The French cellist, conductor and teacher, Maurice Gendron, was born to a poor family, and his mother helped support them by playing cello in a local silent movie house. She would take him to the theater, where he had his first exposure to musical performance. He learned to read music when he was 3, was given a violin at 4, and took an instant dislike to it, but at 5 he was given a quarter-sized cello and it immediately appealed to him. His first teacher was Stéphane Odero in Cannes, who recognized that the boy had a notable talent and took him to the great cellist Emanuel Feuermann when Maurice was 10. The first time that he heard Fueremann concertise, he was so incredibly moved by the experience that he wept. He always remembered Feuermann's encouragement and kindness and held him as his idol. His teacher referred him for more study with Jean Mangot of the Nice Conservatoire when he was 11. Gendron was formally admitted to that Conservatoire at age 12 and he graduated from it at age 14 with prémier prix (1935). As yet, he did not even own a cello. A well-wisher bought him a cello and a train ticket so he could go to Paris, where he had been admitted to the Conservatoire to study with the great Gérard Hekking. Gendron had very little money, lived in an unheated room, sell newspapers to make a living and consequently his health suffered. Later he found mentors in conducting in Désormiere, Hermann Scherchen and Willem Mengelberg.
On the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Maurice Gendron was exempted from military service due to his malnourishment. In 1940, the Germans overran the country. Despite his earlier classification as unfit for duty, Gendron became an active member of the Resistance. He refused direct orders from the Nazis to go to Germany to play, which almost got him arrested and shipped out anyway. During the war, he met many of the leading artists of France, including writer Jean Cocteau, pianist Jean Neveu and his violinist brother Ginette, Picasso, and composers Jean Françaix and Francis Poulenc. He formed a cello-piano duo with Françaix that lasted for 25 years. Another close friend was legendary Rumanian pianist Dinu Lipatti. They gave memorable performances, but Dinu Lipatti's worsening leukemia and early death made preserving these on recordings impossible.
Immediately after the war, the British vocal-piano team of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten made important concert tours through ravaged Europe. The famous art historian Kenneth Clarke introduced Benjamin Britten to Maurice Gendron. Through Benjamin Britten, Gendron received an invitation to play in London, where he performed the Western premiere of Prokofiev's Cello Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Walter Susskind, and was subsequently given exclusive rights to the piece's performance for 3 years.. His solo debut at Wigmore Hall on December 2, 1945, was with Benjamin Britten as his partner in sonatas by Gabriel Fauré and Debussy. On the same program were composer/pianist Francis Poulenc and his new partner, the young baritone Pierre Bernac, also making London debuts. He played with many other musical stars of his time, including Rudolf Serkin. For 25 years, he was a member of a celebrated piano trio with Yehudi Menuhin and Hephzibah Menuhin.
Maurice Gendron's idol Feuermann died in New York during the war. Gendron traveled there for a memorial concert, which was also his American debut. During the postwar years, Gendron traveled to Prades, where the great cellist Pablo Casals had just made his residence, and played a J.S. Bach's solo cello suite for the master. Pablo Casals congratulated him on not copying his own interpretation and they formed a strong professional friendship. Later, when Gendron was asked by Philips Records to record the Boccherini's Concerto in B flat and the Haydn's D major Concerto, Gendron agreed and suggested Pablo Casals as conductor. The company received a surprise when Pablo Casals readily agreed, the only instance where the master conducted another cellist in a solo performance. The disc has been widely acclaimed by critics and it is considered a classic. It is notable for the performers' devotion to historical authenticity, for they had consulted the original manuscripts housed in the Dresden State Library in preparing it. He was the first modern cellist to record Boccherini's Concerto in B flat in its original form, instead of the Grützmacher version.
Maurice Gendron was also active as a conductor in France, and later was conductor with the
Bournemouth Sinfonietta (1971-1973).
Maurice Gendron made many recordings during his career, He recorded most of the standard concerto repertoire with conductors such as Bernard Haitink, Raymond Leppard, and Pablo Casals, and with orchestras such as the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, and London Philharmonic Orchestra. He also recorded the sonata repertoire with pianists such as Philippe Entremont and Jean Françaix. He also made a famous recording (earned an Edison Award), of J.S. Bach's Solo Cello Suites (BWV 1007-1012). Apart from several other currently available recordings, in 2015 Decca launched a 14-CD box-set titled "LíArt de Maurice Gendron", which comprises all of his recordings for Decca and Philips in addition to some of his most relevant work for EMI.
Maurice Gendron had an extensive teaching career. He served as Professor at the Saarbrücken Hochschile für Musik (1953-1970), and then at the Paris Conservatoire (1970-1987). He has also taught at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and the Yehudi Menuhin School (YMS) in Surrey, England. His students include Colin Carr, Chu Yibing, acqueline du Pré, Charles Medlam and Guido Schiefen, among many others. In 2013, allegations emerged, from one pupil, claiming that Gendron was abusive towards young students during his time as a teacher at the Yehudi Menuhin School in the 1960's and 1970's. Dr. Richard Hillier, the headmaster at YMS, has declared that he is aware of this person's allegations but that according to school documents, no concerns were raised about Gendron's behaviour. Other students of Gendron have simply described him as a very strict, even problematic teacher, but, ultimately, an influential one.
Maurice Gendron is widely considered one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century. The qualities of his playing most mentioned by critics are outstanding technique and expressive tone, with impeccable phrasing and remarkable transparency, especially in French music. He was known not only as an outstanding soloist but as a fine ensemble player, ever alert to all the nuances of his partners. The 18th-century Stradivarius that he played, which has become known as the ex-Gendron cello, was subsequently on loan to German cellist Maria Kliegel. His approach to celloplaying is summed up in his book L'Art du Violoncelle which was written in collaboration with Walter Grimmer and published in 1999 by Schott.
Maurice Gendron was an Officer of the Legion of Honor and a recipient of the National Order of Merit. He is the father of the actor François-Éric Gendron.