One of the most legendary cellists of all time.

When I started studying cello, at the age of 10, my mother gave me a double CD containing the recording of Bach’s six suites for cello solo played by Paul Tortelier edited by emi classics. From that moment my deep veneration for Paul tortelier and the immeasurable love for the cello began, its magical and mysterious sound, at the same time so human, passionate and comfortable, has cast a spell on me. And for this reason today I want to dedicate this article to one of the greatest cellists of the twentieth century, Paul Tortelier.

Paul Tortelier (Paris, March 21, 1914 – Villarceaux Yvelines, December 18, 1990) was a French cellist and composer.


Son of a cabinetmaker of Breton origin, he was encouraged to undertake the study of the cello by his father Joseph and his mother Marguerite Boura, entering the Paris Conservatory at the age of twelve. He studied cello, first with Louis Feuillard and then with Gérard Hekking. He won the first cello prize at the conservatory at the age of sixteen, and then studied harmony with Jean Gallon. He made his debut with Orchester Lamoureux in 1931 at the age of seventeen, performing the concert for cello and orchestra by Édouard Lalo.


In 1935 he joined the Montecarlo Philharmonic Orchestra as first cello, and remained there until 1937. It was conducted by Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini, and he performed the solo part of Don Qixote under the direction of the composer Richard Strauss. This piece became his emblem and was performed by him many times in addition to being recorded on disk.

In 1937 he moved to the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Serge Koussevitsky, as first cello until 1940. In 1938 he began his solo career at Boston’s Town Hall, accompanied by Leonard Shure. He was the first cello of the Orchester de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire in Paris in the period 1946-1947. In 1947 he made his debut in England with Beecham, also in Don Quixote at the Richard Strauss Festival in London. “My boy,” Beecham said to him, “you will be successful in England because you have temperament.” In 1950 Tortelier was chosen by Casals as the first cello for the Prades Festival Orchestra. Tortelier was convinced that Casals had had the greatest influence on him among all cellists. A French critic wrote of him: “If Casals is Jupiter, Tortelier is Apollo.” Tortelier played in the Peabody Mason Concert in Boston in 1952. [1]

He taught at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de la Musique, Paris (1956–69), Folkwang Hochschule in Essen (1969–1975) and at the Conservatory of Nice (1978–80). He was an honorary professor at the Beijing Conservatory. Although he was French, he recommended that his students avoid French music and concentrate on Beethoven and Mozart, composers most loved by the public.

Although he was a Catholic, Tortelier was inspired by the ideals of the founders of the state of Israel in 1948, and in the years 1955-1956 he spent some time with his wife and two children in the kibbutz Maabarot near Netanya.

His compositions include a concert for two cellos and orchestra (1950), a suite for cello solo in D, and two sonatas for cello and piano. He also wrote a number of variations for cello and orchestra (May the music bring peace). He also wrote a symphony, Israel Symphony, after his life experience in kibbutz. His performance of Bach’s Cello Suite was published by Galliard in 1966.

She had as a pupil Jacqueline du Pré when she briefly attended her lessons at the Paris Conservatory, even though she was not her main teacher (who was William Pleeth). His other students were Arto Noras, Nathan Waks and Raphaël Sommer. In 1970 he held a series of master classes which were recorded and broadcast on television by the BBC, from which his very dynamic style of playing emerges.

His interests included bicycles and flutes. In addition to playing the cello, he was also a conductor, like his Russian colleague Mstislav Rostropovich. Although sometimes mistakenly attributed to Rostropovich, it was Tortelier who introduced the tip of the folded cello, which allowed the use of the instrument more horizontally than vertically.

Paul Tortelier married twice. First with Madeleine Gaston, from whom she divorced in 1944, and then with Maud Monique Martin (also a cellist). His son Yan Pascal Tortelier is an orchestra conductor and his daughter Maria de la Pau a pianist. He died at the age of 76 in Villarceaux Yvelines, near Paris.

Tortelier withdrew his children from formal school, so that they could concentrate on music. When asked during an interview with Huw Wheldon on British television if there were no authorities in France that would oblige to send their children to school, he replied: I don’t want to know anything about all the authorities, I am a soloist and they will be soloists. And when Wheldon asked him what happens if they don’t become soloists? with some surprise, Tortelier said: Well, if you start thinking about what will happen if you can’t, you will never do anything.


His main recordings include: Bach, Cello Suite in 1960 (Paris) and 1982 (London), Elgar, Concerto for cello and orchestra with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult in 1972 and Strauss’ Don Quixote with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Thomas Beecham in 1947/48 and with the Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Rudolf Kempe in 1973 (all for the EMI with which he was under contract).

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