John de Lancie (1921–2002) studied with Marcel Tabuteau at the Curtis Institute of Music from 1936 to 1940. He was then appointed principal oboist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In 1942, he enlisted and served in the US military during World War II, performing with the US Army Band. Following the war, he joined the Philadelphia Orchestra, and in 1954, succeeded Marcel Tabuteau as principal oboist. He became oboe instructor at the Curtis Institute of Music that same year and Director of Curtis in 1977, serving for eight years. He commissioned two works for oboe: the Benjamin Lees Oboe Concerto and ‘The Flower Clock’ by Jean Francaix.
NOTE: Minor variances may occur between the audio and written transcript due to later text editing by the interviewee.
Interview with John de Lancie at the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 30, 1977. Interviewed by Laurie Van Brunt
LVB: Could you describe the nature of your association with Tabuteau?
JD: Well, I first spent four years at the Curtis Institute as a student of his. When you say nature, you mean in that aspect?
LVB: Yes, just that and then we could get into it.
JD: And as anybody who knew him would know, no one was, at least none of his students were particularly close to him; everything was very much of a… at best an apprentice-type of an association, I mean there was very little dialogue, it was mostly monologue with somebody, as far he was concerned. We worshipped him so that we assumed that that was very normal. We ran errands for him and did work for him where ever we could. It was that type of a relationship. He seemed to have had a good feeling for me in that after I left the Institute I used to come back and he was always very pleasant to me, and he would have me up to his place for dinner. I think our relationship became a little deeper at the beginning of the War; after I was taken into the army, I suddenly found myself over in North Africa, and I met in Algiers an oboe player that he had gone to school with as a young boy, as a very young boy. And then subsequently, the war progressed, I went to England, and from England into France, and when I got to Paris I looked up his family or I should say his wife’s family. Then, you know, I became a little bit more involved in beginning to get to know something about him. I was overseas for a long period of time, during which I acquired the use of the French language, so that when I came back to this country, I was able to speak to him in French, which was another additional kind of something that brought me a little bit closer. Then, very shortly after my return at the end of the war, he got sick, and they needed someone to replace him for a couple of months on a tour that the Orchestra was planning at that time. They had auditions, and I was given that job. So, that was the beginning of my association with him as a colleague you might say, although our relationship wasn’t anything on a—, well, it was considerably warmer than it had been when I was a student, but it was always with him, it was a student-teacher relationship. Then after I went on tour with the Orchestra for two months, at the end of that time Mr. Ormandy asked me to join the Orchestra permanently. And so I stayed, which I did, and he remained in the orchestra for eight years during which time as it worked out he would play about half the season, and I would play the other half of the season. Naturally, when he played I also was there, but when I played, he wasn’t there. And during that that time I became very close to him in that I began to know everything about this life, his personal life and his family, and so on and so forth. We visited in France when I would go in the summer time. That was our relationship.
LVB: What was it like to play with him in the orchestra?
JD: Well, you know I never played with him. I mean, you know, when you are playing oboe, it isn’t as though two people are on a stand like in violins, but, well, it was a magnificent experience, because you sat there and listened to this, to the master play. I assisted him, and we got along very well, because I seemed to know what he wanted. He very seldom had to say much about what he wanted me to do or not to do. Oh, that isn’t to say that we didn’t have a few scenes, but over a period of eight years it would be pretty unusual if something didn’t happen. We had our few little battles, but, in general, it was a very, I’m sure he felt that it was a very satisfactory association, because I did what he wanted me to do. As long as you lived that way with him, he was easy to get along with; as long as you did everything the way he wanted it. [laugh] I think most people are that way.
JD – 2
LVB: How did he get his ideas across to the rest of the wind section?
