Peter Hedrick

In the United States, until the period between the world wars, most instrumental talent had to be imported from Europe. The most important import by far for oboists was Marcel Tabuteau, who arrived in this country early in the present century, newly graduated from the Conservatoire Nationale de Musique in Paris. Tabuteau has been considered the founder of the American school of oboe playing, his influence being all the stronger because of his own tremendous mastery of the instrument, probably the greatest of the century.

He brought with him all the traditions of French oboe playing at the height of its development. Georges Gillet, his teacher at the Conservatoire, was the most celebrated oboist in France around the turn of the century, and was known for his delicate, singing tone, sometimes called “almost fluty.” François Loree had succeeded Triebert as the principal maker of oboes, and much of this was due to Gillet’s promoting of the model which became known as the conservatoire system. The plateau version of this grew out of a collaboration between Gillet and Loree, and it first appeared in 1906, the year following Tabuteau’s graduation from the conservatoire. These Loree oboes, like the more recent ones, possess the full, singing quality which has made them famous.

During Tabuteau’s career with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which began ten years “after he left Paris, the French influence upon him underwent a ferment of great importance. The tendency of the woodwinds to blend more with one another (as opposed to the previous stressing of their individual qualities) was encouraged there. Most of the modifications and refinements in oboes used by American players have been made with this in mind. The most significant evolution, however, took place in reed making. The scrape was lengthened to stress the fundamental of the tone more and the upper partials less, and commensurate changes in the gouge (the cut on the inside of the reed) facilitated this even further. By the time the Curtis Institute was graduating Tabuteau’s students, the evolution had taken place.

Many aspects of Tabuteau’s teaching were purely psychological. He was keenly aware of this. He said, for example “if you can play for me, you can play for anybody.” He also wrote: Each student must be treated as an individual problem. How often have I had the experience, in teaching a class of three or four, of correcting one student with a certain observation, and finding myself called upon to say the exact opposite to the next one. A good musician always develops his own studies and improves his own technique through observing his special weaknesses and musical needs. There is no patented process to produce good oboists.

The student should learn how to make his own reeds, for they play an important part in tone production. He should also make himself completely at home with the technique of the English horn. Although in American orchestras there has been a tendency to specialization on this instrument, it has been the custom in European orchestras for the first oboist to double on the English horn and to play the important solos in the repertoire.

The sooner the student begins to play in chamber music groups and training orchestras the better, but he must be thoroughly ready. Here we come upon a point of enormous significance in the orchestral player’s career. If he begins playing in ensembles before he is technicality prepared, he will be under constant strain and will force his way through the music in a haphazard way which will cause severe psychological damage. I know from my own experience that one can be haunted throughout one’s career by passages which tripped one up in one’s youth, even though they are child’s play at a later stage of development. A feeling of security must be built up while one is beginning.

He felt strongly that the player should know the entire score:

The greatest problem for an orchestral player is not to perform his own part, but to adjust himself to the others. He must know the score and sense his own position in the music as a whole. This knowledge does not spring, as some naive observers seem to think, only from the “magical baton” of the conductor, but from years of hard work and a sensitive artistic conscience on the part of the orchestral musician. The solo which seems to be beckoned forth by an easy gesture, may have cost the player months of intense practice. The flawless ensemble which seems almost a matter of course means that every man in the orchestra has been painstakingly trained from his school years to respond to the maestro’s wishes.

The ultimate expression of his emphasis on these fundamental techniques to make possible “a beautiful tone emission” was articulated exquisitely by Tabuteau himself. His image was of an artist’s pencil tracing a perfect and elegant arc on a pure canvas of silence: I always tell my students that if they think beautifully they will play beautifully. For it is what you have to say in music which determines the quality of your performance. The instrument is like the artist’s pencil merely a means of expression and not an end in itself. In a sense, the oboe is the most abstract of orchestral instruments. Its finger technique offers no special problems so that the emphasis falls all the more heavily upon the expressive side of the performance. The production of a single tone involves the subtlest sense of proportion.

To illustrate this, one might make a diagram symbolizing the course of one tone, in the form of an arc. Out of silence, the most perfect state of music in which everything is implicit, the tone begins. It grows in intensity, the vibrations of the reed increase, until it reaches its highest point. Then it recedes according to the same scale of intensity until it dies away in silence. If it is perfectly produced by the player, the listener will sense its symmetry even though he may not be conscious of how the effect has been produced.

To the listener, this was the exact effect his playing had. standards of control, especially in pianissimo, which would be demanded in the class to follow.