The Influence of Marcel Tabuteau

by David Munro

            When considering the history of oboe pedagogy in America, one name is distinctly held above all others. The legendary oboist and teacher, Marcel Tabuteau, is revered and often referred to as the founder of the American style of oboe playing. Lana Neal describes the American style as “a unique school characterized most importantly by an emphasis on the production of what can be best describes as a rich, dark tone and on a management of phrasing that emphasizes the smoothness and continuity of melodic lines.”[1] Tabuteau developed this American oboe style through his influential and long teaching career, where he crystallized two systems of musical phrasing that continue to be taught and implemented today not only in oboe pedagogy, but in other instrumental and vocal disciplines as well: the number system and the “up and down” inflections. Along with the American style of playing, there exists an American style of reed making that facilitates this distinct tone and flexibility of phrasing that can be traced back to Tabuteau’s own developments in oboe reeds. His methods were uniquely effective and teachers of all disciplines continue to implement, borrow, and adapt Tabuteau’s revolutionary and successful techniques. This paper will explore his life, teaching, and techniques that ultimately informed an entire nation of oboists; in other words, how and why Marcel Tabuteau was so successful in his pedagogy and performance.

            Marcel Tabuteau was born on July 2, 1887 in Compiegne, France, a small town north of Paris. At the age of six he began his musical studies on the violin with his brother-in-law, Emile Letoffe, whose lessons included instruction in solfege.[2] He switched to the oboe when the town wind band was in need of more players. Tabuteau took to the oboe quickly and in 1902, at the age of fifteen, was accepted into the Paris Conservatoire where he studied with the legendary Georges Gillet (1854-1920), who is credited as the founder of the French school of oboe playing. Gillet considered Tabuteau an immensely talented student, and Tabuteau progressed quickly, receiving the premier prix in July of 1904 for his performance of Legende by Diemer. In 1905, Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony, recruited Tabuteau to play English horn, which he did for three seasons. He then moved on to the Metropolitan Opera as the principal oboe, playing under such conductors as Toscanini and Mahler, among others, where he performed in the American premiers of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. In 1915, Tabuteau was appointed the principal oboe of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until his retirement in 1954. It was here that he rose to fame as a performer in the wind section under the baton of conductor Leopold Stokowski, who led the orchestra for most of Tabuteau’s years there. During his tenure, Tabuteau contributed to the American premiers of many works, including Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Under Stokowski, Tabuteau refined his sound and developed the darker, more flexible tone to satisfy the musical demands and varied colors of the conductor’s vision. When The Curtis Institute of Music opened in 1924, Tabuteau started immediately as head of the oboe studio, where he taught until his retirement. During his tenure at Curtis, he taught private lessons and orchestral classes and coached the woodwind ensemble. In addition to these engagements, Tabuteau also taught the string ensemble, which is rather unusual for a wind player. Tabuteau retired in 1954 to Toulon, France and spent his final years in Nice, where he died on January 4, 1966.[3]

            As a teacher at the Curtis Institute, Tabuteau produced a number of talented oboists who went on to play in practically every major orchestra in the United States, many of them in principal positions. These students included Robert Bloom, Harold Gomberg, Rhadames Angelucci, John Minsker, John de Lancie, Laila Storch, John Mack, Louis Rosenblatt, Alfred Genovese, and Felix Krauss, among many others. How was Tabuteau so successful in producing this number of successful oboists? As a teacher, Tabuteau has been described as a man with a “strong personality” and “mercurial temperament,” whose fiery temper inspired fear into all of his students. His intimidating nature was slightly tempered by a “lively wit,” and his “humourous anecdotes” could ignite roaring laughter within everyone, including Tabuteau himself.[4] In an interview for her dissertation between Melissa Stevens and John Minsker, Minsker said:

“There’s no such thing as a typical lesson with him. Things could go smoothly occasionally, and he could blow up on occasion. He would always start you out with a long tone. That was the basis of your playing, as you probably learned from Mr. de Lancie. Then you would play scales in a few different keys, maybe scales in thirds in different keys. Then you played your lesson from Barret or Ferling and transposed it into a nearby key. If you got through alive you left. (he chuckles)

In spite of his almost tyrannical methods, I loved him. He was very good to me from the beginning. He could be hard, yes. He was as hard on me as anyone else, but I didn’t seem to take it too personally. Some students did. Perhaps I did not because he was so friendly aside from when I was taking a lesson.”[5]

Tabuteau was obviously a demanding and exacting teacher, whose fiery disposition was legendary, it seems. And it was this intensity that could both make his students extremely successful and make them quit. Minsker also said in the same interview:

“Not all of [Tabuteau’s students] made it. He broke some of them; they couldn’t take it. Many of them might have had real talent and could have been good oboe players, good oboe players, but not great oboe players like de Lancie turned out to be. He used the same methods with all of them.”[6]

