Sherman Walt (1923-1989) studied bassoon at the University of Minnesota and the Curtis Institute of Music where he attended Marcel Tabuteau’s wind ensemble classes–graduating in 1946. During World War II, he served with the 82nd Infantry Division in Europe, winning a Bronze Star. He spent five years as principal bassoonist of the Chicago Symphony before joining the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1953) in the same capacity, serving until his retirement in 1989. Mr. Walt was a founding member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and taught at the Tanglewood Music Center, the New England Conservatory in Boston, and at Boston University.
NOTE: Minor variances may occur between the audio and written transcript due to later text editing by the interviewee.
Interview with Sherman Walt, principal bassoon of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York on April 20, 1978
Laurie Van Brunt: Why don’t you tell me under what circumstances you studied with Tabuteau.
Sherman Walt: Well, I went to Curtis as a bassoon player, of course. And that was right before and right after the WAR [World War II], in the forties. Tabuteau not only taught chamber music, but he also conducted the orchestra. So my contact with him was both as a coach-teacher and conductor of the Curtis Orchestra. So, I saw him in all aspects.
LVB: What kind of an atmosphere did he generate?
SW: Well, he…I still remember the chamber music classes, you’ve probably heard this before, chamber music classes I think were on Wednesday afternoon, and Wednesday morning people got sick and nervous and worried about their reeds. It was very electrifying. I always felt after I joined an orchestra that it was too bad, of course it was obviously too bad that he left, because he lived many years after he left Curtis, and I feel so many good players could have come from him and didn’t have the opportunity. But, it was just fantastic, the whole business of being with him, and he’d walk into the room and it was like my days when I played under Bruno Walter when he came into the room it was very special.
LVB: Can you remember some of the best classes?
SW: Well, I remember, for example, one incident, he talked with a black board and chalk very often in the ensemble, and he would come in…., he never was very happy — that was something very special. And he would come in and he would look at the horn player, who I think now manages an orchestra in Canada, and say, “I would like to have a high “a” — start pianissimo, crescendo and diminuendo.” And you know, the kid, the horn would be shaking, and he would try and, of course, he couldn’t do it. So, Tabuteau would just explain that his tongue was like a hot knife and the mouth piece was like butter and there shouldn’t be an abrupt clash between the two, that knife goes into the butter thusly, and you should try it again. (I was going to say “please,” but he wouldn’t say “please.”) and the kid would do it, and it would be there. I mean things like that. I mean he was a great teacher.
And funny, I’m not an oboist, but I don’t think I teach… (I teach 8 hours a week at Boston University) — I don’t think I ever teach a class without mentioning his name; he influenced me so much. And yet, I wasn’t an oboe [major], [and so not] a private pupil of his. [But,] It was that wonderful.
LVB: Was there any time when he made you feel particularly good about your playing?
SW: Yes, the biggest day at Curtis for me was one of the first times that he heard me. And I don’t know, [maybe] it wasn’t the first time we had played, and he wanted to hear something from me, and I played. And he said, “It’s really very good.” But [really], he always said “pretty good.” “But, you look so stupid when you play.” That was such a compliment! Today you would take him to the union. I was on a high for weeks, and everybody was patting me on the back and how great it was that he actually complimented me. But, he didn’t really compliment. I mean he complimented me with a knife, you know.
SW – 2
And I should say this, I’m sure you’ve heard all this, but like in the Boston Symphony, which is a long way from Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the influence on the BSO would be myself, first clarinet, first oboe, concertmaster, first cello, first viola, I mean the nucleus of the Boston Symphony is made up of, I could say Curtis [graduates], but we were all influenced by Tabuteau.
LVB: A lot of people were disturbed by Tabuteau’s dogmatic approach, did it bother you at all?
