Pierre Monteux was born into a musical family: his mother, Madame Monteux-Brissac, taught at the Paris Conservatoire, and his elder brother Paul began to teach him to play the violin when he was six. Three years later he entered the Conservatoire where he studied violin, harmony and counterpoint. Having first conducted when he was twelve, from 1890 Monteux was a violist in the orchestras of the Opéra-Comique and of the Concerts Colonne. He was appointed assistant conductor and choirmaster of the Colonne Orchestra in 1894, the year in which he joined the Geloso Quartet, with whom he played a string quartet by Brahms with the composer present. He was awarded first prize at the Conservatoire for his violin-playing, together with Jacques Thibaud, in 1896; and as an orchestral player Monteux was a participant in the golden age of Massenet and Debussy, for instance playing in the first performances of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.
Between 1908 and 1914 Monteux conducted operas, operettas and concerts at the Dieppe Casino, where he also looked after balls and other musical events. He founded his own Concerts Berlioz in Paris in 1911, the year in which he left the Geloso Quartet and that in which his first major opportunity as a conductor occurred. Stravinsky’s new ballet Petrushka was in rehearsal by the Ballets Russes, but the conductor Tcherepnin had fallen ill and Stravinsky, looking for a substitute who could at least rehearse the music, turned to Gabriel Pierné, the chief conductor of the Colonne Orchestra, for advice. Pierné recommended Monteux, who proved to be so good that Stravinsky and Diaghilev entrusted him with the first performance of the new score, which took place on 13 June 1911 in Paris. After this success, Monteux also conducted for Diaghilev’s company the first performances of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1912) and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913). He went on to conduct at the Paris Opera, and at Covent Garden in London, as well as in Budapest and Vienna; and in 1914 he established another concerts series in Paris, La Société des Concerts Populaires.
During World War I Monteux was a member of the French army, and saw military action at Verdun and elsewhere. However he was recalled in 1916 to conduct the Ballets Russes in America, to boost the standing of the Allied war effort, and remained in the USA, conducting the Civic Orchestra Society in New York and the French repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera between 1917 and 1919. He was appointed as chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1919 and stayed in this position until 1924 when as a result of labour difficulties within the orchestra he resigned, to be replaced by Koussevitzky. For the next ten years Monteux served as second conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra alongside Mengelberg and also conducted the Amsterdam Wagner Society. He did much to promote Dutch music, of which he was a strong supporter (Willem Pijper’s Symphony No. 3 is dedicated to him). During a period of absence by Stokowski in 1928, Monteux conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra; and from 1929 to 1938 the Paris Symphony Orchestra, which he founded. Also at this time (in 1932) he established the École Monteux in Paris for the training of young conductors, a preoccupation which he retained until the end of his life. From 1936 until 1952 Monteux was chief conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, establishing it as one of the finest orchestras in the USA and recording with it extensively for RCA (these recordings were among the first to be made in America using magnetic tape). He also assisted with the formation of the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1937, and conducted several of its early concerts.
In 1942 Monteux took American citizenship and transferred the École Monteux to his new home in Hancock, Maine, where Erich Kunzel, Neville Marriner and André Previn were among his students. Following his departure from San Francisco he held no permanent posts for nine years, working entirely as a guest conductor. He appeared frequently with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, then led by Charles Munch, and between 1953 and 1956 at the Metropolitan Opera where he conducted memorable performances of operas from the French repertoire. At the age of eighty-six he accepted in 1961 the position of chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, signing a twenty-five-year contract with an option to renew! In London in 1963 he conducted, in the presence of the composer, a fiftieth anniversary performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring to great public acclaim.
Monteux was completely devoted to the task of interpreting the written text, without any hint of self-promotion. He had great respect for orchestral musicians, emphasising always the need for effective collaboration, and conducted with a calm and clear technique, although he was able to generate great tension when required. In his performances he sought to reveal all the inner voices of the score, revealing the influence of his early years as a chamber music player. His recording career extended from 1929 to his death in 1964 and took in all the major technical innovations of this period, from electrical recording to stereophonic sound, which proved to be invaluable in helping to realise his love of orchestral sonority. He understood the recording process more effectively than several of his peers, for example Toscanini and Furtwängler: he was not overly-concerned with technical issues but nonetheless always created recordings that possessed beauty and musical conviction.
The recorded legacy of Monteux, although not as large as that of Ansermet for instance, is nonetheless both catholic and representative in its range. Although his pre-war French recordings have an important documentary interest, it is his recordings with the San Francisco, Boston and London Symphony Orchestras which have the greatest value, together with several with the Concertgebouw and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras. John Culshaw, the producer of one of his finest recordings, of the complete score of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, wrote eloquently about Monteux’s skills as a conductor in relation to this classic recording: ‘It is, and always will be, one of my favourite records, not simply because it happens to be conducted by the man who had been responsible for its première, but because of the way he treated the music, which was to relate each part to its context and to see the work as a whole. Thus he did not allow the climax of the great Levé du jour to become so powerful that there was nothing in reserve when he came to the climaxes at the end of the work.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).
Role: Classical Artist