Ask Laila for permission
by Laila Storch
The souvenir of a great woodwind artist fades far more quickly than that of the virtuoso violinist or pianist. It is but slightly over fifty years since the death of Georges Gillet, and although the lines of his oboistic influence are still strong, it is not an easy task to trace the story of his life. Few papers or objects of personal interest have survived, and it seems only in the minds of his students that his image remains bright. The following article can, therefore, under no pretense be considered complete. However, without the help of my many colleagues who have replied to letters and answered questions, it would not have been possible to accumulate even this much information. I would like to thank them all most heartily. To Fernand and Marie Gillet, for all their interest and help, and to the other pupils of Georges Gillet who so warmly shared their memories with me, my grateful appreciation. Also, very special thanks to Jeanne Samaran, the granddaughter of Paul Taffanel, who let me read the great flutist’s personal correspondence concerning the Societe de Musique de Chambre pour Instruments a Vent, the journey to Russia and who gave me the key to locating many facts about the great late nineteenth-century French woodwind period. The material I have used comes from personal interviews, letters, and from the following sources in Paris: the Bibliotheque du Conservatoire, the Archives Nationales and the Bibliotheque Nationale. I must take all responsibility for the translations. The rare photo of Georges Gillet at age fifteen was generously loaned by Fernand Gillet, while the one of Gillet in later life comes from the Collection Loree through the courtesy of Alain de Gourdon.
In Search of Gillet
For almost as long as I have played the oboe, I have been fascinated by the name of Georges Gillet. Indeed, what oboist could fail to be intrigued by the man who wrote the twenty-five Studies for the Advanced Teaching of the Oboe, even if there existed no other grounds for being interested in him? Throughout the years many questions arose in my mind: Why is Georges Gillet still important to us today? Who exactly were his pupils? What was his own musical and oboistic background? How did he really play? To these and other questions, few answers seemed readily available. All I actually knew about Gillet, was what he himself wrote in the introduction to the Studies, (his advice concerning division of practice time still seems to me the most sensible for the oboe): and then there were a small number of anecdotes that Marcel Tabuteau told me during the time I studied at the Curtis Institute of Music. My interest in Gillet must have predated even that period however, for I find among scraps of paper which have survived in my notes, one going as far back as 1942, listing a group of San Francisco musicians including the name of a French violist, apparently important to me as; “Romain Verney-heard Gillet.”
In the mid-1940s, I copied the two or three reviews of Gillet’s playing that I could find in books in the Library of Congress dealing with the history of the Societe’ des Concerts du Conservatoire. Then about thirty oboe-filled years went by until finally in 1976, I was able to spend several months in France hunting for Gillet’s remaining pupils and searching through the old records of the Paris Conservatory. At first I had to follow the slightest clue, and it was only by way of a 470 kilometer detour to the small town of Lucon in the south of Brittany that I located a retired oboist, Gaston Goubet, a pupil of a pupil of Gillet’s, who could tell me which of his students were still living. The quest eventually led me back to Paris to a fifth floor apartment near the Tour Eiffel to talk with Myrtile Morel south again to the village of Chisseaux in the Loire Valley to meet Albert Debondue and finally some months later, to Brookline, Massachusetts, where I visited with Georges Gillet’s nephew, Fernand Gillet, a few days before his ninetyfourth birthday. A year more of letter-writing and questioning has brought the total number of Gillet students with whom I’ve been in contact to six, the other three being Michel Nazzi, Louis Speyer and Alexandre Duvoir.
From conversations with these men, all of them remarkably alert despite their years, and from sifting through old reviews and programs, a general picture of Gillet gradually began to emerge. It was of a performer of flawless technique and brilliance, a man who played literally all of the chamber music available for the oboe at that time, a stunning soloist, an orchestra and opera musician with a career spanning over thirty years, and a professor for almost forty years at the Paris Conservatory, whose roster of pupils is legendary and whose legacy is ours today. Here was a teacher who inspired his students with such a degree I of awe and admiration, that even more than fifty-five years after his death, those who ad been in his classes were all united in their eulogies of his artistry. This is what some of his pupils now in their eighties and nineties told me when I asked them what they remembered about Gillet’s playing:
“Quite simply he was the greatest in the world. No one ever played as he did No one! When he played Bach with a puissant and pure sound that carried, it was like a cathedral An through my life the thought of Gillet was always there. While making reeds, I would have the idea to do as Gillet. Gillet Gillet, Gillet! He was my God!”
“He was unique, untouchable. He had a most beautiful tone and a very brilliant technique. He was really incomparable, unsurpassable.”
“He was an ace. He played above all with a fantastic fire and verve. He was a strong man, and as he was very artistic, he had a crescendo – the sound would rise and make you shiver!”
An even earlier student of Gillet’s was Alfred Barthel, for many years the first oboist of the Chicago Symphony. Florian Mueller, who studied with Barthel and succeeded his teacher in the orchestra, wrote to me:
“Mr. Barthel practically worshipped Gillet and always talked about his marvelous phrasing and his ability to play anything at all that was written for the oboe at that time. As an illustration of Gillet’s phrasing, Mr. Barthel told me that the saying around Paris was, ‘Play it a la Gillet’ “
Early Life and Career as a Performer
Georges-Vital-Victor Gillet was born on May 17, 1854 in Louviers, a small town in the northwestern department of Eure, about halfway between Paris and Le Havre. His mother was from nearby Evreux and the, family lived there for a few years before moving to Paris. His father was a secretary at one of the government ministries, a position he held because of the beauty of his handwriting in an era when all records were painstakingly kept in pen and ink. To augment his income, Gillet’s father played the oboe. In 1856, two years after Georges, a brother, Ernest, was born who was to become an excellent cellist, a well-known, composer of light music, and the father of Fernand. During the time Ernest played in a trio with Albeniz, Arbos and Ysaye, is said to have chided him about the huge popularity of his piece “Loin du bal,” saying that it had wrecked his career as a cellist.
Georges began to play the oboe when he was about twelve years old. He soon became a student at the Paris Conservatory but it was only in January, 1868 when he was thirteen and a half, that he was formally admitted into the oboe class. He must have come under the influence of several teachers; since just in the five years between 1863 and 1868, there were as many changes of oboe professor at the Conservatory, as there had been in the entire seventy-year period from 1793 to 1863, during which the succession comprised only of Francois Sallantin, Gustave Vogt and, Stanislas Verroust. Upon Verroust’s death | in 1863, Charles-Louis Triebert became the oboe professor, but lived only four more; years and was succeeded in 1876 by Berthelemy. Berthelemy’s tenure was not to last for even one full year, as he died in February 1868 at the age of thirty-nine. He was immediately replaced by Charles Colin, who although he had received his Premier Prix in oboe under Verroust in 1852, was better known as a composer and as the recipient of an 1857 Prix de Rome. In the oboe examinations of the class of M. Colin in June 1868, Gillet was noted as, “en etat de concourir – bon ‘eleve.” – “ready to compete – good student.” And so in July of that year at the age of fourteen, Georges entered the Concours for the first time, appearing on the list as “student of the deceased professor Berthelemy and of M. Charles Colin.”