SW: Certainly it bothered me, but what he said once was true. Unfortunately or fortunately, I got a very big job right away, and I really wasn’t prepared for it. And I had some problems — this goes back over twenty years. But, no matter what happened after Tabuteau’s class, it was pleasant compared to his classes, and that’s a very positive way of looking at it rather than negatively, but he actually said that. He said, “You might think I’m tough, but it will be easier for you when you get out.” And my first position took me — I don’t want to talk about myself — but it took me playing under Bruno Walter, George Szell, Arthur Rodhzinski, I was fortunate and young enough to have been able to play with these great men. And everything was so…, it was nothing compared to a Tabuteau class. So, I would say it was dogmatic, but it [works.] After all, I wasn’t there to be treated nicely, I was there to learn something. And I think today, I think I’m probably too nice to my pupils. I think if I were more like Tabuteau — but I can’t be, because I don’t have Tabuteau’s personality — I could help them more. I wish they were more worried about their lessons, instead of coming to a lesson saying, “Oh you know Mr. Walt, I am really not prepared, I had so much this week.” You never, never could do that [for Tabuteau], and they shouldn’t do that. I mean, I can’t do that now to Seiji Ozawa [conductor of the Boston Symphony], so why should a student do it. So, I really have to take your question and say, “No” [Tabuteau’s dogmatic approach did not bother me.] At the time, it did, but I was mistaken.
LVB: What music did you work on in the chamber music classes, do you remember?
SW: Nothing…Let’s see we had Seymour Lipkin in class… [But] I really can’t remember.
LVB: Did you spend a lot of time on each piece?
SW: We would spend a lot of time — all year maybe on one piece. We did mostly things that did involve piano. So, I guess that it must have been Beethoven, Mozart — Oh, I remember Lefevbre [Suite, op. 57]. Nothing… That wasn’t important, you see.
LVB: It was not what [piece] you worked on, but what he said. What sort of things did he talk about to achieve good ensemble?
SW: Well, of course, you had to listen to everyone, because he would call you stupid if you came in early or late. He used his famous number system, you know. I say “you know” because I’m obviously not the first person you’ve talked to about it. I think he would talk to us the way he would talk to his oboe students. He would take a thirteen-note cadenza and divide it into numbers, so it would really sound natural. And this number system, as he put it, it was very mechanical. And he knew teaching it, it was mechanical… When he conducted the orchestra, for example, he would tell you how it should be done in the numbers. He felt guilty about it, because he’d say, “you know,” (I’m not going to try to imitate him, because there are so many people who do it well), but he would say even when he would know what he was going to do [planned it out with his number system] and even when he didn’t feel like playing or felt ill, it still sounded great. And if you don’t have an idea of what you’re going to do and you don’t feel good, it can sound bad, but it may not sound great, but it would sound very good, it would still sound like Tabuteau, because he knew exactly what he was going to do. And this is something that I think all of us who were impressed with that still use to teach and for ourselves. We systematically find out what we’re going to do and then when we are ready to play it, we don’t really think about it anymore, but to prepare ourselves for it. And that’s what he projected.
LVB: As far as the numbers go, what all did they imply to you?
SW: Phrasing. I mean that’s what it’s about and rhythm. Numbers imply to me — well when we speak for example, I’ll give a little lesson [laugh], you start a sentence and you continue like I’m speaking now, you arrive at a climax [speaking with more intensity] which I am doing now, and then you finish as I have just done. And that’s what the number system is about. Rather you wouldn’t [spoken loudly] speak like [spoken loudly] this. I think that covers it. It was definitely phrasing so that it would sound natural; find out where your high point is and you work toward that. 1 432/1 432/1 I think after most of us left school, we kind of devised our own number system, because that really wasn’t so important exactly [to use the number system as Tabuteau did]. But, it was the idea [of] the whole number system that helped us.
LVB: What I was wondering, it’s not just dynamics?
SW: It was dynamics, rhythm, and color really. Have you ever heard the Tabuteau tapes?
SW: Ok. Well, then you really…
LVB: Well, I’m trying to find out what people thought he was talking about.
