by Charles-David Lehrer
Charles-David ‘Chick’ Lehrer (b. 1940) is an oboist and music historian. He was educated at the University of Michigan (DMA 1968) and UCLA (Ph.D 1990) specializing in the history of the Concerto. He spent most his teaching years at UMass, Amherst and at California State University at Northridge. Chick made his Carnegie Recital Hall debut in 1980 followed by three recordings on Orion. Chick’s teachers included several of Marcel Tabuteau’s brightest students: John de Lancie, Louis Rosenblatt, Alfred Genovese and Ralph Gomberg. His published works, primarily for the International Double Reed Society, are numerous. The website Marcel Tabuteau First-Hand, created in conjunction with Marc Mostovoy, Nancy Lehrer (Chick’s wife), Michael Finkelman, Laila Storch and David Weber, represents in large part, the culmination of Chick’s life-long work.
To get a sense of what it was like playing oboe in Marcel Tabuteau’s time, it is important to hear what Tabuteau, his students, and his musical colleagues had to say. It certainly is eye-opening to learn from them what the Great Musician had to contend with when he went to work each day as principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
I personally remember a time when Lorée oboes were still tuned to Tabuteau’s favorite pitch, A-438 Hz, and how my contemporaries and I sought (or should I say fought) to find ways to get our instruments to play up to the A-440 pitch then current in Philadelphia during the late 1950s. Documentary evidence confirms exactly why low pitch and other practices had been the norm in the Philadelphia Orchestra back in the early years of the 20th Century when Tabuteau was developing his unique sound with its wide dynamic range.
Thanks to Tabuteau and his disciples working with the many artisans (instrument makers, tool makers, and the one supreme repairman) who catered to their needs, those studying oboe nowadays have it so much easier from the ‘get-go.’ Today’s students are unburdened from many of the problems oboists like Tabuteau had to endure, and now have the freedom to better use their time learning an extraordinarily wide range of repertoire, working on florid ornamentation, and committing to memory multiple works, as is today’s norm.
So, dear reader, let us return to those days long past when knowledge about the oboe was held in the hands of a very select few…at a time when Marcel Tabuteau was the most sought-after oboe teacher in the United States. Insofar as instruments and reed-making are concerned, the individuals listed below fill us in on a good part of the story. Their entries were derived from materials presented elsewhere in their entirety on this website.
DB: Donald Baker
DH: Donald Hefner
JMk: John Mack
JM: John Minsker
LS: Laila Storch
MS: Melissa Stevens
MT: Marcel Tabuteau
RF: Rowland Floyd
RM: Reid Messich
LS: After the early 1930s, most of the instruments Tabuteau bought at Lorée appear in the records as Hautbois 1906 modéle Talauteau. Tabuteau’s name was never put on these oboes, of which the identifying feature was the added left-hand F key but no F resonance key. He often said that the simple forked F ﬁngering was “the most beautiful note on the oboe” and that it made possible an alternate, softer tone color on what is normally a rather loud and not-too-easy note to control, especially in the lower register. If you want the full sound of a strong F, you use the left-hand key. To add the E-flat key to the forked F was unthinkable, and in passage work (such as broken thirds), never was one allowed to employ the left-side F key. I believe that Tabuteau felt it necessary to retain the ﬂexibility of being able to use the forked fingering.
LS: By 1922 Tabuteau was buying oboes in groups of three at a time. In the 1930s he sometimes bought as many as six or seven oboes in the same year. Without doubt many were sold to his students, but he was also always looking for something more to his own liking and constantly tried new oboes or a combination of sections from different oboes. Even with oboes of a high level of workmanship, there are variations, and Tabuteau wanted to keep the best from each “batch” for himself. There were instances when Tabuteau would “sell” an oboe to a student, then begin to feel that it was better than his own, and pressure the student to accept a different one.
