World famous composer and conductor, POW survivor, flouter of Nazi dictates, Légion d’honneur and style icon, Paul Paray was a man from le Tréport.
The defiant POW
There is an odd gap in Paul’s early career. But to briefly start from the beginning, Paul was born May 24, 1886 in Le Tréport Normandy, where his musical gift was quickly discovered.
After glowingly successful early years studying and playing music in Rouen and the Paris Conservatoire he produced a steady number of compositions, all rather of their time. Paul was a rising star and won the Prix de Rome in 1911 but then, after a flurry of activity in 1913, silence.
Until String Quartet in E minor, published in 1919.
The remarkable thing about this quartet is not that it is an unusually popular piece of music, it is not (recording at the end of this post). What sets this piece apart is that Paul Paray composed it as a prisoner of war in Darmstadt living in terrible conditions without access to musical instruments or paper.
Paul had been captured in Belgium after just a few weeks as soldier in 1914 and his years in captivity were severe. He refused to use his musical skills to entertain his captors, which would have eased his time in the camp, as he could not betray his country or his fellow soldiers. Weakened but undaunted he composed music in his mind and developed a remarkable memory. During this time he composed Piano Suite for the Soul and the String Quartet.
Returning to France at the end of the war Paul was finally free to write down his imagined compositions, reputedly without a single alteration. In 1919 for the first time Paul finally heard the String Quartet.
Paul has ‘an arm’
After the war a harsher, poorer world demanded that Paul look beyond composing for an income and he agreed to lead the Casino de Cauterets orchestra. It was a brilliant move as even without training Paul was quickly revealed to have ‘an arm’.
He swiftly became known as one of the great conductors, a true ‘leader of orchestra’s’ and soon moved on to the renown Monte Carlo opera and the orchestra of the Opéra de Paris before becoming President of the Colonne orchestra, the most prestigious of Parisian symphony orchestras.
War declared and a battle of his own
Paul was in New York in 1939 when war broke out. Turning down an offer of safe and employment with the NBC symphony orchestra, he returned to a troubled Paris.
By now in his 40’s there was no place for him on any battlefield, but he still had battles to fight. In 1940 the Germans occupied Paris.
It quickly became clear that collaboration meant prosperity but Paul Paray, a man of principles born in an elegant Normandy seaside town, would have none of it.
An unthinkable act
In protest at the appalling anti-Jewish polices of the occupiers he resigned his presidency of the Colonne.
His high profile in Paris made this a bold act dangerous lunacy but Paul had been asked by the Germans to do the unthinkable.
The Colonne orchestra was named after is creator Édouard Colonne. A Jew. Paul was ‘requested’ by the new government to rename the orchestra for himself; the Paray orchestra, to cleanse it of its Jewish past. There was more.
Would he just give them a list of all the Jewish musicians in Paris? No, Paul would not.
Exiled in his own country
Paul moved out of Paris to exile in the ‘free zones’ in the south of France; Marseilles then on to Monaco. Many of the musicians he recruited for these depleted orchestras were Jewish, forced out of their jobs and homes by the Gestapo.
In 1942 Paul also finally married his long term partner Yolande Falck, a beautiful girl from Alsace. A beautiful Jewish girl. In Petainist France this was a dangerous decision but Paul would not have politics dominate his heart.
New challenges, away from France
After the war Paul Paray’s reputation as a leader and builder of orchestras became international. This suited him well as he was for a while a little disenchanted with France were ‘collabo’ musicians continued to prosper in spite of their shabby war. He began to take up opportunities away from France, but he did return.
As a conductor Paul was described as a model of clarity and elegance. A description that also describes him rather well. With a dash of Norman stubbornness and passion he was a stylish figure leading musicians to unexpected heights of excellence.
Success and a hope
His stratospheric career is well documented as are his many well deserved honours which include: membership of the French Academy of Fine Arts, City Medal of Tel Avivi, Freeman of Detroit (he was resident conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for more than a decade and made it one of the best in the world), Freeman of Monaco and of Le Tréport, Grand Officer of the order of Grimaldi … the list goes on. In 1975 the government of France awarded him its highest honour, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur.
His brilliant career as a conductor rather overshadowed his first love, writing music and this did matter to him. Paul said “nothing can match the joy of creating” and hoped in the future his music would be recognised.
“Humanity is such that it is hard to accept that may exist two talents into a single being . I’m classified as conductor … My music, after my death, the future will tell what it may be worth , excluding any notion of fashion and time’ said Paul in a discussion with Jacques Chancel in 1978. There is perhaps a lull, but he is not forgotten.
A remarkable tribute
Paul continued to compose throughout his life. Notably in 1940 Second Symphony in A or Le Tréport. A thoughtful, romantic yet tumultuous piece composed after walks along the cliffs at Le Tréport a short time after the death of his father, Auguste. Feted around the world Paul never forgot his Norman roots.
A great man lives to a great age
Paul Paray continued to conduct and ‘build orchestras’ into his 90’s.
After a unique, generous life Paul died age 93 on 10 October 1979 in Monte Carlo, shortly after conducting a concert with his good friend Yehudi Menuhin. He is still missed.
Home, to Le Tréport
In accordance with his wishes he is buried at the communal cemetery of Le Tréport, Normandy. We think you will agree Paul Paray left the world a rather better place than when he joined it.