JD: Are you talking about the rest of the wind section of the Philadelphia Orchestra? Well, that wasn’t nearly the same situation as getting the ideas across to students. First of all he had a powerful personality, which was so extraordinarily supported by his playing; I mean his playing was so outstanding, was so vastly superior to anything that anybody had ever heard before that it wasn’t difficult for him to get these ideas across. During the Stokowski years he was a favorite of Stokowski’s, and he undoubtedly utilized that position to impose a lot of his ideas on other people. I can only say that it was a situation where if you would view it from a standpoint of a politician, in the sense of being a favorite of the boss, he imposed his own feelings and ideas on those around him. But, there was something beyond that in that the ideas that he was imposing were so good that it wasn’t like a politician who was taking advantage of a situation just for his own personal benefit. Everybody benefitted from this. Now the only question involved in this is that he was a difficult man. Diplomacy was not his strong suit. And in doing these things, in telling people these things, there were an awful lot of bruised egos. The people that were intelligent enough to ignore that aspect of it learned a great deal. But, there were plenty of times that I personally witnessed when it was difficult to ignore the abrasive approach, so that he had a lot of enemies. There were a lot of people that just wouldn’t accept being talked to that way. Everybody wanted to imitate him, so that getting his ideas across was not difficult. People heard him play, and they thought, “Gee, I’d like to play like that.” So when he tried to tell people things, if there was any kind of communication at all, he was talking to a receptive audience. And I will say this, that in my experience, he was always interested in just improving the musical situation. You know on the back of that record [Tabuteau Lessons] there is a little statement by [Philadelphia Orchestra violinist – good friend of Tabuteau] Robert Gomberg, which is a very beautiful tribute and which sums up very accurately the situation as it existed. Now he’s talking about a period when he was in the Orchestra. Now I was a student during some of those days, and I remember distinctly, I didn’t begin to see it to the extent that he did, because Robert at least, Bob Gomberg, was there all the time. But I can remember when we as students would gather out at the stage door after a concert, and we would all stand around and hear all the comments about what had happened and this, that, and the other thing. He was kind of an oracle-type [laugh]. So that, I would say his success was quite unusual, it was quite high or whatever word you want to use, in getting some of his message across. The only problem with that was that as I noticed with so many people that I have come in contact with that record and one thing or another, it was one thing to have a conversation with the man or have the man talk about a particular thing, and it was another thing to be exposed in a very regular way over a long period of time. It’s just like, as he himself used to say, if you have a sick person in a room and fifty people walk through the room, maybe one or two of them might catch whatever that person has. Most of them will come through and go out and nothing will happen. Whereas if someone lives with the person, the opportunity of catching that is pretty darn strong, and that was the way it was. For those of us that –, all kinds of things that he would say which you didn’t understand maybe the day he said it, but after six months of being told the same thing you suddenly began to understand what he was talking about. So that there was also that aspect of it.
LVB: What was his relationship with [William] Kincaid?
JD: Well, his relationship with Kincaid was for the first, I would say, 15 or 18 years of Kincaid’s period in the Orchestra was a good relationship. There were personal things that got in the way towards the end of their career, well not the end, you might say the middle. Let me see, Tabuteau came in the Orchestra in 1915; Kincaid came into the Orchestra in ’21, and along around the late thirties,’39-’40, there was trouble that developed between Tabuteau and Kincaid. It was never of, to the best of my knowledge, it was not of a musical nature, but involved other personal things. And… it kind of spilled over a little bit into the music afterwards in that there wasn’t this cooperation that there had been. Let me see, say from ’40, Tabuteau retired in ’54 I believe, ’53 or ’54, I would say for the last 10 or 12 years, it was not what you would call a happy relationship. They always played beautifully together. Tabuteau dominated Kincaid musically. Kincaid was a formidable musician in his own right and a formidable player, an extraordinary player, but Tabuteau managed to dominate the scene.
LVB: I want to return a little bit to your studies with Tabuteau at Curtis. And I’m afraid I may sometimes cover things that you have already touched on. What kind of atmosphere did he generate in lessons?
JD: Well, lessons were generally a rather terrifying experience, because he was never very sympathetic to problems that we had. He utilized language that was devastating to us; I don’t mean – I’m not talking about off-color or anything like that, I mean the word “stupid” was employed dozens of times during a lesson. It was a very kind of a difficult atmosphere, some of us seemed to thrive by it, but some people couldn’t manage it at all. It was a do-or-die situation every lesson. There was rarely ever any feeling there was a sympathetic approach. If you came in with a bad reed or something like that, you rarely got any sympathy for the fact that you had a bad reed, at least during the period that I went to school. Now I do know that along around 1934 or 1935 he changed considerably in his attitude toward his students. It used to be prior to that time he used to help some of his students a great deal with reeds. There was something that took place in his life around that period that changed him in this approach. My experience during the years that I was at school was that, well in my own case, for instance, I spent four years here and on two occasions he picked up a reed and picked up a knife and did something to my reed, and the rest of the time why it was just sink or swim. We weren’t shown anything, and he didn’t do anything. He demanded that you do things, and he was relentless in that aspect. It was always obviously to our benefit, but at no time when we were trying to do something that our terrible reeds wouldn’t let us do, at no time was there ever any assistance offered. Now this isn’t true with all of his students. There was generally one student each year that would get some kind of help, but I wasn’t among that group.
