October 17

Pierre Monteux in the (Musical) Trenches
 of World War I

In September 1916, amidst the devastation of World War I, Musical America announced that eminent French conductor Pierre Monteux would lead an American tour of the famed Ballets Russes.

Musical America, Vol. XXVI No. 9 (30 June 1917: 2; Vol. XXIV No 22 (30 September 1916): 25. 

Monteux had been serving on the French front lines for several years, seeing action at the battles of Verdun, Soissons and the Argonne.  During this period, to divert the attention of his fellow soldiers, Monteux also founded a small military band, depicted in the following remarkable photograph.

Monteux, pictured standing far left, with his small military band
Musical America, Vol. XXVII No. 5 (1 December 1917): 3.

With special permission to leave the front, Monteux and his wife set sail for America.

Musical America, Vol. XXIV No. 23 (7 October 1916): 40. 

Shortly after his arrival, Monteux faced a related but very different sort of conflict.  The title of this article and its concise content speaks for itself.


According to the report, Monteux refused to conduct the premiere ballet production of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel on the grounds that Richard Strauss, who was German, was in public support of his country’s war efforts against the French. What ensued in the following weeks was a hotly contested debate surrounding Monteux’s decision.

Of the related comments published in Musical America, perhaps most interesting are those written by the journal’s editors harshly criticizing the conductor.

Ibid., 20. 

Interestingly enough, “Mephisto’s Musings” strongly criticized in satire how Monteux’s position was perceived by this initially unidentified author, whom we now know to be the journal’s longtime editor-in-chief, John C. Freund.

Musical America, Vol. XXIV No. 26 (28 October 1916): 7. 

Of course, many wrote in support of Monteux’s decision not to conduct Strauss’s premiere.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, most were French musicians.  One was Carlos Salzedo, the influential harpist, who wrote a letter to the editors of Musical America, stating that Monteux was obligated by French law to refuse to conduct Strauss.

Musical America, Vol. XXIV No. 25 (21 October 1916): 26. 

Famed French violinist Jacques Thibaud, who also served in World War I, supported Monteux’s refusal, stating that his position was merely retribution for Strauss’s offensive comments about French musicians while conducting in Paris.

Musical America, Vol. XXIV No. 26 (28 October 1916): 2. 

Monteux in his military uniform
Musical America, Vol. XXVI No. 4 (26 May 1917): 3.

After several weeks of debate in the press, an article is published in which Richard Strauss pleads for tolerance of “enemy” music in Germany, though Monteux is not mentioned.

Musical America, Vol. XXV No. 2 (11 November 1916): 28. 

Monteux’s feelings about the performance of contemporary German music was mirrored to some degree when, in Chicago, Debussy’s “Christmas Carol for Homeless French Children” was removed from a program.

Musical America, Vol. XXV No. 4 (25 November 1916): 13. 

Finally, more than one year after the initial report of Monteux’s refusal to conduct Strauss’s work, Musical America published a full-page interview with the French conductor in December 1917, wherein Monteux is offered an opportunity to explain his decision in greater detail. The following is a short excerpt from the interview.

Musical America, Vol. XXVII No. 5 (1 December 1917): 3. 

Despite his controversial position, Monteux was well-received in the United States, as reflected in the following clipping, for his conducting and musical interpretations, and would go on to hold successful tenures at the Metropolitan Opera, Boston Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony.  He also founded the Pierre Monteux School for young conductors and orchestral musicians, which continues to function to this day.


RIPM search tip: When searching “Monteux” as a keyword, the name appears in the RIPM Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals in 185 citations. In RIPM’s European and North American Music Periodicals (Preservation Series), Monteux’s name appears on 2,406 pages!

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RIPM is an international non-profit organization preserving and providing access to music periodicals published in more than twenty countries between approximately 1760 and 1966, from Bach to Bernstein.  Functioning under the auspices of the International Musicological Society, and the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives, and Documentation Centres, RIPM produces four electronic publications: Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals, Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals with Full Text, RIPM European and North American Music Periodicals (Preservation Series), and RIPM Jazz Periodicals (Preservation Series, forthcoming).


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Posted October 17, 2018 by Ben Knysak in category "Curios and Chronicles