- Pierre Monteux, Maître
In his loving and detailed biography of Pierre Monteux (1875–1964), John Canarina seeks to shed new light on the conductor who was responsible for the premieres of Stravinsky's Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, and The Nightingale; Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé; and Debussy's Jeux. While many know of Monteux's connection with the legendary premiere of The Rite of Spring, few perhaps think of him as the conductor who made the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra a professional ensemble, or one whose performances and recordings of works of Beethoven and Brahms were heralded by musicians and audiences alike. [End Page 981]
Canarina, who was a student of Monteux, undertook this project to address the lacunae in published book sources about the conductor. Prior to Canarina's book, the only book sources were two by Monteux's third wife, Doris. As Canarina points out in his preface (p. 12), the first of her books, Everyone is Someone (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962) was written under the name of the couple's pet dog, Fifi Monteux. Doris published her next book It's All in the Music (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965) under her own name, and Canarina frequently refers to it (through text-inserted references) in his volume.
Canarina acknowledges that "perhaps it was difficult to write about Monteux for the simple reason that there was very little about him that was controversial" (p. 12). Even with his connection to the notorious premiere of The Rite of Spring, the portly, affable Monteux did not attract scholarly or even novelistic interest (with the exception of the books by his wife).
Canarina corrects this gap through his incredibly detailed chronicle of Monteux's life. The conductor's daughter Nancie Monteux-Barendese provided the author with the surviving documents in her possession, including clippings, correspondence, photographs, and other memorabilia. Canarina chronicles the details of his life and background from his ancestors in the city of Monteux (near Sête in the south of France, home to many Sephardic Jews), to his studies at the Paris Conservatoire (first on the violin; later on the viola, with harmony and counterpoint studies with Albert Lavignac and Charles Lenepveu respectively), and his first conducting opportunities. In 1911 he was engaged to rehearse Diaghilev's Ballets Russes Orchestra for the premiere of Stravinsky's Petrushka, which was to be conducted by Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873–1945). Stravinsky was so impressed with Monteux's quick command of his complex score that he insisted that Monteux conduct the premiere performance, thus beginning the conductor's providential association with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.
Canarina's chapter on Monteux's connection with the legendary premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in Paris on 29 May 1913 repeats some quotes found in other sources, such as his first reaction to hearing the composer play the work on the piano (relayed by Doris Monteux): "My own head ached terribly, and I decided then and there that the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms were the only music for me, not the music of this crazy Russian!" (p. 40), as well as Monteux's specific corrections to the score in a letter sent to Stravinsky on 30 March 1913 (p. 41; quoted in Robert Craft's Stravinsky: Selected Correspondence, 3 vols. [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984], 1:53). This is somewhat disappointing, and one can only assume that the Monteux collection that Canarina worked from did not have additional primary source material on this historic event, such as Stravinsky's notes to the conductor.
While the The Rite of Spring premiere certainly put the spotlight on Monteux, so to speak, it did not automatically send him to a secure conducting post. In August 1914 he was called up to serve in the French army (an experience humorously recounted by Canarina). His enlistment did not prevent him from traveling to New York with the Ballets Russes, which brought him into contact...