LVB: Did he expect you just to learn from each other about reeds –?
JD: I don’t think he cared one way or another. His approach was that he was going to show us what we should do and how we should sound. Now he played for us a great deal, a great deal. And he just said that’s the way it should be, and anyway you manage it that’s your problem.
LVB: Do you think you learned as much by imitation as by understanding or was it equal?
JD: Well, I don’t know, that’s a very difficult question to answer, because I learned by imitation in that I knew what I wanted to sound like. My particular problem, now everybody has his or her particular problems, reeds were an almost insurmountable problem for me. I came to Curtis hardly ever having even made a reed. I didn’t have any idea about the mechanical aspects of the thing, and I wasn’t particularly gifted along those lines. I just about sank in my early days, because I just didn’t know how to cope with it. And I unfortunately could not associate properly how you should play or how the reed should be for how you should sound. I wasn’t able to figure out the two things. I had the impression that in order to get a big sound, I thought well that must mean that I had to exert an enormous amount of effort. Consequently I played on reeds that were like boards, and I had a terrible time doing it. I was never told to the contrary. So, to say by imitation, my only means of imitation was to know what I wanted to sound like; it wasn’t knowing really the aspects of how it should be done. I didn’t know or have any idea of how a reed should feel in my mouth, how it should react, how my embouchure should be or one thing or another, because at least with me he never talked to me about any of these things. With me everything was just strictly playing; he wanted it to sound this way or that way, and that was it.
LVB: Did you finally just work out your reed problems by hit and miss?
JD: Well, sure. Well, little by little, you know, assuming… Well, you have to understand that by “hit or miss” it was by hit or miss according to the way I approached the thing. Now you’re, how old are you?
JD: All right you’re twenty-nine, so you obviously never heard him play.
JD: Just on some records and like that. But now, I don’t know if you would tick off a lot of his students that have played a great deal. You’ve listened to a lot of their records, I’m sure?
JD: Marc Lifschey’s records, John Mack’s records, Harold Gomberg’s records, Ralph Gomberg’s, my records? Okay, now I’ve named five, right? Would you say there is a difference between…
LVB: Oh, yes.
JD: Okay, so you see, you’re like talking to the [laugh] disciples, it’s like the scriptures according to this one or according to that one. Everyone is going to give you a different idea. When you say how did I find out, what in effect happens is that each one of us had arrived at an accommodation that suited us, because I know for a fact, because obviously, eventually, I lived with the man. And I know how he played and so on and so forth, and I know that all of us played different reeds from the kind of reeds he played, you see we don’t all play the same kind of reeds. We all have a different kind of approach to it. So when you say to find it out, to find out how it’s done, there is no way.
LVB: No, I meant for yourself.
JD: For myself, well sure, I arrived at it by the hit or miss thing.
LVB: No, I didn’t think that came by the reeds, that you know, his…
JD: Well, sure I got to the stage where I could play on his reeds somewhat, and he obviously could play on my reeds. But, I think that it’s a question of how each one of us conceived of what we had heard. That’s what in essence art is all about, filtering a central idea through different brains, and each one of us had a different idea of what he was trying to say or what he was trying to represent.
LVB: I wanted to ask you whether this being so hard on students, whether that was calculated? Or was that just naturally part of his personality. Did he have some specific reason for—
JD: Well, yes. One of the reasons was because that’s the way his teacher was. Now I never met his teacher, but I met many people who were with the man, and I know something about the man. And he was evidently a dictatorial, very, very aggressive type of person. And Tabuteau worshipped him, and Tabuteau patterned his life around his teacher, in many ways, even his personal life. That’s primarily the reason.
LVB: So, [Georges] Gillet was quite influential on Tabuteau? In his musical ideas as well, do you think?