MT: Naturally, I dropped by Dubois’ place [i.e., Lorée], where, as you had told me, I found some well-crafted instruments of which at least two are playable: numbers one and eleven. I am taking number 11, and you may then have your choice [among the others]. It was very nice [of you] to have left word with Dubois, and to have written to Prades. Have you possibly done the favor of making Casals aware of what the entourage [i.e., the oboe section] is capable of doing? I will write the maestro shortly and make my feelings on the subject clear to him. None-the-less, the main consideration for me is that Lola is happy to be in Prades. If the oboe d’amore won’t sing as you wish it to, arrange that Dubois make you another instrument. I’ll speak to him about the rest. For me, the faults don’t emanate from the lower part of the body, but the upper.
MS: Was Tabuteau also instrumental in improvements being made on the oboe?
JM: Yes. He’d go to Lorée every summer and always come back with 3 to 5 oboes and out of that he’d pick one or two for himself, take them to Moennig and have them ﬁxed up. Lorée did a poor job with the pads.
MS: How were those oboes back then?
JM: They weren’t like today’s oboes. The low notes were very low in pitch and the high notes were quite wild, especially the high A. We used to use the harmonic A very frequently. The oboes were not great, but he was more interested in getting a sound than anything else, so he tolerated the low notes and occasionally would crack on a low note. He experimented with the thickness of the wood and the bore and with bells.
MS: Was he into the repair of oboes?
JM: No, we were fortunate in Philadelphia to have Hans Moennig. He was a superb repairman. His father had a woodwind factory in Germany where he learned the trade before coming to the US. He was a cousin of Walter Guetter, who was the ﬁrst bassoon player in the orchestra. It might have been through Guetter that Tabuteau sent his oboe to Moennig. Once Moennig ﬁxed an instrument, you would not allow anyone else to touch your instrument. He was outstanding and recognized as such.
JMk: Tabuteau was terribly interested in the bells. One time he sent me out in the hall beyond the frosted pane of glass with the door closed to listen to him play on the same oboe with three different bells and come back in and describe them to him afterwards. He could get testy very easily, so easily bored, you can’t believe. If you used the same terminology too much, he just—mmm-hmmm. Then, he sent me back out while he changed the order of the bells. I’m thinking: I’m gonna lose. There’s nothing I can do. I’m gonna get killed dead. Which I did. If I think about my distress and about Tabuteau’s incessant search for something, I know he wasn’t trying to play games with me. He wanted to get feedback from somebody whose ears he thought had something to offer. He was going to do this: he’s going to drive me crazy, maybe I’ll drive him crazy, he’s going to do it anyway, and I’m the one who is gonna get dumped on, so OK-fine. The man had such drive.
RF: Tabuteau had a Marigaux bell on his Lorée oboe. Plus he made alterations by hand on the bell for stability, clarity, pitch, and resonance on the lower notes.
JMk: He used to bring six Lorée oboes back to Philadelphia with him every year from France. I remember going to Moennig’s the day before Tabuteau got back, and Moennig saying, “That son-of-a-bitch is going to show up with six oboes, and he’s going to think that I’m going to fix them up for him. Well, he’s wrong this time!” So, I go back the next day, and there’s Tabuteau, saying “My dear Moennig, what would I do without you?” And Moennig saying, “Yes, Maestro. Yes, Marcel.”
JMk: Something happened during the war [when Tabuteau could not go back to France to bring back new oboes]. Tabuteau was having a great deal of problems with his oboe; it was changeable from day to day. He and Moennig, between them, decided to take a terrible risk. Moennig drilled out the top maybe two or three inches of the bore, replaced it with hard rubber, and re-bored it so that it would not change. And Tabuteau got through until after the war on this oboe that Moennig altered. The bore in the top joint is incredibly important, especially as it’s that small. Most people don’t have a clear idea how weensy the bore of the oboe is at the top. It is less than an eighth of an inch in size. It’s a conical bore and there are little things that can happen that can drive you crazy. What Moennig did for Tabuteau in this instance was to stabilize the top of the bore of the oboe so that Tabuteau was able to play without having this changeable business from day to day, which can happen on the oboe.