The annual Concours of the Paris Conservatory was then, as now, a prestigious musical event, attended by a discerning public and reviewed by the leading critics. A jury of eminent figures in the world of music deliberated on the performances of the candidates, voting on what “recompense” or prize to award to the various competitors. The required contest piece for oboe in 1868 was the Premier Solo de Concours by Colin, the first of a series of eight he would compose during the years he taught at the Conservatory. For his performance, Gillet was awarded by the jury with a Premier Accessit, a type of honorable mention or recognition of merit, which is no longer in use at the Conservatory. At fourteen, Gillet was the youngest student to compete, the others ranging in age up to twenty- eight.
If the professor’s comments on further examinations during the school year never seem to lavish greater praise than “good student,” on Gillet, this remark appears more laudatory when compared with reports on some of the other pupils in the same class. One is noted as being “lazy – very careless,” and of another there seems to be nothing better to say than, “attends class very assiduously.” Yet another was considered to be “very intelligent, but lacks facility of execution – heavy fingers.”
In 1868 Gillet also received a medal for excellence in solfege, and by the next year was ready to compete again in oboe, this time with the Second Solo de Concours of Colin, as well as, of course, the obligatory piece to be read at sight. By a vote of the jury of eight to one, he was awarded his Premier Prix on July 28,1869 at age fifteen, again by far the youngest among the eight oboe students who entered the Concours. At the Paris Conservatory, the coveted Premier Prix, once received, constitutes the equivalent of “graduation,” and the student must then leave the school at no matter what tender age the honor is won.
It is difficult to follow Gillet’s path in the first few years after he left the Conservatory, but we know that he played in the Theatre italien, salle Ventadour, from 1872 to 1874, and with the Concerts Colonne from 1872 to 1876. In December 1873 he volunteered for military service from which he was honorably discharged five years later. During this same period of his life,-he was also, however, able to pursue the beginnings of his musical career, for in 1876 he began to play with the Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire, remaining with that orchestra until 1899. In 1878 he joined the orchestra of the Opera Comique where he continued until 1895 when he became oboe solo at the Opera.
One of the earliest reviews which mentions Gillet, appears in Le Menestrel of December 8,1878:
Always a crowd, and the very best of society at the Mondays of M. and Mme. Charles Lebouc. At the third concert last Monday, it was again a virtuoso of the first rank who was at the piano, M. Louis Diemer. Taudou was the first violin, MM. Morhange, Vannereau and Lebouc fulfilled as usual the second violin, viola and cello parts, and M. de Bailly, the bass. Let us add to these names that of Gillet, the first oboe solo of the Societe’ des Concerts du Conservatoire, and one will have an idea of the extreme interest presented by this matinee. We heard two important works of chamber music which produced a great effect: the “Trout”quintet of Schubert and a quintet by Reicha for oboe, two violins, viola and cello.
A couple of months later in Le Menestrel of February 2, 1879, we read a review of a mixed program, typical of the type of concert given in that day by a performer wishing to appear in solo.
The expert first solo oboe of the Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire M. Gillet, gave a musical evening last Tuesday in the Salle Pleyel, which offered the greatest interest, as much for the value of the various numbers on the program, as for the talent of the artists of the first rank, who undertook the interpretation of the instrumental works. Let us enumerate rapidly: The Quintet in E Flat of Beethoven for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon performed by MM. Diemer, Gillet, Grisez, Schottman and Espaignet. Three pieces for piano by Diemer, an Etude of Chopin, Variations for piano and cello of Mendelssohn, Diemer and Lebouc; a Bouree of M. Georges Pfeiffer for oboe, clarinet and bassoon played by MM. Gillet, Grisez and Espaignet A Fantasie of Verroust for oboe on Don Pasquale, and finally by M Gillet, the first performance of a fragment of a concerto, a remarkable composition by Madame de Grandval, of which especially the Andante is delightful.
This is the first mention of a concerto which Gillet was to perform on many future occasions.
The same month of February 1879 was a historic date in the history of woodwind performance, as it saw the founding of the Societe de Musique de Chambre pour Instruments a’ Vent through the efforts of the famed flutist, Paul Taffanel. For the next fifteen years Gillet and Taffanel would be closely linked in an intense musical activity. It was in this framework that Gillet not only took part in the many new works being written for winds, but began to perform the original oboe compositions of Handel, Mozart and Beethoven which had long been neglected in favor of the nineteenth-century preference for airs and variations based on popular tunes and operatic melodies.
When Taffanel formed the Societe de Musique de Chambre pour Instruments a Vent, French woodwind players were already achieving excellent individual standards; however, there was little or no occasion for them to play the chamber works existing for their instruments. It was Taffanel’s desire to give an impulse in this direction and to feature chamber music for winds alone. This was a fairly novel idea at the time and one which was to prove so successful, that the concerts became an important part of the musical life of Paris for the next fifteen years. The following notice appeared in Le Menestrel of February 23,1879:
A new instrumental group has been recently formed especially dedicated to the interpretation and the popularization of chamber music for wind instruments. The founders, who have obtained the valuable collaboration of M. Louis Diemer as pianist, are:
- MM. Taffanel,flutist
- Gillet and Sautet, oboists
- Grisez and Turban, clarinetists
- Espaignet and Villaufret, bassoonists
- Garigue and Dupont, hornists
These names alone speak highly enough for the interest which the performances of the Society will offer.
Every season during February, March and April from 1879 until 1893 with unbroken regularity, there took place six concerts of the Society, each one given on a Thursday afternoon at precisely 4:00 p.m. in the Salons Pleyel, Wolff and Company 22 rue Rochechouart. One cannot help but reflect that the musical public of that day must have been drawn exclusively from a level of society having the freedom to attend concerts on a weekday afternoon!
The first concert of the Societe de Musique de Chambre pour Instruments a Vent began with the Beethoven Octet in E Flat Major, a work which would be performed ten times during the coming seasons. The second concert opened with the Mozart E Flat Major Serenade. The classic works for winds by Mozart and Beethoven were to be the mainstay of the programming during the whole fifteen years of the Society’s existence. Mozart was especially well represented, with ten performances of the Quintet for piano and winds, eight performances each of the Serenade in C Minor and the Serenade for thirteen winds, seven times for the E Flat Major Serenade, the Symphonie Concertante twice, and once the F Major oboe Quartet on March 29,1888.