Not everyone was able to withstand the criticism and humiliation of which Tabuteau was capable, which apparently led to many who gave up the oboe altogether. However, as another perspective on Tabuteau’s questionable teaching disposition, John Mack said in his interview with Melissa Stevens:

“I have been told by a friend of mine who has retired from his position that he would never be able to forgive Tabuteau for what he did to him at Curtis. He also said, ‘I would not have accomplished what I had while I was in school had it not been for my over-riding fear of that man.’ I thought, ‘I have long ago forgiven him for any lumps I ever got, because I got so much from him.’ He hardened you.”[7]

Most of his students who spoke of Tabuteau in hindsight did so with a mixture of awe, amusement, and gratitude; even through the hardship, Tabuteau had a gift for inspiring and nurturing his students in his own way. It seems that through his methods and his temperament that could even be considered abusive (he often referred to his students by the name “Stupid” during lessons and coachings), Tabuteau perfected a teaching formula style that cultivated innumerable growth and, as John Mack noted, prepared his students for the harsh realities and demands of careers classical music and symphony orchestras.

            There are two systems of musical expression that define Tabuteau’s contributions to musical pedagogy, which were mainly in the development of a student’s understanding of musicality and phrasing. The first of these two was his system of numbers. There is no list of concepts to which Tabuteau’s numbers are definitively adapted, as many of his students name a mixture of concepts, including dynamics, degrees of intensity, note direction, rhythm, and color variation. In John Mack’s interview with Stevens, he said:

“The purpose of the numbers system, as far as I am concerned, were some overt and some covert. Overt was to help you learn to control what you were doing, to be able to scale something over an amount of time and always keep your line… to get you to control your ‘givings.’ In other words, scale things so they sound reasonable and continuous… The covert purposes of the number system would be to get you to see things his way. In other words, he would have you scaling things the way he wanted them to be done and gradually you would absorb this.”[8]

The immediate return of the numbers, according to Mack, was control of tone, air, phrase, line, etc. However, he also goes back to the character of Tabuteau as a domineering man, as Mack notes he probably also used the numbers to ingrain his way of doing things into his students. In Eliza E. Thomason’s dissertation discussing Tabuteau’s art of phrasing, she notes that Tabuteau himself refers to three different applications of the number system in Marcel Tabuteau’s Lessons: wind control and breath taking, distribution of tone color lending direction to a phrase, and direction of a phrase through the repetition of numbers on successive notes.[9]

Thomason breaks these three applications into four different categories of numbers to explain their implantation into exercises and music. The first is the system of “scaling numbers.” When discussing wind control and breath taking, Thomason explains that Tabuteau refers to the intensity of a note which could be raised or lowered over the course of one long note, or rise and descend note by note. It is in some ways intensity in relation to dynamic level, but perhaps more accurately intensity in relation to tone color, as that was so often the focus of Tabuteau’s teachings. For example, one would hold a long tone starting at one and successively increase the number to five, and decrease to one again over the course of that single long tone. When articulating notes, the same concept applies but with each number corresponding to, say, a quarter note, with the same progression as done in the long tone. This exercise emphasizes the aforementioned control of breath and wind, phrasing, and tone/color all through one (repeated) tone. The second category is “motion numbers, [which] are used to show direction or forward motion in a passage of small note values such as fast eighth-notes, triplets, or sixteenth notes.”[10] These numbers are both successive and repeated to underscore the inflection and direction of the notes in relation to one another. They can indicate both the overall line and the individual emphasis of each note. The third category she notes is “rhythmic numbers,” which show the direction of a phrase and establish rhythmic accuracy. These numbers are especially useful for odd meter subdivisions of the beat into five or seven, or passages moving between different subdivisions. The larger, more intense numbers would notate the downbeat of a new subdivision, emphasizing the new meter, while the smaller numbers would notate the offbeats that are less important in the rhythmic structure. The fourth and final category Thomason notes is “phrasing numbers” which Tabuteau “used to lead his students toward… beautiful musical expression.”[11] These numbers are a sort of synthesis of the previous categories, and are probably the type of numbers Tabuteau would be employing when using the number system in his own teaching. These numbers are able to show scaling, color, inflection, and phrasing all at once through an understanding of the music and the system.

This explanation of the numbers is only one way of using them to further a performer’s understanding of music. Thomason’s breakdown of the different applications of the number system is very usable, though in my opinion somewhat overcomplicated; it underscores how effective and ubiquitous Tabuteau’s method has become. Tabuteau used this technique in lessons, coachings, and recorded his explanations of it in his later years, but it has endured and evolved because the system is a logical and analytical approach to a musical phrase that is easy to understand and can be implemented in almost any manner to best suit the individual, as Thomason herself demonstrated. It applies not only to oboe playing, where it no doubt was integral to the musical development of his students, but to any instrument and music as a whole.