DH: One day, in my brashness, I said to Tabuteau, “Sir, I may be late for my lesson next week as I am going to try oboes.” It was like the mushroom cloud, and Tabuteau replied, “Damn fool, I told you I had an instrument for you.” When I had previously asked if he had an oboe I could buy, nothing had come of it. But now, he said he had one, and I was so thrilled at the idea of getting an oboe from Tabuteau that I must have made about ﬁfty reeds and ﬁnally came up with a beautiful one as I wanted to please him. I started to play high notes and how seemingly they became only better. Watching Tabuteau, I saw him getting redder and redder. Tabuteau jumped up, snatched the instrument, and broke the reed, saying, “It’s too good for you!” and I never saw that oboe again.
Tabuteau on Low Pitch
JM: If someone gave him trouble by playing sharp, he would hear about it. Not in front of the whole orchestra, but he would go to him and say, “You are playing sharp and I can’t play.” Tabuteau’s playing depended on a low pitch. If he had to play sharp he lost that dark sound and he lost the ability to maneuver his embouchure. There was no ﬂexibility at all because he was pinching to get up lo the pitch. French horns are notoriously known for playing sharp. If there was a background of French horns which was sharp when he had a solo and he had to try and come up to that, he let them know about it. Of course, he made many enemies that way. He had a pitch problem with Kincaid, our first flutist. Kincaid had a tendency to play sharp, especially after Stokowski left.
Ormandy had no respect for a low pitch. Ormandy had no understanding or the importance of the low pitch and dark sound. Stokowski did and tuned to 438. Whenever there was an intonation problem in the orchestra with Stokowski, I never once heard him say go up in pitch. It was always down. He’d pump the box, a little box with the bellows in it that you could put on the ﬂoor and pump with your foot. It was in front of Louie DeFulvio, the second oboe, and he would pump it.
Tabuteau’s Gouging Machines and Process
JM: I had the key to his studio and kept him company and helped him with preparing the cane and turning the wheel when he wanted to grind his knife and that sort of thing. So I did spend hours and hours with him every week.
MS: Did he get upset with himself making reeds?
JM: Yes, of course, but he never gave up. The gouge, in particular, was an obsession with him. The gouges at that time were very crude compared to what you have today. He had a grinder clamped to a table in such a way that the flat side of the stone was up. He would hold his gouging knife against that and shape it that way. You thought of him as a very poor mechanic and yet he had a knack for grinding that gouging knife. It was a very difficult thing to do. He’d grind the knife and also file the guide. By the time he got done the gouging machine was a mess. You wondered how he ever managed to make a reed, but he did. He got in touch with a mechanic here in Philadelphia by the name of Graf. You may know that name. He got the idea of raising and lowering the block, and pushing it back and forth and putting the blade in an eccentric bearing. These ideas were developed by Graf and Tabuteau. I often went with him when he went to Graf’s shop.
MT: It takes a long time for me to gouge.
DB: The tube cane was soaked a half hour in hot water.
DB: Tabuteau gouges his cane almost every day, soaking it for about 15 seconds after each process [splitting, guillotining, pre-gouging] leading up to actually gouging.
MT: Thickness of the cane after gouging: Sides 40 or 45 mm; center 55 mm. It is impossible to obtain a gouge of these thicknesses with one machine; instead, use one machine for the center of the cane and another for the sides.
DB: The blade in one of Tabuteau’s gouging machines was small, so it did not gouge all the way to the edges of the cane.
DB: The gouge is 40 mm at the sides to a little under 55 mm at the center.
MT: Gouge the cane as follows: 40 mm on the sides, 50 mm in the middle.
MT: The gouging machine blade must be perfectly even.