JD: That Gillet, you say?
LVB: You are talking about—
JD: Yes, I am talking about [Georges], yes. Well, Tabuteau himself said, made the statement to me that he never had an original musical idea of his own; everything he knew came from his teacher… Now I question that, just as much as I have to say everything that I learned came from my teacher. However, in the course of my life time I have evolved certain ideas that he didn’t give me, but granted that they probably wouldn’t have happened if he, as I go further back in the thing, if he hadn’t started me thinking about something, or given me an idea about this, that, or the other thing… Sure, naturally, the same with all of us; our ideas are what our teacher gave us, but then time goes on and you develop into new things. And as much as Tabuteau may have, I’ll put it his way, I never heard him say that until the very end of his life, …which could contribute to a feeling that he may have said that because he wanted to make sure this his pupils would react the same way. That interpretation could be given to that, because earlier on in his life he never talked or I don’t think I ever heard him mention his teacher’s name in all the years that I was at Curtis.
LVB: What about the influence of Stokowski? I know that we are jumping around, but as long as we are talking about influence.
JD: I cannot give you any truly authoritative statements about that situation. I would recommend that you speak to Robert Bloom about that, because there’s a man who was in the Orchestra during the really great, absolutely greatest years of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he sat there and he saw what was happening. I know in the very end of Stokowski’s period at the Orchestra there was something that happened between the two of them, and so that they parted company on very bad terms, which is very unfortunate. I subsequently became quite friendly with Stokowski and spent a number of visits with him, private visits I mean where I spent entire evenings with him, and I got to know him quite well. And a few times I tried to talk to him about it, and Stokowski didn’t have much to say. It wasn’t that he didn’t have much to say from a stand point that he just sort of acted that he didn’t have much to offer on the subject, but it was obvious that he didn’t want to discuss it. My impression would be that the two of them nurtured each other… to a great degree. And… I would venture to say that neither one of them would have been the men that they became without the two of them being together. That may seem to be a rather outlandish statement, but I can only say, I say it because of, we all,… the music world in general can appraise Stokowski’s influence, because everybody was touched by it, but the musical world in general would not know about Tabuteau’s influence, because they just didn’t have the reason to be aware of it. But I know that orchestral wind playing in America was absolutely revolutionized by this one man [Tabuteau]. I am old enough to know what the level of playing was back in the thirties when American symphony orchestras, when Stokowski had reached the peak of his career, and what other orchestras sounded like, and how other players, I’m not talking only about oboe players, but I’m talking about flute and clarinet, and bassoon and so on and how they sounded. And when Tabuteau came to the Curtis Institute of Music and started teaching, the general level of woodwind playing in the orchestras around America was pretty mediocre. It was dramatically uneven. You would have a situation where there might be one strong player and one weak player and so on throughout the section, and he was the man, and he alone, that began turning out pupils from the Curtis Institute of Music that went to all the major orchestras in America and that suddenly created a standard that was heretofore unknown. And it’s pretty obvious, you know, people didn’t hire these men just because they… for some abstract reason; it was very simple, they were superior players, and they hired them – flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French Horn, it was as simple as that. And they all came under his influence in the classes at the Curtis Institute.
LVB: What were those chamber music classes like?
JD: Well, they were again very inspirational, terrifying; it was sort of like being out in a field during an incredible lightning storm when you were overawed by everything that was going on around you, but at the same time wondering when lightning was going to hit you. As long as you sat there and were out of the—and heard him work on somebody else, why it wasn’t quite as bad, but it was a terrifying experience. But it was also inspirational in that we played under circumstances which rarely are equaled in orchestral playing. He insisted on things that most conductors not only didn’t insist on, but wouldn’t even know what to ask for if they had the opportunity. So that it was a wonderful experience, magnificent experience, unforgettable.
LVB: What kinds of things did he emphasize?
JD: Well, that’s a, it would take, you know, everything. He emphasized everything. First of all it was here in Philadelphia that the cult of sound was really born. That had not existed anywhere in America, now maybe it existed in Europe, but I doubt it, because a large majority of the players in America that were holding down positions back in the twenties and thirties in our orchestras were Europeans. But with Stokowski there developed a very definite cult, an obsession with just the beauty of sound. How it was used was open for a great deal of debate, and all of the critics of the day to a great degree owe that fact so that they had something to write about, because they were always arguing about this. I don’t know what they would have talked about otherwise. But they were always arguing whether this was important or not and sound for sound’s sake and so on and so forth. So that this was a very big, very big feature of him, the quality of sound, but also with him it went far beyond all that, he was interested in everything musical, all of his concepts of music. So there was a total approach; nothing was left to chance.
