Fernand Gillet (1882-1980): An Interview with Fernand and Marie Gillet

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by Nora Post

Fernand Gillet (1882-1980)
Interview with Fernand and Marie Gillet
January 1978
Brookline, Massachusetts

The Double Reed, 1982


When Fernand Gillet was ninety-five years old, I had the great pleasure of talking to him and his wife at their home in Brookline. A marvelous gentleman, Mr. Gillet was meticulously dressed for the occasion, and began the afternoon by showing me the medals he won at the Paris Conservatory in 1896 and 1897.

Mr. Gillet fascinated me because he could recall oboe playing standards of the late nineteenth century. Fernand Gillet was, of course, a student of his famous uncle, Georges Gillet. Having single-handedly created the modern French school of oboe playing, Georges Gillet’s sound, technique, and reedmaking skills were, according to his nephew, the envy of all. He was so good at making reeds, in fact, that his students at the Paris Conservatory–given their decidedly inferior abilities in this area–decided it would be far better to play only on reeds supplied by their teacher. This they did — Fernand Gillet included — at a cost of one franc per reed. (Is Mr. Glotin reading this?)

We are introduced in this volume to two senior statesmen of the oboe world, men of great influence, neither of whom made their own reeds. Gillet explained he wasn’t interested in doing what he didn’t do that well, and Goossens would rather have been out on his motor launch. Perhaps these two wonderful gentlemen were simply ahead of their times; they could not have foreseen the rash of bumper stickers in the late 1970s which echoed their sentiments exactly with “I’d rather be sailing.”



NP: Can you tell me when you began to study the oboe?

FG: Well, I was born in 1882, and l was fourteen when I first went to the Paris Conservatory. That was in 1896. I had my first prize at fifteen like my uncle did.

MG: Fernand loved the piano and was destined at first to become a pianist. His father said to Georges Gillet, “Give him to the best piano teacher at the Conservatory.” Georges answered, “Why don’t you give him to me?” So that is how he started the oboe. Then the first year that my husband was at the Conservatory, Georges Gillet told the judges that Fernand would make quite an effect on them, but not to give him a first prize, because once you won your first prize, your education was finished. So first he got a second prize, which allowed him to stay another year.

NP: I’m curious about the use of vibrato for the oboe when you were a very young man. Did you use it?

FG: It was forbidden at the Paris Conservatory for many years.

NP: Were you taught vibrato?

FG: Well, my uncle used to do it, so we imitated him as much as we could.

NP: Why did you use it?

FG: To be like my uncle! And because it’s more expressive.

NP: Then the question is, why was it forbidden if it’s more expressive?

FG: It was only forbidden for woodwinds. But later, even in my time, we used it.

NP: When you won your prize at the Paris Conservatory, did you use any vibrato?

FG: Yes, but it was very discreet, not very wide. And the other students used it too.

NP: Did you know Mr. Moyse then?

FG: The flute player? Oh yes, very well.

NP: Do you remember his using vibrato?

FG: Yes. But he wasn’t the first one to use it for the flute. The flute players started a little bit earlier, and were the first ones to use it among the woodwind players. The oboe was a little later.

NP: Of course you knew Goossens.

FG: Yes.

NP: He wrote about using vibrato very early on, and said he only used a little, much like your own description. Did you ever talk about these things?

FG: No. That would have been indiscreet.

NP: When did vibrato become very common?

FG: About fifty years ago. And as far as the oboe is concerned, my uncle was the first one to play with vibrato. Oh, yes.

NP: What kind of vibrato were you taught to do?

FG: Well, everyone did it in a different way. I did it with the throat. My uncle also. His picture is right there just above Marie.

NP: He’s very handsome.

FG: Oh yes, he certainly was very handsome.

NP: Let’s talk about range for a minute. How high did you play?

FG: We went up to G. During the 19th century too.

NP: Did anyone go higher?

FG: No, not on the oboe.

NP: Did you ever use double or triple tonguing in very fast passages?