A footnote on the bottom of the program which featured the Mozart Symphonie Concertante mentions that the orchestral accompaniment will be reduced at the piano by M. Staub and adds, “This Symphonie Concertante written in 1778 for the Concert Spirituel, has never been performed in Paris.” Taffanel kept up with the latest publications of both old and new music and went to considerable trouble to obtain the solo material for this work. In a letter dated Paris, July 10, 1888 addressed to Hug Freres, Bale, he writes:
Messieurs: I have received your package sent on the sixth of this month. But I must return the Quintet of Mozart that you have sent me, which is not the piece I asked you for. The one I wish is: Concertantes Quartett fur oboe, clarinet, horn and fagott mit Begleitung, score and parts. It is a work of Mozart which has recently been published by Breitkopf. It is mentioned in the announcements of “Signale” No. 41, page 655. 1 count on your prompt attention in mailing this work, and remain,
One detects a certain contemporary ring of frustration in this letter written almost a hundred years ago, which would seem to indicate that acquiring the correct parts has never been easy!
Aside from the Octet already mentioned, the works of Beethoven which were most frequently played, were the Quintet with piano with six performances, while there were seven each of the Rondino for eight winds and the Trio in C Major, Opus 87, for two oboes and English Horn, including what must have been a stellar rendition on February 26, 1891 by Gillet, Longy and Louis Bas.
On March 29, 1883 the Serenade, Opus 7, by Richard Strausss was performed in what is listed as a Premiere audition, probably the first performance in France. Strauss’ work was given frequently during the following years. Also the Dvorak Serenade, Opus 44, was played as early as 1880. Numerous compositions which have since become part of the standard wind repertoire were given their earliest hearings by the Society. To name only a few: the Three Pieces by Lefebvre, (later called the Suite); the Romance and Saltarelle by Taffanel which were to become the last two movements of his quintet; the Petite Symphonie of Gounod; Brahms’ Serenade, Opus 16, and the Sextet of Thuille. In all of these performances Gillet was the first oboist except during the tour he made with Taffanel and Saint-Saens to Russia in 1887, and once on the program of March 15,1888, there is a handwritten notation by Taffanel, “Gillet has sore throat,” crossing out the Handel G Minor Oboe Sonata and substituting the Arioso of Onegin for flute by Tchaikowsky. Gillet not only played in all the chamber works, but on numerous occasions performed the oboe sonatas of Handel, the Schumann Romances, the Pieces pour Hautbois of Barthe, Deux Pieces of Diemer (Romance and Intermezzo), and
Scenes Ecossaises by Benjamin Godard, the last three compositions having been dedicated to him. Gillet’s interpretations of some of these solos were reviewed in Le Menestrel. On February 23, 1879:
Enthusiastically applauded were Two Romances for oboe by Schumann played by M. Gillet as if they were sung, with that beauty of tone and that expressiveness which he possesses in such a high degree.
and on March 2,1890:
M. Gillet interpreted Four Pieces of M Barthe with that brilliant virtuosity and the sonority, so pure, so distinguished, that he knows how to bring forth from his instrument.
In April of 1887 occurred an event which would later take on an almost legendary aura and would echo for years to come in every mention of the Societe de Musique de Chambre pour Instruments ‘a Vent. SaintSaens went to Russia to perform his own music and he invited wind players to go with him! Their reception is described in Le Menestrel of May 8, 1887 in the section covering foreign music news:
We find in the Journal de St. Petersbourg interesting appreciations of the talent of the three virtuosi, Taffanel, Turban and Gillet who accompanied M Saint-Saens on his tour and who are sharing with him the success of his concerts.
‘A great attraction of the SaintSaens concerts was in the assistance of three virtuoso wind instrument players. MM. Taffanel, Turban and Gillet are the professors at the Paris Conservatory, in other words, the most outstanding instrumentalists of their country. This is saying a great deal, as it is well known that no one plays woodwind instruments with the expertise of the French. The greatest success fell to M. Taffanel who sings on his metal flute with an incomparable feeling and sweetness of tone. He accomplished marvels, especially in the Pastorale hongroise of Doppler and a transcription of Chopin’s Nocturne in F Sharp. As for the same composer’s Waltz in D Flat, it simply created a furor. The flutist expressed each exquisite detail, at the same time taking it in the fastest possible tempo and conserving the pearl-like touch of the pianists who best play this piece.
MM. Turban and Gillet, not to say less of their instruments – the first plays the clarinet, the second the oboe – purify them to the point of removing everything that is generally disagreeable. The two virtuosi possess a transcendent technique and M. Gillet has, furthermore, a length of breath which seems to know no limits.
The three virtuosi played together a fantasy on two melancholy Danish melodies and a Russian dance tune, composed especially for these concerts by M Saint-Saens. In their ensemble playing they are as extraordinary as in their solos. We have heard that M Rubinstein sent all the students from the wind classes of the Conservatory to the last concert, in order that they should have an idea of the perfection that can be acquired on these instruments. ‘
Even though the above review refers to the great level reached by the French woodwinds, there were apparently not yet enough excellent performers so that things could continue in Paris without suffering during the absence of the leading players. Madame Taffanel wrote to her husband a detailed account of the concert of the Societe’ de Musique de Chambre which took place while he was in Russia. She complains especially about the oboist who substituted for Gillet. “In the Beethoven (Quintet for piano and winds), there would have been reason only for joy for everyone without Boullard, I hope the audience was not as severe as I was, but really he is completely inadequate. He counted the measures on his fingers and came in too soon and in a trill which is played with the piano and the other instruments in the first movement I think, he finished several beats before the others .”
Taffanel carefully saved all the little slips of paper one accumulates on a tour; schedules of departure and arrival between St. Petersburg and Moscow, visiting cards, hotel bills, menus, and even notes such as “Taffanel owes Gillet,” “Turban owes Taffanel,” “Turban paid,” “Gillet owes Turban.”
The theme of the life of the traveling musician repeats itself even to the coda of the correspondence which Taffanel and Gillet carried on for months after the tour with the Russian impresario M. Mauries, in the effort to receive the full amount of the fees that had been promised them.
Aside from all his solo and chamber music playing, Gillet was a regular member of the orchestra of the Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire for almost twenty-five years. This historic orchestra founded in 1828, and made up of professors and former students of the Conservatory, played from its inception into the middle of this century in the same exquisite small concert hall built in 1811 by the architect Delannoy. During Gillet’s tenure in the orchestra, the conductors were Edouard Deldevez, Jules Garcin and Paul Taffanel, while among the soloists were the famous violinists, Joachim, Ysaye and Sarasate.
Gillet played the Handel G Minor Concerto with the orchestra twice in January 1880, and again in 1889, 1894 and 1899. He also performed the Concerto by Madame de Grandval in 1885 and 1886. This work was reviewed in some detail in Le Menestrel of February 17, 1889^ after a performance with the Concerts du Chatelet:
M. Gillet played to perfection the Concerto for Oboe of Mme. de Grandval. The artist possesses a particularly remarkable quality of tone, an imperturbable security of attack even in the low notes, and a perfect ease of execution in the most complicated passages. Mme. de Grandval has written a composition of a melodic character that suits the instrument very well and appears to include numerous really difficult, if not dangerous passages for an ordinary performer. The work comprises three sections and is not lacking in ideas or distinction: it was applauded in Russia when M. Gillet played it there two years ago.