LVB: What was your understanding of his numbers system?
JD: Well, his number system, my understanding of his number system was that it was, I would say three, what’s the word?, it had three meanings. It was in the most a…., well I won’t try to put them in what was the most important, I would say it had to with the grammatical structure of music in explaining the groupings of the notes, so that the concept of phrasing was not left to chance. The second thing was that it had, it also dealt with dynamics, and it also dealt with intensity. I want to make clear that those two things were not the same in any way to him. In other words, intensity could increase maybe with dynamics decreasing, just because loud and soft was not the only part of intensity. So, I would say those were the three things that the number…
LVB: What did intensity consist of?
JD: Well, intensity you know, some… Music in general, I mean, in a very of sort of basic few words, phrases start from a point of minimum tension to a point of maximum tension and then back to a point of minimum tension. I am speaking about the harmonic progressions, and the melodic line follows the harmonic progressions. That’s what I’m speaking about in intensity.
LVB: How does vibrato fit in with this?
JD: Well, vibrato was something, which was a very personal thing, which he never taught. He, at least in my case, the couple of times that I got up enough nerve to ask him something (because most of us were always afraid to even ask questions) he just said, “Well, don’t worry about it, it will take care of itself.” In my case, I feel fortunate in that it did take care of itself. He said, ”Just keep on playing long tones, and it will happen,” and sure enough it did happen. But, I have found in my thirty years of teaching that it doesn’t always work out that way with some students, and I would say that there are some of his students that could be pointed out as examples of where it didn’t work also. He never made, very rarely ever made a reference to it, except that he didn’t like a lot of it. Anybody who would try to use a great deal of it, he would say, “Forget it.”
LVB: In your understanding of the number system was an increase in the speed of vibrato part of an increase in intensity?
JD: Well, yes, but that, increase in the speed of the vibrato, well you’re, I mean he never, he never tried to talk of this intensity in terms of vibrato. He talked about intensity in terms of the speed of the wind. The idea that somewhat parallel to the speed of the bow on a string. You can go fast or you can go slowly and so on and so forth and that was to a degree. Vibrato was never referred to as being a tool or part of the equipment, at least as far as I can tell you. It was kind of left to being kind of an individual thing.
LVB: Did he talk about it in the chamber music classes at all?
JD: No, never. I must say to you that when I am talking about what he said, there was no difference between the way he talked in chamber music classes or orchestra classes and private lessons, it was always the same. Obviously in private lessons there were things which referred, you know, involved the instrument or reeds; otherwise it was always the same.
LVB: Were changes in color part of the number system?
JD: Yes, yes very definitely. But that again is, you know one of his ideas that he had evolved something that no one else had ever done and that is: he could take as he used to say a “jackass” and make him play well, because he analyzed things, and he would tell somebody with the number system to explain to them how they were supposed to play a certain phrase. He could take somebody who didn’t have any great natural response to music, and he could get them to play something which would sound very good. And this was true, because he demonstrated it on many, many occasions. The only hitch in that was that the ones he considered untalented, that he would end up making them play well, they played well as long as he was the one who showed them how to play. But, it was sort of like a puppet, as long as somebody was pulling the strings they managed to do pretty well, but as soon as they went off on their own [laugh], they were just as bad off as they were before.
LVB: How great was Tabuteau’s variations in color in his playing?
JD: Well, [laugh] how great? They were greater than anything I have ever heard before or since, put it that way; I don’t know how else to express it. He had an enormous, enormous facility and a range on the instrument, an enormous range of color and dynamics, and he had the type of embouchure that allowed him to play the kind of a reed that gave him more of that than anyone else I’ve ever heard.
LVB: What was the difference between the numbers and the concept of up and down impulses?
