France. However he conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with great success in 1949, continuing to appear with this orchestra every year until his death; and led the Montevideo Orchestra during 1950. Finally, following another highly successful appearance in America during 1951 with the recently reconstituted Detroit Symphony Orchestra, he was appointed that orchestra’s chief conductor with effect from 1952. During the following decade he made the orchestra one of the best in North America, and was able to broadcast its achievements through the productive relationship which he and the orchestra came to enjoy with the Mercury record company. Under this company’s enlightened direction, which supported exceptional engineering standards and a relatively wide range of repertoire, Paray and the Detroit Orchestra made many records which have enjoyed considerable international success, especially those which exploited with exceptional clarity the new medium of stereophonic sound. Paray was offered the direction of the Colonne Orchestra in 1955, but now declined a French appointment because of the demands of his workload in America. The following year he inaugurated the Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium in Detroit, where his programmes featured the music of many American composers including Barber, Bernstein, Copland, Cowell, Creston, Hanson, MacDowell, Piston, and Rorem. Paray left the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, albeit reluctantly, in 1963 and settled in Monte Carlo. He returned to guest-conducting, appearing through Europe and North America, even maintaining his connection with the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia at ninety years of age. At the time of his death from a heart attack in 1979, he was planning to record music by Tchaikovsky with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Paray was an accomplished composer: his Mass for the 500th Anniversary of the Death of Joan of Arc (which he recorded for Mercury) is still occasionally performed. His style as a conductor was centred within the French tradition of clear orchestral textures, firm and vigorous rhythm, and lively solo instrumental playing. While the repertoire for his reissued recordings has tended progressively to focus upon French music, reflecting his type-casting as a pre-eminent French conductor (which indeed he was), he also had a mastery of many other musical styles; although many contemporary critics, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, were reluctant to recognise this aspect of his conducting. His first recordings were made in 1934 with the Colonne Orchestra for the French Columbia label, and between 1947 and 1950 he made several recordings for the Vox/Polydor label; but it is unquestionably his work for the Mercury label which has kept Paray’s name in international circulation, and which features at first sight many unexpected items. In addition to a representative cross-section of the French repertoire, he also recorded for this label music by Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák, Haydn, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schumann, Sibelius, Suppé and Wagner. Following his departure from Detroit, he did not record extensively; but one issue of note was of music by Liszt, recorded for the Concert Hall label with the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra. In all his recordings, Paray’s innate musicianship and infallible sense of style, as well as his ability to command fine orchestral playing, are well to the fore.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).