The second system is the relationship between tension and resolution, action and repose, or what Tabuteau often referred to as “up and down” as an impulse or inflection. John Mack said of inflections, “[Tabuteau] just spoke very much about the up and the down impulse, and you were not allowed to breath between them. I heard the demise of a student having a lesson on inflections. He played a scale using the inflections and breathed between an up and a down several times. It was November of his first year, and this kid was finished.”[12]

In this system of musicality, Sarah M. Wetherbee describes the inflections as “metrical groupings in terms of the motion from the upbeat to the downbeat rather than in terms of strong and weak beats.”[13] These up and downs can be compared to the raising and lowering of one’s foot while walking, the orbit of the earth around the sun, or breathing itself. The up inflection would indicate tension and motion towards a point, where the down inflection would finish the motion and relax to a resolution. Each inflection can be applied to a note, or sometimes more than one inflection applied to a single note if necessary, and breaks down the direction of the phrase. Tabuteau often compared the inflections to the up bow and down bow on the violin, using this analogy to get across a physicality of the abstract idea. This system of phrasing was the second facet of Tabuteau’s teaching of musicality and phrasing, one that was, again, a simple and direct method to furthering the student’s understanding of important musical concepts like tension/release and phrase motion.

            As a reed maker, Tabuteau evolved the European style of reeds to suit his needs in his career. Amy Galbraith goes into detailed analysis of the American style of reed scraping in her dissertation on the “American School of Oboe Playing.” She notes that the European style reed, or “short scrape,” is “a reed where the bark has only been shaved to the half-way point or less between the opening and the binding.”[14] A “long scrape” [the American style] is a reed in which the bark has been removed until approximately four millimeters above the binding… [it] evolved in America through Marcel Tabuteau and his students.”[15] She breaks down the “American style” reed into four parts: the tip, the lay (or slope), the heart, and the back.

The tip is the thinnest part of the reed, where the opening is located. It is thinnest on the sides and corners and slightly thicker in the center, creating a darker tone quality. The back corners are scraped farther down the reed, creating an “inverted V” shape. The lay is the transitional area, the blending between the tip and the heart. Galbraith notes that this area affects the resistance and stability of the reed, and that in the short scrape, this section is often combined with the heart. The heart is the thickest area of the reed that follows the natural curvature of the gouge. It is thinner on the sides than the middle, and affects the resistance and tone quality of the reed. The back is what is scraped between the heart and the binding. It contains “windows,” thinned channels second only to the tip that allow for a thicker heart and richer tone quality. They also stabilize the upper register. Other aspects of the reed skeleton include the spine and rails, thicker bones that strengthen the reed overall.

This “long scrape” reed style is ubiquitous in American oboe playing. Almost every American oboist employs this basic structure or some variation of this reed style, which has become synonymous with the dark, rich American oboe sound. John Minsker said to Stevens that, “[Tabuteau] spend his lifetime at the studio making reeds so he was playing constantly… I never really heard him practice, aside for practicing what he was playing that week, and that was more a case of his finding a suitable reed for that program. He did not need to practice, but he did need a decent reed.”[16] According to Minsker, Tabuteau spent much of his time perfecting this style of reed that would allow him the range of expression required in Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra, and his students followed suit, passing this reed scrape down to their students until it has become the uniform style it is today.

[1] Lana C. Neal, “The American School: Its History and Hallmarks,” The Double Reed 22 (1999):51.

[2] Laila Storch, liner notes, Marcel Tabuteau’s Lessons, CD, Boston Records, 1996.

[3] Laila Storch. “Tabuteau, Marcel.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed March 19, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/27348.

[4] Laila Storch, “Marcel Tabuteau,” To the World’s Oboists. 2, no. 1 (March 1974): 5.

[5] Melissa Stevens, “Marcel Tabuteau. Pedagogical concepts and practices for teaching musical expressiveness: An oral history” (PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 1999).

[6] Stevens, “Marcel Tabuteau.”

[7] Stevens, “Marcel Tabuteau.”

[8] Stevens, “Marcel Tabuteau.”

[9] Eliza E. Thomason, “Marcel Tabuteau and his art of phrasing: Applied to Suite No. 6 for Cello (Transcribed for Viola) in G Major, by J. S. Bach” (PhD diss., University of Cincinnati, 2010).

[10] Thomason, “Marcel Tabuteau.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Stevens, “Marcel Tabuteau.”

[13] Sarah M. Wetherbee, “Marcel Tabuteau’s influence on string playing at the Curtis Institute of Music: A philosophy of twentieth-century performance practice” (PhD diss., Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, 2002).

[14] Amy M. Galbraith, “The American School of Oboe Playing: Robert Bloom, John de Lancie, John Mack, and the Influence of Marcel Tabuteau,” (PhD diss., West Virginia University, 2011).

[15] Galbraith, “The American School.”

[16] Stevens, “Marcel Tabuteau.”