JD: Well, the numbers as I said were involved in the, to a great degree in explaining the grammatical structure of the musical phrases that we were working with. Up and down was something which went along with this. The simple thing of up and down is basically in music most of us react to the sounds that we hear. If somebody sits down and plays a dominant seventh chord, you anticipate that they are going to resolve it, right? That’s the reaction this has; okay. The very basic thing was that up is five (V) and down is one (I). Now this is also closely associated in music with the metric structure in that generally five (V) will come on the fourth beat of a 4/4 bar and one (I) will come on the first beat or could be obviously on the second or third beat, but generally it falls on the strong beat. The strong beat is the one (I) and the weak beat is the five (V). So that is a very primitive explanation of up-down. Now, if you listen to any phrase, musical phrase, you’ll find that the impulse of up can be harmonically construed for a number of successive notes. It may be that in a 4/4 measure the second, third, and fourth beats of the measure can all be part of the preparation for the cadence that’s going to occur on the downbeat of the next measure. So, that was what he was trying to impart to us, the feeling of it. And he also had had some training when he was a very young boy as a violinist; he started out by playing the violin for a couple of years of his life before he switched to the oboe, and ever since that time, he was very much inclined to demonstrate in all of his classes as though he was playing a violin; everything was done with the bow. He would say to us, “No, don’t you hear that, it’s up up down.” And he would say up up down, he would make that gesture as though he were playing a violin, up up down. And it could be up up up up up up down. Obviously there are practically limitless the different kind of combinations that can be formed with that, just depending on what the composer intended. So that this was an aspect that he could use when he spoke, in other words articulate in the words that he used, but he could also be visual in that he showed us what he was doing. And you can’t separate one from the other; it was all tied in, you know, the whole thing…
You know I started to tell you or I did say a few minutes ago that he felt all these things had to be, that he could define these things, and it’s true, in my entire life, I have never heard anybody that was able to explain music in such a way and that would totally defy the idea that when music was explained that it became a heartless, bloodless situation. On the contrary, it seemed to become even more inspired and have more of this feeling of spontaneity. But, nevertheless you can’t explain everything, you see. If you could put everything into words, you wouldn’t have to have the music. You could just have poetry… or prose. If art forms, at least this is my idea, I don’t know if this would be upheld by some of the great teachers in the world, but my idea is that art forms have evolved through man’s need to express something in an area that he couldn’t find any other way to express it. It just doesn’t fit in any other area. For him it’s got to be a poem, and for somebody else it had to be a sonata, and for somebody else it had to be an opera, and for somebody else it had to be a painting and so on and so on. And these things just didn’t happen overnight; they were the result of thousands of years of evolving. So he explained to a point, way beyond anybody else’s ability to do it, because I have subsequently spent my lifetime playing in orchestras and hearing men explain things, and I can only say that no one even approached his ability to explain. I mean even Stokowski, who used to be able to conjure up magnificent pictures and one thing and another, but with Tabuteau he made it so that, as he said, a fool could eventually take a phrase and make it sound quite beautiful. Now the question was that, if you had talent, you could learn, you understood, and then you began to figure it out for yourself and then be able to apply to other situations. If you didn’t, you could do it on that one particular example after he had shown you how to do it. So this is where this other element of talent comes in, ability or musicality, there are all kinds of words, everybody has their own preference.
LVB: Just one more thing about the up and down, he [Tabuteau], makes the analogy between inhale and exhale.
JD: Yes, well, okay, inhale-exhale, up bow-down bow, weak-strong; it’s there, it’s all the same.
LVB: I meant to ask, do you use numbers and these principles of up and down in your teaching?
JD: Oh yes, sure, I’m his pupil. [laugh]
LVB: Were there also principles of articulation?
JD: Oh yes, very definitely.
LVB: Why did he explain articulation in terms of taa, tee and long?
JD: Well you know, how else would you articulate? You had to attack, so it was taa – taa taa taa taa taa taa. I don’t think there was any specific difference between taa and tee. The idea of articulation was that it was to be a line; it was not to be separated.
LVB: Did he use any tonguing variations according to style period?