Some of the orchestral works with significant oboe parts which were programmed while Gillet was a member of the Societe des Concerts and which he must have played, included the nine Beethoven symphonies and Leonore Overture (programs of the period were very unspecific as to which one), the four Brahms symphonies, (No. 2 in D Major was whistled at in Paris in 1895!), the Schumann symphonies in E Flat Major, C Major and D Minor, the Schubert C Major, the Mendelssohn Scotch and Italian symphonies, the Franck D Minor, the Mozart Jupiter and G Minor symphonies Les Preludes by Liszt and the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde. There are few reviews which actually single out Gillet’s playing in the orchestra, but Le Menestrel of March 5,1882, refers to:
Societe des Concerts: Eroica Symphony of Beethoven and the brilliant Symphony in C of Haydn in which the numerous oboe solos displayed the so perfect talent of M Gillet, caused general enthusiasm.
In 1899 with the Societe’ des Concerts, Gillet played the Bach Cantata No. 21, Ich hatte viel Bekummerniss, and in the same year, the oboe d’amore solos in the B Minor Mass. A review from a Bach performance of ten years earlier refers to the “magnificent aria from the Passion accompanied to perfection by M. Gillet,” no doubt the tenor solo, “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen,” from the St. Matthew Passion. It would thus appear that Gillet did have adequate opportunity of playing in Bach’s great choral works, despite the fact that they were certainly not frequently performed in France in the late nineteenth century. It is interesting to learn something of the range of his familiarity with Bach’s music, especially when we think of his recommendations to play on the oboe the Bach violin sonatas and trios with piano, as well as the Double Violin Concerto, for the acquisition of good style.
Professor at the Paris Conservatory
If Gillet’s playing career was an important and all-inclusive one, embracing as it did, orchestra, opera, chamber music and solo performance, he is, nevertheless, probably best remembered today for the scope of his teaching which produced a line of brilliant pupils who became well-known on both sides of the Atlantic.
His official teaching career began in October, 1881, when he was chosen to replace his own professor, Charles Colin, who was suddenly stricken during the public Concours in July of that year, and died aged only forty-nine.
Gillet thus became the youngest person ever to fill the prestigious position of Professor of Oboe at the Paris Conservatory. His letter of acceptance addressed to the Director of the Conservatory, Amboise Thomas, shows the young artist’s awareness of the responsibility inherent in the tradition filled post about to be entrusted to him.
M le Directeur,
It is under the domination of a feeling of intense emotion that I write to express to you my profound gratitude. Please believe Monsieur, that I will make every effort to be worthy of the high mission with which you have honored me.
Be assured Monsieur le Directeur, that I am strongly aware of your august patronage, and I pray that you will accept the affectionate thoughts of your
very obedient servant
Paris, 12 october, 1881
The financial arrangements at the Paris Conservatory underwent little change throughout the entire nineteenth century. Gillet was engaged at a beginning annual salary of 1500 francs, which by 1890 had increased to 2100 francs. From 1895 on, he received 2400 francs, which seems to have been the established maximum for instrumental instructors. Professors of composition during the same period, such as Massenet and Delibes, were earning 3000 francs a year, while the salary of the Director, Amboise Thomas, was 10,000 francs. If GilIet’s income remained at a modest level throughout his life, he was nevertheless rewarded by recognition of his merits as a teacher. In 1890 he was made an “Officier de Instruction publique” and at the ceremony held on the occasion of the distribution of the Prix on July 30, 1904, he was created a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur.
The Oboe Class
During the entire period that Gillet taught at the Conservatory from 1881 until the end of 1918, the format of the oboe class remained approximately the same. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday the whole class of ten or twelve students would meet for two hours. Each student played what he had prepared, usually for ten to fifteen minutes. From the various Gillet pupils with whom I spoke, quite a clear picture of the pattern of the class work can be formed. At least some of them kept notebooks where one can still see the assignments of scales, broken thirds and etudes in Gillet’s own fine writing. There is absolutely no doubt about the great emphasis which he placed on the importance of scales. This is evident also in the preface he wrote to the 1909 edition of the Studies. Here is the original English translation of his recommendations concerning scales:
I have placed before my studies a compendium of articulated scales. It is impossible to obtain a perfect I mechanism without their help, and their daily execution is indispensable. It is by working them every day during my holidays, without any other study, that I was enabled to resume the course of my artistic occupations without any weakening in my mechanism. Quite the contrary, they fortify the lips and give a great reliability of tonguing. I could not therefore too strongly recommend to you not to neglect them; it is the supreme source of the perfect oboist.
For each lesson three sets of major scales with their relative harmonic minors, as well as three sets of broken thirds with their minors, had to be prepared. The scales and broken thirds were studied in ascending chromatic order, so that the keys of C, D Flat and D would constitute one assignment. They were played in all possible articulation patterns and the metronome speeds were increased as the student progressed.
The principal methods and etudes used by Gillet in the class, were Barret, Ferling, Brod, sometimes Luft, and the Sellner Duos. Every etude had to be transposed, usually into two different keys besides the written one; one half or one whole-step up, and one half or one whole-step down. As Michel Nazzi put it, “His idea was not to depend on natural gifts but to stimulate work through discipline.”
Regarding his own etudes, I asked Fernand Gillet if he remembered ever hearing his uncle play them, and his answer was, “Oh yes, and in their tempo, which nobody did. Nobody!” He recalled that in the early years of this century whenever his uncle had completed one more study, he would call Fernand to try it, and that he heard Georges play them many times at the tempi indicated, “Too fast for students – not good to practice so fast,” said Fernand.
It was approximately sixty years after the appearance of the Barret Oboe Method that Gillet published his twenty-five etudes. He had once supervised a new edition of the Brod Method and he transcribed three movements of Bach flute sonatas for oboe and piano which were published as “Trois Petites Pieces,” but it was with the Studies for the Advanced Teaching of the Oboe that he made his major contribution to the pedagogical literature for the instrument. These studies, which pushed the oboe to new limits of technical accomplishment including as they did, everything from the most difficult combinations of lownote fingerings, complicated high register passages, extended phrases all in octaves or harmonics, to whole studies for trills, chromatics and staccato, remain to this day a challenge to all oboists. For fingerings the chart which Gillet devised to accompany his studies, is the one most reliable source of reference for everyone who plays the Conservatory System oboe.