SW: Ah huh
LVB: How they interpreted what he said, so what I have gotten from different people —
SW: It’s interesting, yeah. Well, I have to admit that it was all three things, it was phrasing and rhythm and even color. You could devise your own number system for that.
LVB: Did he ever talk about vibrato?
SW: Yes. But to him vibrato was singing, I felt. And you know, I get confused now, because I am at an age now where I can’t remember whether it was Tabuteau or whether it was Schoenbach or whether it was Del Negro or who it was who most influenced. The vibrato I use is a singing vibrato from the diaphragm, and I really can’t remember. Everything gets mixed up. I took some lessons after I left school. Oh, I really did some funny things, like Bruno Walter took a very big interest in me as a young man, and I was in trouble when I was playing in the Chicago Symphony, and he helped me so terrifically. I could really say that because of Bruno Walter and even George Szell, they coached me enough to be able to arrive at the principal [bassoon] position in Boston where I have been for many years now. So, I can’t now remember who did what for me, except they all did, Mitropoulos too, Dimitri Mitropoulos was a big influence on me.
LVB: The only reason I asked about vibrato is that particularly his oboists said that in oboe lessons he would never discuss it, but yet in chamber music classes, I think he would at least mention it in terms of ensemble.
SW: I think that’s probably my remembrance also, that it was more he would say, “Chanté.” He would want you to sing and that would mean vibrate, but he wouldn’t really tell you to move your diaphragm. I’m sure that was it; that’s why I am confused.
LVB: Did he use the terms up and down impulses in the chamber music classes. Would he describe a phrase like up up down?
SW: I can’t remember. That has not… you have to remember that I have played under so many conductors now that I just [can’t remember who said what.]
LVB: I certainly understand.
SW: I probably haven’t told you anything new here.
SW: I can only tell you what I know.
LVB: Of course. Do you remember him saying anything the bar line? Being very restrictive about where you could breathe in terms of the bar line?
SW: Yes. Yes, that was very important. I mean you had to breathe in a natural place like when you were singing or talking. I think one of the reasons that Tabuteau today could not be as influential, is because those of us who were doing work with Tabuteau were studying solfege, and we knew what he was talking about. Where today, now I don’t know about many schools in New York, but I know some of the prominent schools, they don’t require a music performance major to study solfege, and he would just laugh, I mean it would be impossible to teach someone who doesn’t understand solfege. If they didn’t sing solfege, they would be playing by rote, I mean the second space fingers like this, rather than “la.” So, we’re talking about breathing, solfege you do know where to breathe and he did, it was important.
LVB: No one else has really mentioned how important solfege was.
SW: Oh good, I am glad I mentioned it. (I was friendly with some of the oboe players at the time) I believe that some of the oboe players told me that they had to sing their lessons in solfege; so that was important for him. And breathing was important for him; I’m sure you must have heard a story about the candle.
LVB: You may repeat it if you want.
SW: Well, he talked about as a little boy he got his oboe, and went to the conservatory in Paris, and so excited [with] a nice shiny instrument, and the teacher, I don’t know if he studied with [Georges] Gillet.
LVB: Yes, he did.
SW: Opened the case, he [Georges Gillet] said, “Very nice,” and closed the case and put it on the floor, and that was the end of the oboe for a long time. He took out a candle and lit it, and the idea, of course, is to take the flame (I can’t show you on an audio tape) and control it. Control the height of the flame with your breath and get it down very small, not letting it go out and keeping it there for a few seconds. He could not play on that oboe until he could control that candle flame. And so, the fact that me as a member of his orchestra or as a member of his woodwind class would hear that story from him [Tabuteau], I would say that breathing was so important – breath control.
LVB: Did he talk about projection?
SW: Well, it would come under singing, though. To sing on an instrument is projecting.
LVB: How about spinning the sound?
SW: Yes, spinning the sound, that sounds familiar. I think he was most prominent in my playing as a “phraser.” I still remember like the Haffner Symphony [singing] the last note less than the first one, everything had to be scaled. Whenever I play it today, I still think of that. And I think to myself, “That must have been the best performance I ever played,” (I’m sure it wasn’t the lousiest) but in my mind that will be a highlight.
