Georges Prêtre's reputation as one of the twentieth century's greatest conductors extends beyond the borders of his own country: he is one of the most renowned French conductors in the world. He was the favourite conductor of both Francis Poulenc and Maria Callas. In the course of a long and full career, he conducted or recorded with virtually all of the leading performers and the most prestigious symphony and opera orchestras.
Georges Prêtre studied piano at the Douai conservatory before entering the Paris conservatory in 1944. He won a first prize in trumpet, studied harmony with Maurice Duruflé and developed a keen interest in conducting. Conductor André Cluytens and composer Olivier Messiaen were among the musical influences who shaped his career. Georges Prêtre began his career as a conductor in 1946 at the Opéra de Marseille. He subsequently worked as a conductor in Lille and then at the Capitole de Toulouse. In Paris, he started out at the Opéra-Comique, where he premiered La Voix humaine by Francis Poulenc. A few years later, he conducted the first French performance of Richard Strauss's Capriccio with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. He also conducted at the Opéra Garnier and simultaneously began an international career that would eventually lead him away from France. From that time on, he only seldom had the opportunity to conduct in France. However he worked with world-renowned performers and orchestras, and was celebrated throughout the musical world till the end of his life.
His international career began with an appointment as associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. He subsequently conducted in Chicago, San Francisco and New York, London, La Scala in Milan and in Vienna, where in 1962 he became one of Herbert von Karajan's assistants at the Staatsoper: a meeting of two very strong-minded personalities that left vivid memories in musical circles. It was also in Vienna that Georges Prêtre found his home base: he was at the head of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for 50 years and was the first French conductor to conduct its prestigious New Year's Concert, in 2008 and 2010. In 1986, he was also appointed principal guest conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
Georges Prêtre forged particularly strong ties with two musicians. One was the composer Francis Poulenc: Prêtre was his conductor of choice and made recordings of virtually his entire body of work. The other was the opera singer Maria Callas, with whom he made memorable recordings and who he conducted during her final appearances in Paris and London.
Six landmark dates in the life of Georges Prêtre:
- 1946: debuted his conducting career at the Opéra de Marseille
- 1962: became associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London
- 13 July 1989: conducted the inaugural evening at the Opéra Bastille
- 2005: Georges Prêtre was made an honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien (Society of Friends of Music in Vienna), as were Hector Berlioz and Camille Saint-Saëns before him.
- 2008 and 2010: first French conductor to lead the Vienna Philharmonic for the prestigious New Year's Concert
- 1986: Principal guest conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (up until 1991), then lifetime honorary conductor
Six key recordings by Georges Prêtre:
- Francis Poulenc: La Voix Humaine, Denise Duval, Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique, RCA Victor, Soria Series
- Great Arias From French Operas, Maria Callas, Orchestre National De La RTF, EMI
- Giaccomo Puccini: Tosca , Maria Callas, The Complete Studio Recordings 1949-1969, EMI Classic
- Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA
- Francis Poulenc: Stabat Mater, Barbara Hendricks, Chœur de Radio France, Orchestre National De France, EMI
- Neujahrskonzert 2008, Wiener Philharmoniker, DECCA