JD: No. In general his articulation was the same; it was the most beautiful articulation I’ve ever heard in that it was astonishingly elegant; it was just exquisite; it was the refinement. It was like listening to [John] Gielgud talk. The speech was just beautiful. If you listen to, nowadays we have the opportunity to hear Masterpiece Theater all these English productions, if you hear some of these people who are obviously brilliant and who have just beautiful articulation, that’s the way it was. He didn’t vary this very much. In other words he, it was only under duress that he would use articulations that were contrary to his ideas even though there are lots of people who say you have to use different kinds of articulation according to different types of music, this was not the case with him. And I’m not so sure that he was wrong. I think that there are perhaps times when yes it could be, but in general the point being that a great deal is made of how articulation should be done in this piece or that piece or so on and so forth and according to this period or that period. When the actual truth of the matter is that nobody knows say before 1900 how anyone sounded or played. [laugh] It’s all conjecture, and in most instances the conjecture usually is the way the person who’s telling you is usually telling you the way he played. That’s the way it should be. They’ll tell you that this is straight out of the eighteenth century, but if you go a little bit further, it’s just because that’s the way they played. The theories are made to accommodate the player.
LVB: And this would be the same with the slur? He always played the last note of the slur long?
JD: To a degree, it would depend, ya. You see again these things which are, it’s hard for me to discuss it on a general level, you would have to have specific examples to discuss it. In general, I would say, yes, he was the one who pointed out that if you have a group of four notes, three slurred and one staccato and then going on to the next one, the third note wouldn’t have to be short just because you’re going to articulate the fourth note. But as I just said that a lot people do that because that’s the only way they can play. They don’t know how to articulate any other way. It’s just the same as making a smooth connection in articulated passages on the piano as their thumb, as they are playing up a scale and as they are going and they’re going from one thing to another, it’s hard to do that. So a lot of these players adapted their theories according to what they could do. So, da dut da dut da dut on two and two and two, because it was hard to go: da da da da; it was hard to make an even scale. And the whole thing just doesn’t stand up, the idea that the second note should be short. If you could harmonically state that every first note was an appoggiatura and the second note was the resolution of the appoggiatura and then you start, but it doesn’t work that way. I mean they’re passing tones or whatever chordal and one thing and another, they don’t all turn out that way, so they have to keep on going.
LVB: Would you say that Tabuteau was rather dogmatic about that?
JD: He was dogmatic about everything. Yes, he was dogmatic about it and to his credit, too, because he started out in a world, at least in this country, that was almost universally accustomed to doing the opposite. And he achieved something which is, I mean now already a…., how should I say it? I won’t say he won the world over, at least there’s a substantial amount of playing that exists that doesn’t play that way anymore as a matter of course, which is in itself an accomplishment.
LVB: How important was rubato?
JD: Very important; he was a Kreisler-type player in that he had an enormous amount of chic in his playing. He could take little things, and oh, little solos, and… and nobody had heard anything like it. He was a gypsy, but the most refined gypsy that anybody ever heard. Well, a Fritz Kreisler type.
LVB: Why was Tabuteau so strong on transposition of etudes?
JD: Well, transposition served a number of purposes. This is a subject that I can’t, there’s only one thing that he ever said to me about it; I’m assuming another aspect of it. The one thing that he mentioned was and that is you had to practice, you couldn’t fake your way through a lesson. So that was an enforcement along those lines. The other two reasons for my continuing, no, I mean, there are two other reasons, one of them is one that I assumed and that was that, you know you tell a student, the student comes and he plays a lesson, and then you correct him and tell him and so on and so forth. It’s very difficult to know whether they understood what you said, but if they have to play it again, then you get an opportunity to see if they understood. Now when they have to do it in a transposition that doesn’t change the music any; all right that’s the second reason. The first is that they have to practice; they can’t get a way away with faking. The second is that you get an opportunity hear the same piece again to see if they understood the musical corrections of the things that you are doing. The third thing is another assumption of mine, and I never asked him, along with lots of things that I should have asked him, but I don’t know I just didn’t. But, I can tell you that back before the Second World War, if you played any opera, it was not at all uncommon, you know the proliferation of printed music just didn’t exist, we didn’t have copying machines, we didn’t have all this very inexpensive way of reproducing all kinds of material, so that it was a very common thing if you played opera, maybe you’d get towards the second or third act, the contractor would come into the pit during intermission and say now the tenor has a cold or he isn’t going to make that high c, we’ve got to transpose the whole section down a half step or maybe even a whole step. And you were supposed to be able to do it; that was part of your equipment. Now his [Tabuteau’s] early training was in opera; he spent seven years at the Metropolitan, and this probably happened frequently. I know that in my very limited experience as a student playing operas in Philadelphia, it happened to me many times. Now I also know for me at the time it was as simple as pie, because I did it every week. And I know that a lot of people who were working in the opera company they had a tough time, and boy the conductors used to boil when they’d say this has to be transposed, and there would be some monumental bloopers that would take place during the performance when people were trying to transpose at sight. So that I think that that was part of it also. He wanted us to have the ability to do this quickly, which was very good. Now there is a fourth reason too, and that is that it adds to your technique, because it means, you know if you take any example, and put it up a half step and down a half step, you’re going to go through almost all of the conceivable combinations of fingerings that you would have to, and it’s a very definite technical aid.