When the time for the examinations and the yearly Concours approached, the students also spent many hours on the preparation of solos. Asked once by one of the judges at the Concours why his students didn’t play from memory, Gillet came to the next class and announced, “From now on, all etudes by heart!” Thinking back to his student days, Alexandre Duvoir said something which points out one of the advantages of the group lessons. “With twelve in the class you listened to all the others and learned a lot of things. You learned the music before you played it yourself.”
Before Gillet taught at the Conservatory, each oboe professor had composed the pieces to be performed at the Concours or occasionally had used solos written by a previous teacher. Vogt, Verroust and Colin were especially prolific in their production of concours numbers. However, beginning with the “Concertino” by Guilhaud in 1883, Gillet used works by composers other than oboists, with increasing frequency. Most of the new concours solos were dedicated to Gillet, as well as numerous other works for oboe by distinguished French composers of that era, such as Colomer, Barthe, Godard and Diemer. Many of these pieces are still being studied and played today. To name only a few, “Deux Pieces” by Lefebvre, “Pastorale et Danses” of Guy Ropartz, and although not bearing an actual dedication to Gillet, the “Solo” by Emile Paladihle which was first performed by Gillet’s nephew Fernand in 1898, has remained a special favorite.
Gillet apparently did a considerable amount of playing himself in the classes. Fernand Gillet said that he did not explain a great deal, but “when he played, we learned a good lesson.” Tabuteau remembered that it was “wonderful to play Sellner Duos with him,” and Albert Debondue reminisced, “He would take anyone’s instrument, he always had his box of reeds with him – a reed box in silver – I can still see it – he would put a reed in the instrument – he was ready and he played!”
Discipline in the class was absolute. Any infringement either in manner of behavior, or in the certain norms imposed regarding reeds and instruments, was immediately dealt with as Gillet saw fit, as the following stories will illustrate. Albert Debondue recollects, “One day we were making paper hats and didn’t think Gillet could see us as he was seated at the piano accompanying the students – he wasn’t a great pianist but he managed – he knew the etudes. He was a tall fellow, Pere Gillet – he was a head taller than I am. Anyway, he saw over the top of the piano – he paper hats – everything. ‘Messieurs, la classe est finie – la classe est termine,’ – ‘the class is finished,’ and pointing to an etude. ‘Everyone the same etude for next time!’ “
Or the story about reeds which was told to Gaston Goubet by Roland Lamorlette. The students were all required to play on reeds made by Gillet. At this time Lamorlette was about fourteen. Gillet addressed all his students as Monsieur, and so he said to young Lamorlette, “Monsieur, that doesn’t sound good – what is that you’re playing on there?” took the boy’s reed and smashed it simply because it wasn’t one of his reeds. He recognized his reeds and wouldn’t allow his students to play on any others.
Michel Nazzi wrote about what happened to him when he tried using what was then an innovation on the oboe. “Gillet was so strict with his pupils concerning the F fork, that in order to surpass this technical inconvenience, all passages and scales were forbidden to be used on the F key. One day I triumphantly arrived in the class with a brand new invention …… a Left side F key. Mr. Gillet instantly dismissed me from the class for one week. Now, I was convinced that he was against the F key, right or left!”
Although if at the time referred to by Nazzi, (probably about 1917) Gillet appeared to be against changes in the key system of the oboe, during the earlier part of his life he had taken a leading role in bringing the instrument to a much finer state of development than the model on which he had begun his own studies.
It was the year 1881 in which Georges Gillet took up his duties as professor at the Paris Conservatory, that also saw the founding of the firm, F. Loree. In this same year of 1881, the Loree company was designated to be the official purveyor of oboes to the Paris Conservatory. From that time on, there was no question of the pupils playing any other instrument but the Loree. As Albert Debondue phrased his reply when I asked him if the students had to play Lorees, “Obligatoire – obligatoire!” – “Obligatory.”
Alfred Barthel described his early visits to the Loree atelier in an article in The Etude of August, 1929.
In 1887, I became acquainted with Mr. F. Loree and, during my years of studies at the Paris Conservatory under my famous teacher, Georges Gillet, was a witness to the collaboration of these two men to whom we oboe players of today owe so much. Regularly two or three times a week accompanying Mr. Gillet to the Loree shop, I saw hundreds and hundreds of their different trials. There I learned that the addition of the low Bb to the range of the oboe was not for the use of that special note, although we find it written in some modern compositions; it was made for the decided improvement it effected on the emmission of the notes of the upper register – high D, Do, E and F -beside giving a fuller tone to the whole instrument and cutting down on the over-nasal tone of the former model.
Credit must be given to Georges Gillet for the latest improvement on the Conservatory system of oboe – the covered finger holes, easier technic and improvement in the mechanism that gives the possibility of playing every trill in time.
To exemplify the everlasting work of Gillet on the modern oboe, how many know that the little key on the lower joint for the trill of C and Db is the outcome of a one-time impossible figure in the opera “Le Roi d’Ys” of E. Lalo?
By 1900 the main changes introduced by Loree and Gillet to the mechanics of the oboe had been completed, and it was six years later with the final addition of the plateaux or covered keys that the model appeared which was to become known as “No. 6 bis 1906.” Although the Loree Company under the direction of Francois’ son, Lucien Loree, long continued to make many different models of oboes, it was the Conservatory System No. 6 bis, which gradually became the preferred instrument of oboists in most parts of the world, and has indeed with very few modifications, remained so to this day.
Despite the rigid order maintained in the class, Gillet was not above an occasional joke, if it originated with him. According to Debondue, while he was at the Conservatory, the brunt of these jests was most frequently born by Odette Rey. Odette Rey was that great rarity for those days, a girl in the oboe class. The general attitude taken toward women wind players in the early part of this century in Paris, is rather well exemplified by comments in a 1904 number of Le Monde Musical, occasioned by the appearance on the local musical scene of an intrepid lady from across the seas:
It is not without a certain surprise that in receiving the program of the last concert of the Societe Nationale we saw that a “Chorale varie'” for Saxophone and Orchestra of M. Vincent d’Indy would be performed by a woman, Mrs. Elise Hall.
The recent debate raised by the feminine question at the Conservatory demonstrates the important place that young ladies are taking in the instrumental classes, but until now, their so-called invasion has never reached the wind instrument classes.
The arrival of Mrs. Hall in Paris has shown us that France has remained in this point of view, very much behind America. The example of Mrs. Hall is not, in fact, an isolated case, and in the orchestra to which she belongs in Boston, a good number of the “wind” chairs are filled by ladies.
