During his childhood the young Roger Désormière would give small summer concerts instead of playing children’s games. In due course he entered the Paris Conservatoire where his teachers were extremely distinguished: he studied flute with Philippe Gaubert, orchestration with Vincent d’Indy, fugue with Charles Koechlin, and harmony with Xavier Leroux. Désormière then worked as a flautist in various Parisian orchestras before making his debut as a conductor with the Concerts Pleyel in 1921. From 1923 onwards he collaborated with the group of composers known as Les Six, and was himself a member of the École d’Arcueil, which was founded by Erik Satie, Henri Sauguet, Maxime Jacob and Henri Clicquot-Pleyel. He conducted the first performances of ballets choreographed by Massine with music by Satie and Milhaud at the Soirées de Paris, and composed the music for Cocteau’s abbreviated production of Romeo and Juliet. After a year as chief conductor with the Ballets Suédois, he took the same position with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1925, staying with the company and touring widely until 1929. Among the composers who worked with the company and whose music Désormière conducted were Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Poulenc.
Désormière changed the focus of his repertoire when in 1930 he became the director of the Société de Musique d’Autrefois, conducting numerous works of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by composers such as Campra and Rameau; some of these works were later to be published and recorded on 78rpm records by the publishing company Éditions de l’Oiseau-Lyre, founded by Australian heiress Louise Hanson-Dyer. Alongside this work he became active in films from 1932 onwards both as a composer of film music and as the director of music for the film company Pathé-Nathan. Another close association, lasting from its foundation in 1934 until the end of his conducting career, was with the Orchestre National de Radio France, France’s premier radio orchestra. In 1936 Désormière became chief conductor of the Paris Symphony Orchestra as well as permanent conductor at the Opéra-Comique, Paris; here he refreshed the repertoire with operas by Chabrier, Ravel and Richard Strauss, and in 1942 led a legendary production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with Irène Joachim and Jacques Jansen. He had recorded the opera with the same principals earlier in 1941, and this performance has maintained a prominent place in the catalogue ever since, fully justifying its own legendary status. Between 1944 and 1946 he was the director of the Opéra-Comique, Paris, and during 1945–1946 he was also associate director of the Paris Opera.
Following the end of the war Désormière conducted abroad with increasing frequency, notably with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and in 1949 he appeared with the Orchestre National de Radio France at the Edinburgh Festival. During this period he helped to form the Association Française des Musiciens Progressistes with Serge Nigg and Elsa Barraine, and gave the first performances of many new works; but in 1952 he suffered a stroke which paralysed him, and he died eleven years later. A musician of definite political views, to the left of the spectrum, he was also a keen bird-watcher and a lover of flowers. The importance of Désormière to contemporary French music cannot be overestimated: he conducted the first performances of such notable works as The Prodigal Son, by Prokofiev (1928), Action de grace and Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine by Messiaen (1936 and 1945), the Organ Concerto of Poulenc (1939), the Symphony in Three Movements by Stravinsky (1946), Le Soleil des eaux by Pierre Boulez (1950), and the Symphony No. 1 of Henri Dutilleux (1951).
Désormière’s post-war recording career built upon his distinguished achievements of the inter-war and war-time years. His repertoire was more popular and included for instance ballet music by Delibes (Coppélia and Sylvia), Tchaikovsky (The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake), Tommasini (his arrangement of music by Scarlatti, The Good-humoured Ladies), and especially Poulenc (Les Biches) with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. His numerous records with the Orchestre National de Radio France included music by Prokofiev (suites from The Love of Three Oranges and Lieutenant Kijé), plus Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol and the suite from his opera Le Coq d’Or. Also of great interest are Désormière’s recordings with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, made for the state record company Supraphon. These include very refined readings of Debussy’s La Mer, and two of the Nocturnes (Nuages and Fêtes), as well as Suites from Bizet’s Carmen and L’Arlésienne, and Ravel’s Boléro. After his death many paid tribute to Désormière’s generosity of character and distinguished musicianship, perhaps none more eloquently than the composer Olivier Messiaen, who said, ‘I shall never forget that, in my youth, he was truly the friend of composers, and the conductor.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).