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Ansermet was born in Vevey, Switzerland. Originally he was a mathematics professor, teaching at the University of Lausanne. He began conducting at the Casino in Montreux in 1912, and from 1915 to 1923 was the conductor for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Travelling in France for this, he met both Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and consulted them on the performance of their works. During World War I, he met Igor Stravinsky, who was exiled in Switzerland and from this meeting began the conductor's lifelong association with Russian music.
In 1918 Ansermet founded his own orchestra, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (OSR). He toured widely in Europe and America and became famous for accurate performances of difficult modern music, making first recordings of works such as Stravinsky's Capriccio with the composer as soloist. Ansermet was one of the first in the field of classical music to take jazz seriously, and in 1919 he wrote an article praising Sidney Bechet.
After World War II, Ansermet and his orchestra rose to international prominence through a long-term contract with Decca Records. From that time until his death, he recorded most of his repertoire, often two or three times. His interpretations were widely regarded as admirably clear and authoritative, though the orchestral playing did not always reach the highest international standards, and they differed notably from those of other famous 20th-century specialists, notably Pierre Monteux and Stravinsky himself. Ansermet disapproved of Stravinsky's practice of revising his works, and always played the original versions. Although famous for performing much modern music by other composers such as Arthur Honegger and Frank Martin, he avoided altogether the music of Arnold Schoenberg and his associates, even criticizing Stravinsky when he began to use twelve-tone techniques in his compositions. In Ansermet's book, Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine (1961), he sought to prove, using Husserlian phenomenology and partly his own mathematical studies, that Schoenberg's idiom was false and irrational. He labeled it a "Jewish idea" and went on to say that "the Jew is a me who speaks as though he were an I," that the Jew "suffers from thoughts doubly misformed", thus making him "suitable for the handling of money", and sums up with the statement that "historic creation of Western music" would have developed just as well "without the Jew". Ansermet's reputation suffered after the war because of his collaboration with the Nazis and he was boycotted in the new state of Israel.
In May 1954 Decca recorded Ansermet and the orchestra in Europe's first commercial stereophonic recordings. They went on to record the first stereo performance of the complete The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky on LP (Artur Rodziński had already recorded a stereo performance on magnetic tape, but this had been released on LP only in mono). Ansermet also conducted early stereo recordings of Debussy's Nocturnes and the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Part of his recording of The Rite of Spring, augmented by a rehearsal recording unobtainable elsewhere, was used by Decca on the company's 1957 stereo demonstration LP, A Journey into Stereo Sound. The conductor's clear and methodical counting of beats is a distinct feature of this rehearsal sequence. In his last years he and his ensemble recorded works by Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms.
His last recording, of Stravinsky's The Firebird, was made in London with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1968, which included a recording of the rehearsal sessions issued as a memorial to him. Another late recording for Decca, also issued as a memorial album, was with L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and was devoted to Albéric Magnard's Symphony No. 3 and Édouard Lalo's Scherzo for Orchestra.
Ansermet composed some piano pieces and compositions for orchestra, among them a symphonic poem entitled Feuilles de Printemps (Leaves of Spring). He also orchestrated Debussy's Six épigraphes antiques in 1939.
- Stravinsky, Histoire du soldat, Lausanne, 28 September 1918
- Stravinsky, Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, composer as soloist, 6 December 1929
- Stravinsky, Mass, 27 October 1948
- Manuel de Falla, The Three-Cornered Hat, Ballets Russes, Paris, 1919, a ballet for which Léonide Massine created the choreography and Pablo Picasso designed the sets and costumes. (Ansermet later recorded this in stereo.)
- Stravinsky, Pulcinella, Ballets Russes, Paris, 15 May 1920
- Prokofiev, Chout, Ballets Russes, Paris, 1921
- Stravinsky, Renard, Ballets Russes, Paris, 18 May 1922
- Stravinsky, Les noces, Ballets Russes, Paris, 13 June 1923
- Benjamin Britten, The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne, 12 July 1946
- Stravinsky, Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, composer as soloist, May 1930
- Ansermet, Ernest. 1961. Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine. 2 v. Neuchâtel: La Baconnière. New edition, edited by J.-Claude Piguet, Rose-Marie Faller-Fauconnet, et al. Neuchâtel: La Baconnière, 1987. ISBN 2-8252-0211-8
- Ansermet, Ernest. 1973. "L'apport de Paul Hindemith à la musique du XXe siècle." In Hommage à Paul Hindemith: 1895–1963 : l'homme et l'œuvre. Yverdon: Éditions de la Revue musicale de suisse romande.
