The French cellist, conductor and composer, Paul Tortelier, was 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 at 12 he entered the Paris Conservatoire. 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 Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto, and then he studied harmony under Jean Gallon.
Paul Tortelier's debut was with the Orchestre Lamoureux in 1931 at the age of 17. He performed Lalo's Cello Concerto. In 1935 Tortelier joined the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo 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 Koussevitzky, 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 Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, Paris, 1946-1947. In 1947 he gave his British debut under Beecham, again performing Don Quixote at the Festival of Richard Strauss in London. "My boy" Thomas 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 Pablo 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 National Supérieur de la Musique, Paris (1956-1969); Folkwang Hochschule in Essen (1969-1975); and the Conservatoire National de Region, Nice (1978-1980). 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 L.v. Beethoven and W.A. Mozart - music the public more likely wanted to hear. 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 1970's 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.
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 J.S. Bach's Cello Suites was published by Galliard in 1966.
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.
Paul 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). 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 son, Yan Pascal Tortelier, is an internationally known conductor, and his daughter Maria de la Pau is a pianist. He died at the age of 76 in Villarceaux Yvelines, near Paris.
Major recordings include the J.S. Bach's Cello Suites in 1960 (Paris), 1982 (London) and 1990 (Saint-Michel de Cuxa), E. Elgar's Cello Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Adrian Boult conducting in 1972, and Straussís Don Quixote with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Beecham conducting in 1947-1948 and the Dresden Staatskapelle, Rudolf Kempe conducting in 1973 (all for EMI for whom he was under exclusive contract).