LVB: Did Tabuteau stress the use of rubato?
SW: Oh, the rubato was also part of the number system. So, definitely yes. I mentioned before a 13-note run, I mean that would be rubato, well how do you set that “up”, so definitely. Unfortunately, so many Tabuteau people over use the rubato.
LVB: Did you listen to him in the orchestra, and did you feel that he himself over did it as that time? Or was he able to get away with it?
SW: He was able to get away with it. I think if you listen to the records today, I think that goes for almost all of the musicians then. If you listen to the bass playing of Koussevitsky, the records, I mean you couldn’t play that way today and get a position, and he’s still considered the world’s greatest virtuoso [bass player] who ever lived, and it’s a joke, I mean as far as the rubato goes. I think our times have changed; we don’t play that way anymore. But, I remember going to the concerts and thinking how great his [Tabuteau’s] rubato was. But, I think it was probably overdone by today’s standards. I was going to say, but I don’t know which, but remember Stokowski was the big name and the big influence, rather than Tabuteau in the music world. And up until a year ago when Stokowski died , everything he did was still very different, it was still in the old style and the old rubato.
LVB: Along these lines, Tabuteau didn’t vary anything according to style period?
SW: No, no.
LVB: So, that everything you did in orchestra class was pretty much the system applied—
SW: Right. It may be that we never got to it, he was so involved in other things, but I don’t remember, I wasn’t involved like in a Bach style over a Beethoven or Mozart style. He could have taught that, but not to my memory.
LVB: Did he talk in terms of character of phrases or moods?
SW: I don’t remember.
LVB: What about articulation?
SW: Very important. Again, I’m not sure if it was him, but the hard syllable versus the soft syllable – the “do” versus the “too.” But that really comes under color, but that’s still articulation. I think that articulation was important.
LVB: Do you remember him stressing the long, the second part of the slur?
SW: Yes. You see you have had more experience with him in recent years, as you say things, I can pick them up and remember them.
LVB: Did he talk about scaling of articulation? I [have heard] that in oboe classes he made them do scales and scaled their articulation. Did you do things like that?
SW: I think so, but not as severely, but, yes, we did. He talked about it. Remember our classes were two hours, maybe three, and unfortunately many times there were guests, people who were there watching, and he was influenced by people watching him, and he would go into all these antics and stories, and he might be especially cruel if there was somebody watching. You couldn’t tell sometimes whether he really meant it or he was doing it for the audience. I really feel he was in show business, you know, he loved an audience.
LVB: You keep mentioning color, and I was wondering how color and the number system, how you understand those two.
SW: Let me just mention that very basically if I as a bassoon player have various colors, and I get those colors out of moving the reed into my mouth, [that is] how far into my mouth to get a certain edge or a certain darkness. And if each of those positions in my mind is a color and let’s say I can produce 4 colors for a phrase, I could conceivably start with one color and number it to myself, (I couldn’t project that maybe to a student) so I knew always that when I arrived here that reed would be in my mouth all the way in order to get a darker sound. And then when I was finished, I’d want it thin, and at that point I’d have reed [almost] out of my mouth, and I could number that rather than just remember it. It’s harder to remember “should the reed be in out or in” [than to remember a number, for example,]”1” means out. So, that’s how I would conceive it. It was pretty basic really.
LVB: Number 1, would that always refer to you as a bright sound?
SW: That could, yes.
LVB: But not necessarily?
SW: Well, to me it did, but maybe to someone else it could be the darkest. It depends where on your reed, because as a double reed player I have to do that. I‘m trying to project that for a string player… It may be pressure on the bow, I mean I don’t know…
LVB: But for a bassoonist, is it rolling in the lips or is that pushing the reed in and out [of one’s mouth.]