LVB: How restrictive was the bar line?
JD: How restrictive?
JD: Well, it was axiomatic that you did not breathe on a bar line. Now some of us carried that to the extreme in the early days. I know that I did; it was a while before, I mean we all approached this…, if he would say climb up on top of a building and jump off, why most of us would do it. So, if he said don’t breathe on the bar line, we just assumed that that meant never, without any exceptions. [laugh] But as time went on and we developed our own musical insight, we realized that this is not the case. There are times when you can breathe on the bar line. But, if you had to make a rule of thumb, it’s a very, obvious one. In other words, out of one hundred times I would say that ninety-five times you should not breathe on the bar line. There might be five per cent exceptions. But, you have to learn to be able to recognize those exceptions.
LVB: There are a few things about breathing that I didn’t ask about. Did you ever hear Tabuteau say something like it is important to remember to place one’s notes on the wind or the bow and not to bow or wind the notes?
JD: Oh sure, oh sure. But that has nothing to do with breathing. I mean, what do you mean breathing, where to take a breath?
LVB: No, not where to take a breath, just, maybe that doesn’t have to do with breathing.
JD: Well, that’s very simple, you make a line with your wind, and you put your notes on that line; you don’t make a line with the notes. This is to achieve a continuity in a phrase.
LVB: Did he differentiate between wind pressure and wind speed?
JD: Well, no. I think… you know you would have to be specific.
LVB: Did he talk about breathing, I mean not where to take a breath necessarily…
JD: Well, he talked about where to take a breath all the time.
LVB: With numbers and the grouping?
JD: Well sure, even without the numbers, I mean there are places that are obviously good and places that are obviously bad.
LVB: Did he talk about breathing as something, you know, how to take a breath and how to support and that kind of thing?
JD: No, his approach was that you just take a breath, and you blow through the oboe and if you do all of these…, now of course, one of the big parts of the lesson was just playing long tones and these different exercises – ninths and playing from low c up to high c in all sorts of…
LVB: What did you think of the recording [that Tabuteau made?]
JD: You mean where he was demonstrating? Very good, when you consider particularly that he was seventy-eight years old when he made the last one. One thing that is tragic and that is, John Minsker and I put together that tape, and there were only three men who ever worked with Tabuteau of his pupils, there was Robert Bloom, John Minsker, and myself. And John Minsker and I put together that tape, and we assumed that this fellow who was doing the mechanical work that he knew what he was doing, but it was obviously a serious mistake, because the transfers of the fourth side of that two record thing of the orchestral excerpts are awful. Some of them are a half tone low and they are sharp and flat and just don’t bear any relationship to the way Tabuteau sounded. And if you notice they don’t bear any relationship even to the way he way he sounds on the tape in the explanatory parts of the tape. So that we should have supervised that too; we didn’t because that was done out in Ohio. We just assumed that the man would have enough sense to know when the thing was running at the right speed or the wrong speed, but it just was a monumental disaster, that aspect of it. That did a serious disservice for young people like you that never heard him play; if this is the way he sounded, what was so special about it?, because some of it was just really bad. And they’re bad for different reasons; some of the reasons being just bad transfer.
LVB: Did you think of yourself as perpetuating a tradition?
JD: Don’t ask that question, sure [laugh]. That’s a loaded question. How else? Look, I do it the way I think it should be done, obviously with what I was taught along with what I’ve acquired in the course of my lifetime. He would be the only one that would be able to answer that as to whether I am perpetuating a tradition, or other people, you know, who knew him.