This was definitely an exotic event and no doubt caused a few raised eyebrows. However, France did not lag so far behind America after all, as it was a scant ten years later in 1914 that Odette Rey entered the sacred halls of the Conservatory, remaining there to receive her Second Prix in 1917 at the age of eighteen. Odette was the daughter of Albert Rey, an oboist who had gained his premier Prix in 1895. Both Albert Debondue and Michel Nazzi remember her well. Debondue recounted an incident illustrative of the manner in which Gillet could find amusement at a student’s expense. In later years Gillet did not always bring his own oboe to the class, but would pick up anyone’s instrument. Often it would be Odette’s. One day he took her reed and twisted it while she wasn’t looking and of course it cracked. When it came her turn to play, nothing came out, and he said, “Well, what’s the matter with you, you poor thing?” “I don’t know maitre” she replied, “but my reed doesn’t work!” The whole class was bursting with laughter and he let this go on until finally taking the reed looking at it, and saying, well naturally it wouldn’t play when it was split, all without the girl ever suspecting that he was responsible. She certainly could well use those qualities which Debondue remembers her as having; “a golden disposition, always good natured, and never becoming angry at all the jokes played on her.”
Gillet did not tolerate even the hint of a complaint from a student. Debondue recalls Gillet recounting to the class that when he played the Concerto of de Grandval in St. Petersburg in a great concert hall the temperature was five degrees below zero centigrade. “And,” he said to the students, “you complain if your hands are a little bit cold for playing, and here you have central heating!”
Or when Myrtile Morel went out to Gillet’s house in Bessancourt for his lesson – (most of the students took private lessons to supplement the class work) – Gillet would use the occasion to walk his big black dog, and go to meet Morel at the station. There was a little trail that ran from the railway station through the woods to the house. One day the path was quite muddy and Morel no doubt casting about for something to say, rather innocently remarked, “There’s a lot of mud.” Came the instant retort from the master, “Eh alors, mon ami, in that case you have but to stay at home!”
In reminiscing about his uncle’s playing Fernand mentioned what a beautiful tone he had, continuing to say, “And he had a beautiful tone because he made beautiful reeds.” He insisted that his students play on the reeds that he made for them, and that was a mistake, added Fernand. He made reeds which were sold at the Loree shop. He made reeds very rapidly. Fernand said he had seen him make twelve reeds in an hour. “Oh yes, my uncle made them for his pupils. ‘I don’t want them to have a bad tone,’ he said. But that didn’t help – when they had to go on by themselves, they were in trouble.” In answer to my question whether Gillet did a lot of work with gouging Fernand replied, “Oh yes,entirely – entirely.”
Many of Gillet’s students never did learn to make their own reeds. Even Fernand used reeds that Bridet, the professor at the Conservatory in Lyons, made and sent to him up until 1945.
Myrtile Morel early demonstrated a certain reed-making facility and decided he would get his own gouger. He hesitated to ask Gillet questions about gouging, as he was given the impression by Gillet that it was none of his business. One day Vandoren asked Morel the dimensions of Gillet’s gouge and it was in fear of walking into a trap that Morel put this question to Gillet. Gillet finally told him the thickness he used, but nothing else. When Morel confessed that soon he was going to buy a gouging machine, Gillet’s response was “Oh, you’re going to buy a machine like that, are you? Well, you know it’s difficult. You’ll get yourself in a nice mess.”
Obviously the Gillet pupils were on their own with little or no help from him on reeds, and were completely dependent on his reeds during their student years. Afterward, they had to sink or swim according to their own ability to learn to cope with the whole problem. Tabuteau once said that Gillet’s reeds were wonderful for lessons but he couldn’t use them in orchestra. He also said, “Gillet made all kinds of reeds. Short, long, always changing, but his playing was always the same.” And then he told a rather bizarre story, the truth of which I cannot vouch for, but it nevertheless seems a sufficiently novel anecdote to bear repeating. “He (Gillet) used to keep a gouger under a glass bell in his room – onE purposely built the exact opposite to what it should be – when Gillet was playing in orchestra he used a six gouge and long scratch, but for playing in his room, a short one, and all the oboists in Paris changed their reeds according to what Gillet played.”
The one word I heard the most frequently in discussions of Gillet’s teaching was “dur,” but when I mentioned this to Fernand Gillet, he said that “hard” was the wrong term. “He was severe, but just,” reflected Fernand. “He was very severe, as severe with me as with the others, perhaps a little more. But he was fair – exceedingly fair.”
The remarks which Gillet himself wrote concerning every pupil’s progress at the end of each half-year period, would tend to corroborate his nephew’s opinion. No matter how stern he must have seemed to the students at the time, his written observations seem to confirm this estimate of fairness.
All the records of the Paris Conservatory in the past century were kept in massive leather-covered ledger books. After the examinations, a few comments were entered in the professor’s own handwriting following each student’s name, the names having been already elegantly penned in by a special scribe. Gillet’s remarks show recognition of effort and progress and appreciation of a conscientious approach to study. A sample of his very concise and meticulous criticisms may give a clearer picture of his ideas.
Gillet rarely says “Bad student” and when he does, it is together with a comment on attitude such as, “very lazy, doesn’t care.” Many times he mentions the effort made to improve and says that such a student may accomplish something. Other times he cites poor health or a “delicate constitution” or the necessity of too frequent military duty, as contributing factors to poor work. The most persistent criticisms are reserved for those who appear to lack the will to work, such as “bad student, lazy, will never accomplish anything.” Or another, “mediocre student – in the whole year worked only on his piece for the examination,” but of another student also denoted as “mediocre” he adds, “who has nothing for the time being but good will.” Of Victor, “has worked well since classes began – has made slight progress” or Vaillant, “very conscientious student who takes great pains to do well. Unfortunately his tone always leaves something to be desired.” As we begin to notice the fine differentiation in terms between “satisfactory student,” “studious student” or “student making progress,” the occasional designation “good student,” appears as more significant. In 1892 he wrote regarding Bleuzet, “good student – good musician – has the difficulties of the instrument well under control,” and after the January 1904 examinations, about Tabuteau, “exceptionally gifted nature for the oboe – very good student.”
Drawing almost exclusively on the memories of students whose impressions were formed during the pre-World War I era when a strict Master-pupil relationship prevailed, it is difficult to evoke a complete picture of Gillet’s personality. One receives a somewhat different feeling from reading his own comments, than from hearing the stories still current among French oboists about his formidable manner. That he tolerated no nonsense, demonstrated little sense of humor, and was held in great awe by his students, seems quite clear. However, he seemed to show real concern for each pupil’s progress and he remained in relation with many of them for years after they left the Conservatory. Several of them mentioned receiving letters from him, especially during the war, and at one time he even tried to have Morel transferred out of the front lines to a military band, a favor which Morel however, refused to accept.
