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Paul Tortelier (1914-1990)


Paul Tortelier's mother decided that if she had a son, he would become a cellist.  He started to learn the cello when he was six years old and his mother made sure that he practised for at least two hours every day.

Paul Tortelier himself much preferred playing sport or board games to playing the cello and if his mother went out when he was meant to be practising, he would dart out and play football or whizz along on his scooter between the pedestrians on the streets of Paris where they lived.

When he was 11, his mother decided that he would no longer go to school so that he could study cello and solfge all day long. He had a private tutor for French, Maths and English.

When Tortelier was a young teenager, he had to help earn some money for the family by playing the cello to accompany silent films. (When the cinema was first invented, films didn't have any sound. So a small band of musicians used to accompany the films, playing exciting music in the exciting bits and so on.)

Tortelier was supposed to play the music that was on the stand in front of him but gradually he became clever enough to improvise something in the key of the piece that was being performed without playing exactly what was written and that way he was able to watch the film. But one night he suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder. It was the director of the theatre who said sternly, "You are here to play, not to look!!" Even after that, it was hard for him to resist peeking at the screen.

Usually Tortelier had to play in the evenings but, one day, the person who played in the afternoon was ill, so Tortelier had to play for all the films showing from 2pm to midnight. By the end of the day, he was so tired that, in order to carry on playing, he had to rest his bowing arm on his knee and move his knee instead of his arm in order to push the bow across the strings!

Paul Tortelier became a very famous cellist, giving concerts all over the world. In 1955, he took his family to live on a kibbutz in Israel, even though he wasn't Jewish. A kibbutz is a very special sort of place that exists only in Israel. On a kibbutz everyone is equal and no-one is more important than anyone else. As Tortelier himself said, "The man who collected rubbish was on equal status with a professor of science. Everyone wore the same clothes, ate the same food and was treated equally." On the kibbutz everyone helped to farm the land and Tortelier found that his big hands were an advantage not only when playing the cello but also for picking grapefruit!