Manuel Rosenthal was arguably the most successful self-taught musician ever to make his way in the world of concert music -- as both a conductor and composer -- in the twentieth century, an extraordinary achievement in itself during an era in which creeping professionalism prohibited most "natural" talents from entry into any but the lowest levels of concert music life. What's more, his life overlapped pretty near perfectly with that century, its arrival, and its passing. And he managed to write more than a half-dozen film scores, as well as a piece of music that figured into numerous additional movies across and beyond his lifetime. He was born in 1904, the illegitimate son of a Russian immigrant woman and a wealthy Frenchman whose name he never knew (Rosenthal came from his stepfather). He grew up in dire poverty in Paris, though his main interest was literature, he loved music sufficiently so that he was able to teach himself the violin. And when his stepfather passed away in 1918, the 14 year old proved good enough on the instrument to support his mother and sister, getting work in cafés and in the small groups accompanying silent films. He enrolled in the Paris Conservatory at age 16, seeking to formalize his understanding of music, but he was so far along that he was already manifesting serious talent as a composer. A year later, a sonatina he submitted as part of an academic requirement not only passed muster with a committee that included Stravinsky, Bartók, Ravel, and Prokofiev, but received a public performance not even two months later. In 1926, he became only the third student ever taken on by Maurice Ravel, and it was through Ravel's successful efforts two years later, in securing a concert performance of one of his works, that Rosenthal also made his debut as a conductor. Having never studied conducting, or -- by his own admission -- not knowing how a traditional orchestra was physically arranged, he assumed the podium and led the performance completely on instinct. Thus, he added conducting to his list of self-taught skills, but was impressive enough in that engagement to get subsequent invitations. In 1934, he was hired in an assistant conductor capacity, which, in its first year, had him working with Arturo Toscanini on one of the latter's visits to Paris.
Rosenthal's conducting career advanced across the 1930s, leading to his being selected as head of a major radio orchestra, when he became one of the nation's leading exponents of modern music. He continued to compose during this time, primarily for the theater and occasionally for film as well, in addition to writing the score for Henri Storck's 1931 short film Idylle à la plage, he scored his first full-length feature, Alexander Esway's Hercule, starring Fernandel, in 1937. He subsequently did two more features, Esway's Educating the Prince (1938) and Christian-Jacques' Raphael Le Tatoué (1938), both starring Fernandel. His breakthrough as a composer came about when, in 1938, he inherited a commission that was supposed to go to Roger Desormiere, then one of the leading conductors in France, to orchestrate some of Offenbach's music into a full-length ballet for choreographer Léonide Massine. The latter initially rejected Rosenthal's work and an impass resulted, which was broken when Stravinsky was called in to mediate and ended up praising the work. The resulting ballet, the Gaîté Parisienne, became a huge hit, and Rosenthal's score went on not only to become one of the most popular ballets of the twentieth century, but also the vehicle by which millions of listeners around the world came to be introduced to Offenbach's music. It has since turned up in numerous films, including sections of the scoring of Baz Luhmann's extravaganza Moulin Rouge (2001).
Rosenthal's career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War, and he spent two years as a prisoner of war of the Germans. He resumed his career after the war and scored two more movies, They Are Not Angels (1947) and Life Begins Again (1949). He was mostly known as a concert conductor, and made very few recordings, primarily because he objected to the time restrictions involved in recording; he resented the notion that technological considerations should alter the tempo or length of a piece of music, simply so that it could be made to fit onto a side of an LP. His extraordinary longevity, however, resulted in his continuing to conduct and record into the 1990s, and he enjoyed a decade or more as an elder statesman of French music, and the last living link with the music of the 1920s.