Maurice Gendron's family was poor 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 three, was given a violin at four, and took an instant dislike to it, but at five he was given a quarter-sized cello and it immediately appealed to him.
His first teacher was Stephane Odero, who recognized that the boy had a notable talent and took him to the great cellist Emanuel Feuermann when Maurice was ten. 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 a first prize.
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 to live in an unheated room and sell newspapers to make a living.
When war began in 1939, 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 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 Britten to Gendron. Through Britten, Gendron received an invitation to play in London, where he performed the Western premiere of Prokofiev's cello concerto. His solo debut at Wigmore Hall on December 2, 1945, was with Britten as his partner in sonatas by 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.
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 Bach solo cello suite for the master. 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 Concerto in B flat and the Haydn D major, Gendron agreed and suggested Casals as conductor. The company received a surprise when Casals readily agreed, the only instance where the master conducted another cellist in a solo performance. The disc remains a classic recording and 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.
Gendron had an extensive teaching career, having been appointed to the Paris Conservatoire in 1970. He has also taught at the Mozarteum in Salzburg; the Menuhin School in Surrey, England; and in Saarbrücken. He was known not only as an outstanding soloist but as a fine ensemble player, ever alert to all the nuances of his partners. His instrument is a fine Stradivari. His recordings include much of the standard repertoire and some twentieth century French music. 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.