According to family lore, Franz-Paul Decker’s musical acumen emerged when, around the age of nine or 10, he composed a small opera dedicated to a pigeon that had died in his backyard.
This was in the 1930s in Cologne, Germany, and in the ensuing decades, the earnest boy would learn the musical trade in the pits of local opera houses of Rhineland, growing into a renowned conductor of late Romantic music.
A former music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra who also had significant conducting stints in Calgary, Winnipeg and Ottawa, Mr. Decker died Monday.
Mr. Decker, who lived in Cologne, was visiting relatives in Montreal for Easter and suffered from what his family described as a short illness. He was 90.
Mr. Decker had remained an active conductor well into his 80s. As recently as two years ago, he was booked with the MSO for a performance of Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie but had to cancel for health reasons.
Before Charles Dutoit recast the MSO as an orchestra specializing in modern French and Russian music, Mr. Decker and his predecessor, Zubin Mehta, had steeped the Montreal orchestra in the Austro-German Romantic repertoire.
Mr. Decker was known for the way he elicited rich strings sounds in the sprawling orchestral works of Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss.
He was an old-school conductor who shunned the spotlight. “He was very gregarious and he had a very public life but he loved being at home. His passion through his life was music,” his daughter Arabella Decker said in an interview.
Strauss was his favourite composer. He had studied conducting under Eugen Papst, a friend of Strauss, and recalled meeting the composer over a card game in 1948.
Mr. Decker even named his two daughters, Arabella and Ariadne, after his favourite Strauss operas.
“He was one of the last kapellmeisters,” said music writer Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer. “These people knew what they were conducting, they slowly built their knowledge of the music, night after night, in small opera houses.”
Mr. Decker looked the part of a German maestro, with his long silver mane, the determined way he strode to the podium and his graceful baton technique, said Eric Friesen, programming director of Classic 107 radio station in Winnipeg.
However, though Mr. Decker was raised in the Central European musical tradition, he also had a deft way with Spanish music, said Mr. Friesen, who recalled watching the maestro at a rehearsal of the Edmonton Symphony, coaxing the musicians through an orchestral version of Albeniz’s Suite Espanola.
“He worked them really hard,” Mr. Friesen said. Then, after a beautiful performance, Mr. Decker gave an interview with Mr. Friesen for CBC where he joked about conducting Iberic music despite being a German who liked things to be orderly.
Mr. Decker had a lighter, roguish side to him, eating and joking with musicians when he was not busy directing them, Mr. Friesen said.
He was born in Cologne on June 22, 1923. His mother encouraged him to study music after noticing his talent at the piano.
He was only 22 when he made his conducting debut with the Cologne Opera.
A documentary by Radio New Zealand, where Mr. Decker regularly conducted, noted that his youth meant that he was not tainted by any association with the Nazi regime.
This enabled him during the post-war years to climb quickly through the ranks, refining his craft at provincial orchestras in Wiesbaden and Bochum before his first major international appointment, as music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic in 1962.
He became music director of the Montreal Symphony in 1967, during a heady time when the city was shedding its provincial status and, as host of Expo 67, was casting itself as an international centre.
He took the MSO on tour to Japan and premiered several works by Canadian composers such as R. Murray Schafer, Jacques Hétu and Clermont Pépin.
And he offered a steady dose of German and Austrian music.
“Franz-Paul Decker is obviously a man born to conduct Bruckner. For him the music holds no terrors. The long stretches of constant thematic iteration become in his hands a logical and inexorable development of simple, straight-forward ideas,” music critic Jacob Siskind wrote in a 1968 review of an MSO concert performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony.
That same year, Mr. Decker married Christa, a German-born Air Canada employee, in a private ceremony in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
They lived in a Montreal apartment with no TV or record player. “Television is the most terrible invention of the century,” he told an interviewer.
His old-fashioned ways also came up in his sometimes politically incorrect views. He was criticized for opining once that he didn’t like the idea of women conducting.
Mr. Friesen said Mr. Decker’s blunt-talking ways and his distaste for managerial duties could explain why he didn’t hold musical directorships for very long.
Even after his departure from Montreal in 1975, Mr. Decker remained in cordial terms with the MSO and returned for guest appearances.
One famous MSO performance was a 1978 Christmas concert with Luciano Pavarotti that was videotaped at Notre-Dame Basilica and frequently rebroadcast.
He was music director from 1986 to 1992 of the Orquestra Simfonica de Barcelona and was principal guest conductor from 1991 to 1999 at the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa.
Thereafter his career focused on guest conducting with occasions when he was called in as an adviser or special conductor, to help maintain standards at orchestras that were temporarily bereft of a music director.
Mr. Decker leaves behind his wife, his daughters and five granddaughters, “all of whom can play instruments,” Arabella Decker noted.