Paul Tortelier

By Pier Paolo Maccarrone cellist 🎻

Paul Tortelier (21 March 1914 – 18 December 1990) was one of the most famous french cellist in the music history.

My mother gave me a double CD containing the Six Suites for Solo Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach for EMI Classics. I have listened to them thousands of times and I attribute to this recording a substantial part of my love for the cello. His greatness of his virtuosity begins with the recognition by the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals when Tortelier replaced him on a tour due to a momentary indisposition of Casals. When I grew up I listened to recordings of Tchaikosky’s Rococo variations, Beethoven’s cello sonatas and Elgar’s Cello Concerto played masterfully by him and for this reason my passion for the cello and adoration for Tortelier grew even more. I share with you to follow the recording of the 1st movement of the Concerto for cello and orchestra by Elgar. Have a good listening! Following a biography of the great Tortelier.↙️



Tortelier was born in Paris, the son of a cabinet maker with Breton roots. He was encouraged to play the cello by his father Joseph and mother Marguerite (Boura), and gifted at 12 he entered the Conservatoire de Paris. He studied the cello there with Louis Feuillard and then Gérard Hekking. He won the first prize in cello at the conservatoire when he was 16, playing the Elgar cello concerto, and then he studied harmony under Jean Gallon. His debut was with the Orchester Lamoureux in 1931 at the age of 17. He performed Lalo’s Cello Concerto.

In 1935 Tortelier joined the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra as first cellist and played with them until 1937. He gave performances under Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini, and he also played the solo part in Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote under the composer. This is a piece which became closely associated with Tortelier, as he gave many performances and recorded it.

In 1937 he joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitsky, performing as first cellist through 1940. In 1938 he began a solo career at Boston’s Town Hall, accompanied by Leonard Shure. He was first cellist of the Orchester de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, Paris, 1946–47. In 1947 he gave his British debut under Beecham, again performing Don Quixote at the Festival of Richard Strauss in London. “My boy”, Beecham said, “you will be successful in England because you have temperament”. In 1950 Tortelier was selected by Pablo Casals to play as the principal cellist in the Prades Festival Orchestra. Tortelier believed that of all the cellists, it was Casals who influenced him the most. A French critic wrote of him: “If Casals is Jupiter, then Tortelier is Apollo.” Tortelier performed for the Peabody Mason Concert series in Boston in 1952.

He was a music professor at the Conservatoire de Paris (1956–69); Folkwang Hochschule in Essen (1969–1975); and the Conservatoire National de Region, Nice (1978–80). He was also an honorary professor at the Central Conservatoire in Beijing, China. Despite being French, he advised his students to avoid French music and concentrate on Beethoven and Mozart – music the public more likely wanted to hear.

C. M. I. S. Mº Pier Paolo Maccarrone
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Although he was a Catholic, Tortelier was inspired by the ideals of the founders of the newly formed state of Israel in 1948, and in the years 1955–1956 spent some time living with his wife and two children in the kibbutz Maabarot, near Netanya.

His compositions include a concerto for two cellos and orchestra (1950), a solo cello suite in D, and two sonatas for cello and piano. He also wrote a set of variations for cello and orchestra (‘May Music Save Peace’). He also wrote a symphony, the Israel Symphony, after his experience of living in the kibbutz. His edition of the Bach Cello Suites was published by Galliard in 1966.

He taught Jacqueline du Pré when she briefly attended his classes at the Paris Conservatoire, though he was not her main teacher (that was William Pleeth). Other students included Arto Noras, Nathan Waks and Raphaël Sommer. In the 1970s he gave a series of master classes which were recorded and broadcast on TV by the BBC, which demonstrate his very dynamic style of playing.

Interests included bicycling and playing the flute. Besides performing on the cello, he made appearances as a conductor when he grew older (similar to Mstislav Rostropovich). Although it is sometimes mistakenly thought to be Rostropovich, Tortelier is the inventor of the angled cello spike, enabling the instrument to lie more horizontally than vertically.

Tortelier was married twice. His first marriage, to Madeleine Gaston, ended in divorce in 1944. His second marriage was to Maud Monique Martin (also a cellist). His son, Yan Pascal Tortelier, is an internationally known conductor, and his daughter Maria de la Pau is a pianist. He died of a heart attack at the age of 76 in the domaine of Villarceaux, Yvelines, near Paris.

Tortelier withdrew his children from formal education so that they could concentrate on music. He was asked about this during an interview with Huw Wheldon on British television, and when Wheldon asked if there were not authorities in France that make you send your children to school, he replied, “I don’t want to know anything about any authorities . I am a soloist and they will be soloists. ” Wheldon queried, “but what happens if they don’t become soloists?” and, in some surprise, Tortelier said, “Well, if you start thinking about what will happen if you don’t succeed, you won’t.”

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