Fernand Gillet is one of the only people whose recollections of Georges Gillet include souvenirs of a more personal nature. Although the consensus of opinion seems to be that toward the end of his life, Georges Gillet did not treat his nephew in a very generous fashion, Fernand has only happy memories about the early years he spent with his uncle. As a small child, Fernand had been living in England while his father Ernest, was concertizing there. Looking back, Fernand recalled that, “When our family returned to France, the first evening we had dinner at my grandmother’s (that was the mother of my father and Uncle Georges of course). My uncle was very good to me. The day after we arrived from England, he bought me a complete outfit and had the style of my haircut changed so that I would look like a French boy.” Fernand remembers his grandmother as a very kindly person. Reminiscing about the time when he was twelve or thirteen years old, he said, “When I came for my lesson with my uncle, she would give me expense money, but I didn’t use it to take the bus – No! I kept the money and I walked!”
After the death of his father, Georges Gillet invited his mother to live with him. We can assume that she was still with him in 1898 and in very poor health when he addressed the following letter marked “Extremely urgent” to Monsieur Bourgeat at the Conservatory.
Tuesday 26 april, 1898
My good mother’s condition has deteriorated to the point that from moment to moment I expect the worst. Would you be good enough to please present my excuses to the Director and let him know about my trouble.
A thousand affectionate thanks
from your unhappy
It was not until some time after his mother’s death that Gillet married and bought a little house in Bessancourt, a pleasant settlement about twenty kilometers northwest of Paris surrounded by low, wooded hills and boasting a thirteenth-century Gothic church at its center. Fernand used to bicycle the distance out to his uncle’s place and said that Georges was also very fond of bicycling. “We had many bicycle rides in the country together. He had a comfortable house in which I had my private room, although I never actually lived there. I will never forget the asparagus from his garden picked thirty minutes before we ate them. That was wonderful. I have never in all my life eaten asparagus like that! He had a vegetable garden across the street.”
In March of 1977, I took the commuter train from the Gare du Nord to Bessancourt and after making a few inquiries, I found the gray stucco house at 77 avenue de Paris. A few doors away I talked with Madame
Moniot, a very elderly lady who lived alone in her tiny house in back of its neglected garden. I asked her if by any chance she remembered Gillet. “Oh, Monsieur Gillet de l’Opera! Tres chic, un grand monsieur. They were fine people jamais des histoires – very quiet, they never bothered anyone. They kept the same maid from Brittany for almost twenty years – decent people. The students would come almost every day on the 9:30 train. We children used to run and listen outside the house when he gave lessons and Madame Gillet would give us a piece of candy.”
In the early months of 1918, several letters that Gillet addressed to the Direction of the Conservatory, show that he was greatly distressed by events either directly or indirectly caused by the continuation of World War I. At least three of his students, Jean Andraud, Adolphe Henri and Raymond Saint-Quentin had been killed in the hostilities. In the Fall of 1914 he had found his house in Bessancourt in total disorder – he does not specify from what cause – but we know that houses in this area were commonly used to lodge French troops. He was unable to find anyone to help him move into Paris, and added to this, the difficulty of acquiring provisions, he asked for a prolongation of his vacation for another month, during which time he would return to Biarritz in the hope that conditions would soon improve.
In April, May and June of 1918, a series of situations appear to exist which finally convince him to apply for retirement. He finds it necessary to take his wife to Biarritz on doctor’s orders; he is not feeling well himself; he does not feel justified in returning to Paris to teach “my class composed of un seal et unique ‘eleve.” – only one single student.” He requests M. Gaudard, the first oboist of the Opera to replace him during his absence. On May 31 he refers to being very disturbed by the recent raids, and says that he is alone and ill in Bessancourt and that he will return to Biarritz. Finally in the following letter, he decides to put into motion the necessary procedures for retirement.
Monsieur Gabriel Faure
Member of the Institute
Director of the National
Conservatory of Music and
June 19, 1918
Monsieur le Directeur,
My state of health being very shaken, I feel that in the future it will not be possible for me to teach my classes regularly. I am therefore going to ask you to please arrange for my rights to retirement to become effective next January.
At present sixty-four years old, I have served the state during forty-two years, thirty-seven years of service as professor and five years of military service.
I hope you will excuse me if I am forced to my great regret to take this decision. I will never forget the happy days that our dear Conservatory has given me, nor these past years under your eminent direction.
With the expression of my devoted and respectful sentiments,
Gillet’s request was accepted, with his duties scheduled to cease on December 31, 1918, and his retirement and pension to begin on January 1, 1919. Shortly after this date, Gabriel Faure’ wrote a letter expressing his regret at Gillet’s decision, saying that although he understood his desire for a more restful life, he felt that his brilliant teaching could have still continued for a long time. Gillet replied with a formal note:
26 January, 1919
Monsieur le Directeur,
Allow me to express all my appreciation for the letter which you had the kindness to send me and which gave me the greatest pleasure. You may well believe that it is with regret that I have relinquished my teaching activities. Only reasons of major importance could bring me to this decision.
I am happy and would like to congratulate you who are the glory of French musical art, for the success of the beautiful reprise of one of your masterworks, Penelope.
With all my thanks, please accept, Monsieur le Directeur,
the expression of my admiration
as well as my respectful and devoted
Gillet lived for only a short year after his retirement from the Conservatory. A telegram dated February 9, 1920, and addressed to Gabriel Faure, states simply, “Georges Gillet decede subitement” – “Georges Gillet deceased suddenly,” signed M. Gillet. (Gillet’s wife, Marie.)
I have heard several versions of his death, but they differ only in minor details, and all agree that he was working on reeds at the time. According to both Morel and Debondue, he was gouging cane at his home in Bessancourt, keeled over suddenly from a heart attack, and was found by his wife slumped onto the floor. This occurred on February 8, and on February 12 he was buried in Paris in the Cimitiere NordMontmartre where one can see his grave today, not far from those of Hector Berlioz and Vaslav Nijinsky. Hidden among a forest
of ornate monuments and family chapels, one comes suddenly upon a simple tombstone, identifiable only by means of a small white marble plaque placed on top of the slab, and reading, “Au grand maitre Georges Gillet 1854 + 1920, ses admirateurs” – “To the great master, Georges Gillet, his admirers.”
According to John de Lancie, this marker was added to Gillet’s grave in the mid-1950s by Marcel Tabuteau after he retired from the Philadelphia Orchestra and returned to live in France. The original inscriptions are worn away by time and covered with moss, so that one can barely make out the words “professeur au Conservatoire, Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur – Mme . Vve. Gillet – 1947” (the date of the death of Gillet’s widow).
The Gillet Heritage
Almost a year of trying to fill in a few details of Gillet’s history was coming to a close. After standing by his grave, l crossed the Channel to England, where a side-trip to visit Melvin Harris near Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, became one of the high points of my whole search.
