Pierre Monteux studied violin from an early age, entering the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 9. He became a proficient violinist, good enough to share the Conservatoire's violin prize in 1896 with Jacques Thibaud. In his spare time he also played at the Folies Bergères. He later took up the viola studying with Théophile Laforge and played in the Geloso Quartet which played one of Johannes Brahms's string quartets in a private performance for the composer and in the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, leading the viola section in the première of Debussy's opera, Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902.
In 1910, Pierre Monteux took a conducting post at the Dieppe casino. The next year, 1911, he became conductor of Sergei Diaghilev's ballet company, the Ballets Russes. In this capacity he conducted the premières of Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913) - with its famous riot – as well as Debussy's Jeux (1913) and Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé (1912). This established the course of his career, and for the rest of his life he was noted particularly for his interpretations of Russian and French music.
With the outbreak of World War I, Pierre Monteux was called up for military service, but was discharged in 1916, and travelled to the USA. There he took charge of the French repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City from 1917 to 1919. He also conducted the USA premières of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Golden Cockerel and Henri Rabaud's Mârouf, savetier du Caire at the Metropolitan Opera.
He then moved to the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1919-1924). He had a major effect on the Boston ensemble's sound, and was able to fashion the orchestra as he pleased after a strike led to thirty of its members leaving. He also introduced a number of new works in Boston, notably works by French composers. Monteux in 1924 conducted the orchestra in the New York première of The Rite of Spring, a performance which included a "galvanized" 15-year-old Elliott Carter in the audience, according to a 2008 report.
In 1924, Monteux also began an association with the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, serving as "first conductor" ("eerste dirigent") alongside Willem Mengelberg. In 1929, he was entrusted the direction of the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris, which he conducted until 1935.
Pierre Monteux then returned to the USA, and worked with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra from 1935 to 1952. He began recording with the orchestra for RCA Victor in 1941 and made numerous discs in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House for the next 11 years. In 1943 he founded The Pierre Monteux School for Conductors and Orchestra Musicians, which is in Hancock, Maine, where Monteux was then living; Hancock was the childhood home of his second wife, Doris Hodgkins Monteux. There he taught such future conductors as Anshel Brusilow, Lorin Maazel, Neville Marriner, André Previn, Werner Torkanowsky and David Zinman. In 1946, he became a USA citizen. He made a nostalgic return to San Francisco in 1960 to guest conduct the orchestra and to record Richard Wagner's Siegfried Idyll and Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration for RCA Victor, the only stereophonic recordings he made with his former orchestra.
In 1951, Pierre Monteux renewed his association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a regular guest conductor. He conducted it in Boston, at Tanglewood, and on a transcontinental tour and on two tours to Europe. Monteux also recorded with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for RCA Victor. He continued to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra until his death in 1964.
From 1961 to 1964 Pierre Monteux was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He was 86 when he was invited to take the post, and he famously accepted on condition that he had a 25-year contract, with a 25-year option of renewal. With the London Symphony Orchestra Monteux gave the 50th anniversary performance of The Rite of Spring, at the Royal Albert Hall, London, in the presence of the composer. In his last studio sessions, for Philips Records in 1964, Monteux recorded a disc with the London Symphony Orchestra and his son, the flautist Claude Monteux, the only gramophone recording Pierre and Claude made together.
Pierre Monteux observed, 'Our principal work is to keep the orchestra together and carry out the composer's instructions, not to be sartorial models, cause dowagers to swoon, or distract audiences by our "interpretation"'. He advised the young Previn that when orchestras are playing well the conductor should not interfere with them. 'His approach to all music is that of the master-craftsman,' according to an approving critic in 1957. The record producer John Culshaw described Monteux as 'that rarest of beings - a conductor who was loved by his orchestras' and said that 'to call him a legend would be to understate the case.' Arturo Toscanini observed that Monteux had the best baton technique he had ever seen.