SW: It’s a combination of lips and opening your mouth, making the cavity of your mouth bigger for a bigger sound. By opening your mouth on a bassoon, you make the bassoon longer, so you have different sound. So, it’s a combination, when the reed goes in, you probably open your mouth more to compensate, because the bassoon becomes shorter.
LVB: What about balancing of chords; was that an important thing?
SW: Very big. Intonation, tremendous. I wanted to say just one thing there. I think that Tabuteau felt that intonation was not enough; blending, balancing were equally important. In other words, you could blend with an instrument and be a little out of tune, and that would be subject to approval. You could be in tune and not blend, and that would be disapproval. So, I think that it is sort of a controversial subject.
LVB: As long as we are talking about notes being in tune, did he talk about [for example] raising the 7th degree, so that it would be closer to the tonic, and that kind of shifting, maybe in a minor key making the third lower.
SW: Yes. Again, I can’t remember whether that’s Madam Soffray [Madam Anne-Marie Soffray – taught at Curtis 1928-32 and 1935-56] or Tabuteau; that was taught, of course, at Curtis. Again, when you talk to someone, when Curtis is over 25 years ago, you don’t know what teacher did what. It becomes Curtis at that point rather than the specific person.
I think it must be difficult for you to write a book on Tabuteau without confusing Tabuteau with the school, because he really was the Institute. He was Curtis. When I applied for Curtis, when I was in high school, the bassoon player [at Curtis] was Walter Guetter; that was the great name in bassoon. And then Schoenbach got there. And then Kovar gave me the scholarship. And then Del Negro. It didn’t really make any difference; they were all wonderful bassoon teachers, but I would have gone to Curtis anyway, because of Tabuteau.I didn’t go there specifically to study with Kovar or Del Negro, whoever was there was fine with me. I wanted Tabuteau. I think most wind players felt that way.
LVB: It sounded like the place to go.
SW: Right, at that time. I have to say that because I’m plugging other schools now. [Laugh]
LVB: I assume then that most of best the wind players came out of Curtis, and that this influence was enormous in all the orchestras?
SW: Every orchestra I’m sure. We’ll get to a point eventually (I was at the end of Tabuteau’s career in the 40’s) where you are going to run out of Tabuteau influenced people pretty soon, but then my students and students of other orchestra players, I think he is going to influence in the histories of orchestras until another Tabuteau comes up. I can’t hardly imagine that happening today. I mean he was, you compare him with Stokowski or any of the great character conductors, which are getting rarer and fewer today. There is just no room for personalities like that anymore. No one will accept a Tabuteau, to light his cigarette with a long oboe cane for a cigarette holder. You might find that in certain parts of New York, but you don’t see them on the scene, on the musical scene anymore. It’s more a… you can almost call a conductor by their first names and they call you –, the whole atmosphere and scene is changed today. So, I don’t know if that is going to create another Tabuteau; it may not.
LVB: It’s interesting outside of the woodwind circle or the people who were at Curtis, very few people know about Tabuteau. They know about Stokowski, but they don’t know about Tabuteau.
SW: That’s interesting; I wouldn’t know that.
LVB: Even in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary, he’s not mentioned.
SW: Well, very few orchestra players are ever mentioned.
LVB: That’s true, but-
SW: He was special, Kincaid [also], both he and Kincaid.
LVB: You would think that someone as important as that, who influenced so many people should [be included.]
SW: It’s good that–, I hope your project really comes through.
LVB: It’s partly why I’m doing it.
SW: It might create another Tabuteau, you know. A book like yours; people might be looking for such a thing. There maybe is someone like that we don’t know about. Since many people don’t know about Tabuteau, it’s possible many people don’t know about a Tabuteau now.
I was just going to say that probably someone like Sasha Schneider is a [possibility]. He has influenced the string world and the wind world also. It think Sasha is another great personality, that’s influencing chamber music.
LVB: Is there anything we’ve missed that you would like to say?
SW: I think you’ve covered pretty much [everything]. I mean I hope I have added just a little something. Not being an oboist, it’s difficult to add anything. Just funny little stories of him that you’re going to hear.