Always, in all my questioning, I asked, “Did Gillet make any records?” The answers ranged from flatly “No,” to “Not sure,” or “Have heard that perhaps he did,” all vague and elusive. But now here it was, in the remarkable collection of Melvin Harris, a ten-inch 80 R.P.M. Odeon disque, Brown label, made sometime between 1904 and 1907. The selections, reflecting the early day choice of the recording companies, were two duets for flute and oboe from Rossini’s opera “William Tell.” If I had any difficulty in believing my eyes when seeing Gillet’s name on the label, there was the man’s voice shouting into a megaphone at the start of each number, “execute’ par Messieurs Lafleurance et Gillet de l’Opera!” Even through the crackly grooves of more than seventy years, one could hear the impeccable articulation, fluidity of line and smooth, round tone, confirming the legendary elegance of style which Gillet passed on to so many of his pupils. Mr. Harris found this record in the Paris Flea Market about ten years ago. Are there perhaps still others?
For over sixty years Gillet’s students held important posts in American symphony orchestras and most of them also did a great deal of teaching. Almost all of them had considerable playing experience in French orchestras before coming to the States. Although in the future, I would like to write about their careers in greater detail, the following very brief summary will give some idea of the scope of their activity. At the end of this article appears the total list of all Gillet’s students who earned their Premier or Second Prix.
The first Gillet pupil to occupy a solo oboe position in the United States was Georges Longy, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1898 to 1925. According to his daughter, Rene Longy-Miquelle, he recorded with the orchestra under Karl Muck in Camden in 1915. Morel still remembers hearing him play in the Loree shop, when on his summer vacations in France, he would bring his boxwood oboe in for readjustment. Jesus Maria Sanroma, the eminent Puerto Rican pianist, whose association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra dates back to the early 1920s, said of Longy, “One of the greatest musicians I ever knew! As a teacher, coach and incomparable oboist – artist and conductor. His tone and phrasing of many passages I heard during many years is a great musical memory! His Don Juan, Til, etc., etc. For me he is unforgettable!”
Alfred Barthel became the first oboist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1903, remaining there until 1929. Florian Mueller remembers that “Mr. Barthel’s style, as a performer, was very elegant and sophisticated. He did not have the typical thin tone we hear from French oboists nowadays, but was robust and strong, even though he could shade his pianissimo to a whisper. To me, an amusing anecdote about him: On the wall of his music room he had framed, from the Paris Conservatory, the Second Prize medal and the First Prize medal, each framed separately with the winning reed!
Pierre Mathieu was first oboist of the New York Symphony before it merged with the New York Philharmonic. He later played in the Columbia Broadcasting Symphony and with the St. Louis Symphony. Jean Northrup, who studied with him in the early 1940s, says that “He was a wonderful gracious gentleman of the old school – had a beautiful singing quality of sound and natural feeling for turning a phrase.”
Marcel Tabuteau came to the United States in 1905, first playing English Horn in Walter Damrosch’s New York Symphony Orchestra and then becoming first oboe with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under Toscanini before beginning his long tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which lasted from 1915 to 1954. His career is too well known and remembered by his many students to require any attempt at summary in this context.
Alexandre Duvoir played first oboe in the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra from 1920 to 1938, and later worked in the R.K.O. Studios in Los Angeles, where among the scores he recorded, was the one for the film “Around the World in Eighty Days.” The composer John Verrall, remembers his playing from the Minneapolis days as characterized by “tremendous purity – light tone – remarkable intonation – wonderful sense of phrasing,” and Robert Mayer, who studied with Duvoir, considers him as “the finest teacher and performer one could ever encounter. He was the prima donna of the Minneapolis Orchestra for eighteen years. But never the prima donna as a person. He was the kindest man you can possibly be with.”
Fernand Gillet became the first oboist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1925, playing there throughout the fabled Koussevitzky years until 1946. Through his recordings, teaching, and his many method books, his contributions to the oboe world are of continuing importance, and are covered in detail in other pages of the International Double Reed Society publications. (TTWO, September 1977)
Michel Nazzi came to the United States after being first oboe with the Orchestre de la suisse romande and teaching at the Conservatoire de Geneve. In 1925 he played with the New York Symphony under Walter Damrosch, and then became the English horn soloist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra where he remained from 1926 to 1961.
Louis Speyer came to America in 1918 with a French military band for a three week tour, but stayed to join the Boston Symphony Orchestra on English horn where his career became surely one of the longest on record for a double reed player, from 1919 to 1965. It was for Speyer that Hindemith wrote the English horn sonata at the end of one Tanglewood summer.
Clement Lenom was another Gillet student with a long career in Boston. He played second oboe in the orchestra with Longy from 1901 to 1925, but remained active for years afterward as a teacher. Larry Thorstenberg remembers hearing him play a Loeillet Trio Sonata in Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1952, at which time he would have been eighty-seven.
Other Gillet students who are known to have worked in the United States at various times are: Jules Vaillant, Marcel Honore Albert Rey, Roger Gauthier and Rene Corne.
The place occupied by Gillet’s pupils in the musical life of France is too extensive to completely chronicle here. One of them, Louis Bleuzet, was on tour in the United States with the Societe’ des Concerts du Conservatoire when he heard of Gillet’s intention to retire. From El Paso, Texas, he wrote to the Director of the Conservatory expressing his interest in succeeding his teacher. Shortly afterward he was appointed as Professor of Oboe and taught at the Paris Conservatory until his death in 1941.
Gillet students also took over the teaching in the provincial conservatories; Bridet, professor at Lyons; Saivin and Serville, professors at Toulouse; Durivaux professor at Nancy; Dufour, professor at Bordeaux; Longatte, professor at Vincennes. Louis Bas, Bleuzet and Gaudard were distinguished soloists at the Opera. At the Opera-Comique were Albert Debondue, Balout, Lamorlette and Pontier. Bas Bleuzet, Lamorlette and Gobert all played with the Societe’ des Concerts du Conservatoire. Mercier, Priam and Morel were members of the famous Garde Republicaine concert band. Morel was the oboe solo of Concerts Colonne. Debondue held that same position with Pasdeloup, while Bonneau was first oboe with Concerts Lamoureux.
When Gillet was awarded the Legion d’honneur in 1904, the Director of the Conservatory, Theodore Dubois, paid tribute to his twenty-three years of devoted teaching and service to the Conservatory and to the renown and success of his many pupils. It is evident that we are lacking in details on the paths followed by numerous of his early students; however, in the year 1904, of the thirty-one oboists mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, there were twenty who either had not yet even begun their studies or who had still to initiate the beginnings of their playing careers. It can thus be seen that despite the difficult period of the war, the final fifteen years that Gillet taught at the Conservatory continued to be productive of impressive numbers of outstanding students.
In the world of music, there occasionally appears an artist-performer whose contributions also as a teacher of his instrument, are so far reaching that his influence is felt for decades to come. Such a figure was Georges Gillet. Coming into contact with those recipients of his training whose memories remain so vivid, has brought to life for me the feeling of continuity which exists in the many traditions inherited and shared by oboists of today.
Gillet’s career, bridging as it did, the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first twenty years of the twentieth, makes him in a sense, the first modern oboist. In one way or another, we are all indebted to him.