Excerpt from Tabteau’s August 12, 1946 letter to Laila Storch:
Try to inquire at the Drake if they received a parcel or bag from France containing oboe cane. If so, tell them to keep it with great care! Also try to see Graf, and tell him to do his best to have the machines and shapes ready for me.
JMk: Even in his 60s, he would work untiringly, especially on the gouge, because to him the gouge was the Holy Grail. In a way, I have to say, he was right. I remember saying to him one time, “Maestro, if someone gave you twelve pieces of the best cane in the world, what would you do?” He said, “I wouldn’t touch it.” “Why not?” “I don’t have that. I have this. (A big container of cane in the middle of the studio floor.) I will work on the gouge until I get something that makes that cane go.” That’s what he believed, and he strove for that. I can’t tell you the countless hours we spent together, working on gouging machines. Me, down on my knees turning the wheel for the grindstone, while he would re-grind something and finish it by hand. Then he would gouge cane, chop the ends off, look at it, and then say “Mack! Look at this beautiful gouge!” “Oh, Maestro, it looks really good.” He would make a reed out of it, and ten minutes later [in voice], “Son of a bitch!” and go like this (reed blade smashed against the wall) and then I’m back down on the floor, grinding away again! He would go and go.
The two photographs below show a gouging machine that once belonged to Marcel Tabuteau. It is now owned by Adrian Gnam who kindly photographed it for this website.
LS: “Gradually, as he saw that I [John Mack] was getting more and more adept at all of this, I was allowed to start some reeds; and by the time of the first Casals Festival in 1950, I was making reeds for him. During my last year in Curtis (1950-51), I made every reed he played for the first eleven weeks of his half-season with the Orchestra. He had managed to get a good setting on his gouging machine and he would not touch it for anything.” In contrast to the days Minsker remembered when Tabuteau would make changes in the machine after gouging two or three pieces of cane.
Commentary by Tabuteau regarding reeds and instruments
found in letters to Laila Storch written during the years 1948-1953
Translations from the French originals by Michael Finkelman
18 Feb. 1948: The reeds are always unpredictable, and I am eternally on the hunt for a good gouge.
12 December 1948: I am going to send you, without fail, what remains of the cane gouged on machine no. 1 at the start of the season. Lately, I saw Graf who overhauled for me a gouger encompassing some new ideas which seem to work. You can tell me what you think of this.
18 November 1949: As always, the reeds are recalcitrant, but one can find something among them, and no one complains of this. [presumably a reference to the audiences] I’ll send you a few canes of the latest gouge quite soon.
December 1949: The reeds are very bad: I work like a madman with no good results. I really think it is time for me to quit!
May 1950: When I think of my numerous gouges, it seems to me like a pasha with all his wives. He loves them, and yet he does not know which one to play with. Tell Mack to bind one dozen of each: 2 – 4 – 1, and a few on 3. [= different gouges]
28 January 1950: I again have to ask myself why the canes sent to you arrived split. The ones prepared for me at the same time by young Mack were in perfect condition. Would you like some more from this lot? If so, we will do what is necessary.
28 January 1950: I am back at work. The reeds are not too problematic, and in a moment I’ll be participating in the first broadcast of the season.
5 April 1950: For the [Casals] Festival, you have only to bring the English horn and your oboe. I’m going to make you some English horn reeds, and I have some gouged oboe cane which should bring you luck.
20 November 1951: Any luck with reeds? Here, there is no one left to help me. Rosenblatt enlisted few weeks ago. I tried Kraus, but he is impossible and I decided to do without him. At present I am playing reeds stolen from de Lancie.
26 May, 1952: I went to Longchamps [the casino] where I did nothing but win! Naturally, I dropped by Dubois’ place [i.e., Lorée], where, as you had told me, I found some well-crafted instruments of which at least two are playable: numbers one and eleven. I am taking number 11, and you may then have your choice [among the others].