FG: No, just single tonguing. Only the flutists played double and triple in those days, though there were a few oboists who could do it. Perhaps Lamorlette did it.

NP: Goossens writes that his teacher, Charles Reynolds, could circular breathe. Did any French players do it, too?

FG: No.

NP: Did you use harmonic fingerings in the upper register?

FG: Yes, but very seldom. We couldn’t use them in the Conservatory, but we used them later.

NP: Why was that?

FG: Because then we were free! At the Conservatory we were not free.

NP: Did everyone know the fingerings anyway?

FG: Oh yes.

NP: During the early years of the twentieth century, did you know many French composers?

FG: Yes.

NP: Did you ever ask them to write pieces for you?

FG: No. I would consider that to have been too forward. If a composer didn’t really want to do it, it might have been difficult to refuse. Of course, Ibert– he was a good composer. He was the head of composition at the Conservatory, and some years later he was resident composer at Tanglewood, so we saw a great deal of them. Do you see his photo there?

NP: Yes I do. And of course, I should remember that the pieces written for the Conservatory prize each year were the contemporary music of the time, so that you were involved with modern music.

FG: Yes, of course. And the premieres of many Debussy and Ravel works in the orchestra. Then I came to the Boston Symphony in 1925.

NP: What kind of oboe did your uncle play?

FG: Lorée. The Gillet oboe was finished about 1880, I think, while my uncle was the oboe Professor at the Conservatory.

NP: Did you make any changes yourself when you went to the Lorée factory?

FG: Yes. We improved the tone quality but you can’t analyze that! Almost no changes in the key system. Though of course we added the low Bb, but I can’t remember exactly when that was.

NP: Did you know Tabuteau?

FG: Of course. Yes. Though he was much younger than I was. He was talented.

MG: He was quite a showman. Some of his students told us that when he was out West, he had his picture taken sitting on a horse. He didn’t know how to ride a horse at all!

NP: Our mention of Mr. Tabuteau reminds me of another question I want to ask. What is your opinion of the differences between the French and the American styles of oboe playing?

FG: Well, Tabuteau was responsible for that. And he could do everything that everyone else could do. If you can do it well fine. But you can’t really say the quality of tone has improved. For instance, my uncle had the most beautiful tone, which has never even been successfully imitated. He was a great player — technically as well as the quality of tone.

MG: He could take a poor instrument belonging to one of the students in the class, and the way he made that instrument sound!

FG: Yes. We were all amazed. You know, I was second oboe to him for two years at the Paris Opera. I certainly learned a lot then.

NP: Was it easy for him to make reeds?

FG: He made beautiful reeds. And he insisted on making reeds for all the students in the class. We paid him about one franc for each reed.

MG: You know, my husband was very fortunate — he never had to make a reed! Mr. Bridet in Lyons made his good symphony reeds; he sent about thirty reeds each year.

FG: Yes. Those were what I called solo reeds. Mr. Ballou in Paris furnished me with all the rest — reeds for practicing.

MG: The second oboe here in Boston was Devergie, who was very, very clever at fixing reeds. He was from the south of France, and had a very strong accent. One day one of my husband’s reeds wasn’t working so well, so Devergie said, “Monsieur Gillet, will you let me see if I can do something?” The result was wonderful. From then on, every Sunday morning he came here and worked on reeds. Devergie had three children — two boys and a girl. To compensate him, I was downstairs teaching piano to the children! So we had busy Sunday mornings. And the year that you retired, dear, was the year that very nice man passed away–1946. Look at all these boxes.

FG: Oh, yes. [1]

MG: They’re all reeds–marked Beethoven’s 4th, or whatever.

FG: My uncle made beautiful reeds.

NP: Did he teach you?

FG: No. I didn’t ask him because I didn’t want to do it. He taught some of the others, but not a lot. I tried to make a reed once, but I didn’t like it. So, as I knew I couldn’t do well what I didn’t like, I never tried again!


Footnote

[1] Literally hundreds of small boxes were piled neatly on top of a desk.