- Ansermet, Ernest. 1983. Ecrits sur la musique. Edited by Jean-Claude Piguet. New rev. ed. Neuchâtel: La Baconnière. ISBN 2-8252-0207-X
- Piguet, Jean-Claude (ed.) 1976. Ernest Ansermet, Frank Martin: Correspondance, 1934–1968. Edited by Jean-Claude Piguet, with notes by Jacques Burdet. Neuchâtel: La Baconnière.
- Tappolet, Claude (ed.). 2006. Ernest Ansermet, correspondances avec des compositeurs américains (1926–1966): d'Aaron Copland à Virgil Thomson, les grands maîtres du nouveau monde. Geneva: Georg.
- Tappolet, Claude (ed.). 1999. Ernest Ansermet: Correspondances avec des chefs d'orchestre célèbres (1913–1969): précédées d'un Souvenir d'Arturo Toscanini par Ernest Ansermet (1967). Geneva: Georg. ISBN 2-8257-0662-0
- Tappolet, Claude (ed.). 1998. Correspondance E. Ansermet - J.-Claude Piguet (1948–1969). Preface by Philippe Dinkel, postface by Jean-Jacques Langendorf. Geneva: Georg Editeur.
- Tappolet, Claude (ed.). 1990–91. Correspondance Ansermet-Strawinsky (1914–1967). Geneva, Switzerland: Georg.
- Tappolet, Claude (ed.). 1989a. Correspondance Ansermet-Ramuz, 1906–1941. Preface by Maurice Zermatten. Geneva: Georg; Paris: Eshel. ISBN 2-8257-0183-1
- Tappolet, Claude (ed.). 1989b. Lettres de compositeurs suisses à Ernest Ansermet, 1906–1963 Avant-propos by Conrad Beck; postface by Julien-François Zbinden. Geneva: Georg. ISBN 2-8257-0169-6
- Tappolet, Claude (ed.). 1983. Correspondance Ernest Ansermet, R.-Aloys Mooser: 1915–1969. Précédée d'un Voyage à Munich (1924) et suivie d'un Hommage à Ernest Ansermet par R.-Aloys Mooser (1969). Preface by René Dovaz. Geneva: Georg. ISBN 2-8257-0092-4
- "Ansermet, Ernest" in The New Encyclopædia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 15th edn., 1992, Vol. 1, p. 435.
- Ernest Ansermet, 'Sur un orchestre nègre', La Revue Romande, 1 October 1919.
- Krausz, Michael (Summer 1984). "The Tonal and the Foundational: Ansermet on Stravinsky". The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Blackwell Publishing. 42 (4): 383–386. doi:10.2307/430211. JSTOR 430211.
- Andriessen, Louis, and Elmer Schönberger (2006). The Apollonian Clockwork: On Stravinsky. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. p. 192. ISBN 9053568565. Retrieved 14 January 2017.
- Sheffi, N'ama (2013). The Ring of Myths: The Israelis, Wagner and the Nazis. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press. p. 99. ISBN 9781845195748. Retrieved 14 January 2017.
- Allan Kozinn (June 2, 1985). "Exploring the Legacy of Ansermet". The New York Times. Retrieved Aug 19, 2017.
- "Ansermet Memorial Album: Magnard; Symphony # 3 / Lalo; Scherzo for Orchestra: Alberic Magnard, Edouard Lalo, Ernest Ansermet, Suisse Romande: Music". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2013-07-02.
- Astilla, Christopher "Between the Staves" - Adaptations of Debussy's Six épigraphes antiques and Creative Tasks of the Performer. (December 2007) University of North Texas
- "Died". Time magazine. February 28, 1969. Retrieved 2011-01-03.
Ernest Ansermet, 85, who founded l'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1918 and conducted it with precision and puissance for 49 years; of a heart attack; in Geneva. A daring innovator, Ansermet was acclaimed by critics for his imaginative forays into Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky. The Suisse Romande was always his first love, but he also helped found l'Orchestre Symphonique de Paris and occasionally shared the baton with Toscanini at the New York Philharmonic.
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