26 May, 1952: If the oboe d’amore won’t sing as you wish it to, arrange that Dubois make you another instrument. I’ll speak to him about the rest. For me, the faults don’t emanate from the lower part of the body, but the upper.
23 October 1952: Reeds made by the faithful Mack are good: nothing fabulous, but valuable all the same, with a little fixing. I’ve been playing one of the instruments made by Dubois this past summer, and I have to admit that never have I had so much ease in getting what I want out of an instrument, even regarding the pitch! I hope everything is going well for Lola, that [neither] the oboe [nor] the reeds are giving too much bother. I think I have an interesting gouge at the moment and will shortly send you a sample.
26 June 1953: Please have the kindness to tell Mr. Rudié to be sure not to miss stopping by Dr. Budin’s [a relative of Louise Tabuteau], 6 Rue de Maubeuge, telephone Trudaine 32-92, in order to obtain the English horn there. Tell him to be sure to telephone [in advance] to announce his visit: that will be preferable. As I left two oboes with him, tell him to give you one, so Mack can bring it along at the time of his visit to “La Coustiéro”.
MT: Reeds come from making them to express what you want. They are made for your musical ideas.
MT: Everything depends on the reed and the reed depends on the balance.
RM: Tabuteau used to play on staples that were 46.5mm in length. This could only be done by filing the staple and rimming the inside out. I have adopted this method, generally purchasing 47mm staples, then filing the fat ends down with a large bastard file. I then rim the bottom of the staple to create a smooth finish. Many oboes these days are flat in pitch, and I find the slightly shorter staple helps comfortably raise the pitch.
RF: I told him that the first three [reeds] in my reed-case were better. He tried one. MT: It has a good octave crow.
DH: Tabuteau’s reeds were very light, as were Gillet’s, though in a much different way. The great depth and color in his sound came from the intensity and control of the wind and not fundamentally from the resistance of the reed.
MT: Get the feel of the reed before you play and make it sound as you want it to. If reeds play low C# up to F#2 above and then down to to E2 they are not false. Always put ﬁve or six reeds away that play well to keep on hand for emergency, but don’t depend on them. Then try to make one.
DB: Tabuteau’s reeds have what looks like everything has been taken out of the middle in the back. They have a rather short heart, a long tip straight across, with no big bump at integration. They are very responsive but without too much vibration.
MT: Playing on a hard reed is like sitting on a hard chair: One might as well be comfortable.
RF: Reed construction:
MT: Your top note in the crow is somewhat flat. This accounts for the stuffiness and limited quality in your reed.
MT: You can never finish a reed on the same day. The cane does not like to be forced around that little hole in the staple. Adjustments will be necessary later on.
MT: Always test the reed itself, then the reed on a tube of cane prior to putting it on the oboe.
MT: Play scales every day. This will force you to make your reeds better; this is the nurture key.
MT: Reeds are best with the least vibrations; when made this way they present fewer problems.
MS: Did Tabuteau ever demonstrate by playing at your lessons?
JM: Not very much. When I studied privately, it was at his studio. He spent his lifetime at the studio making reeds so he was playing constantly. He might have done some demonstrating there. As I recall, at Curtis he did not demonstrate, except when we had reed classes. We had a reed class once a week.
MS: Would he help you with reeds?
JM: To an extent. He would usually try your reed. I think it was just a case of his wanting to pick up a little compensation that he had the reed classes. He really didn’t teach very much about reeds there, but he would look at them and criticize them.
MS: Did you ever play on his reeds?
JM: Yes I did. And they were marvelous. You didn’t have to pinch at all. It was so easy to make an attack and expand the sound. You could blow us much as you wanted and it never became harsh. His reeds were simply wonderful. Of course, they never suited him, and he he spent his life in the studio making reeds.
MS: How was it that you got to play on his reeds?
JM: He took me as an “assistant“ in his studio. I had the key to his studio and would prepare the cane for him. In the mornings he’d go to a rehearsal, and I’d go to the studio and do my practicing. After rehearsal, he would return to the studio and spend the entire day there making reeds, whether he had a concert or not. Of course, I’d hear him playing. He would try the program for the week. There’s no doubt I heard him more than anyone else ever did. I feel very fortunate there, and I’d give anything to hear that sound again. It was very dark and he could get so much color.
MS: How did he work on getting this dark sound? Did he spend most or his time with the reed?
JM: Yes, but just with the reed. I never heard him really practice, aside from 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.
LS: There has always been a good deal of curiosity concerning how and when Tabuteau changed the style of his reed making. An interesting photograph taken around 1915, shortly before he went to the Philadelphia Orchestra, shows Tabuteau, still with a fair amount of hair, his easily recognizable heavy eyebrows, and a mustache, wearing a stickpin in his impeccable necktie. He is holding an oboe, and one can clearly see his classic ﬁnger position and the reed with its conventional short French scrape.
LS: It is generally thought that Tabuteau began to experiment with a longer scrape only after he became interested in the results achieved by Peter Henkelman, the long-time English horn player of the Philadelphia Orchestra and favorite of Stokowski. He would also have been impelled by Stokowski’s demands to find a way to blend more completely with the different colors of the other woodwind instruments. According to Wally Bhosys, there may have been an additional impetus for Tabuteau to change his sound and reed style. Bhosys knew some of the wind players from Tabuteau’s early years in the United States, including the bassoonist Auguste Mesnard, one of the ‘Famous Five’ brought over by Damrosch in 1905. He played jobs with Mesnard, who told him stories about how Tabuteau would sometimes crack on the low notes and wobble on high ones with that short French scrape. Whenever Henkelman played a solo on the English horn, Stokowski had him take a bow. Lewis Raho, the second oboe before DiFulvio, said, “You could see the smoke coming out of Tabuteau’s head and he started fooling around with the long scrape.” Some believe that Tabuteau was already experimenting with reed changes on his own while he was in New York—that he had been impressed by a German oboist there and tried to combine French ﬂuency with a fatter sound. Bassoonist Ferdinand Del Negro, who remembered Tabuteau’s playing from the early 1920s, said that his sound was thinner then but had “ﬂare, like the old French oboists.”
Tabuteau’s Reeds During his Latter Years
LS: For weeks he didn’t even go to the Studio. Mme Tabuteau wanted him to get used to what retirement would be like. I would go on Monday evenings, soak the cane, split and chop it, shape and tie five or six reeds which I would then finish during the week at my own place. On Friday I took them to Tabuteau’s apartment between the Orchestra’s morning rehearsal and the afternoon concert. Often he would play on them right away.
In a letter of 13 November 1950, Tabuteau showed his appreciation of the current situation: “Imagine that since the month of February I have not yet made a single reed. The good Mac [Mack] has freed me from this infernal nightmare. It doesn’t sound exactly as I would like, but everyone is happy and I have now only to wait for the benefits of Social Security. It seems, they say, that the orchestra may join the plan. Enclosed is the program for next week (Tombeau de Couperin, Milhaud Symphony No. 1, Beethoven Emperor Concerto with Serkin). I’ll let you know how it goes; if the reeds are up to the task, I’ll tell Mac to think of you. He is really splendid (épatant) notre Mac.”
But the welcome respite from reed inferno could not last forever, even with the help of “le brave Mac,” whose own account continues: “Around the ninth week something happened and a couple of the reeds did not close well on the sides. Tabuteau immediately accused me of having changed the gouge. But by then I was learning how he was, and had taken the precaution early on of gouging eighteen pieces of cane which I dated, put in a little box, and stored away in one of his desk drawers. Now I could show him this cane. When he tied some reeds on his original gouged cane, I was vindicated. However, then nothing would stop him from getting back to the Studio and beginning to fuss with the gouging machine again. I used to worry about how much he did with that.”
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