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An Interview with Jean-Pierre Rampal

Arthur Hegvik | April 2020

This article originally appeared in the November 1972 issue of The Instrumentalist.

     There is a certain style to a Rampal concert — an aura of unhurried graciousness seems to impart the old-world atmosphere of an earlier time. His very appearance is Baroque. The dashing handsomeness of his early concert days has mellowed like the rounded courtliness of his graceful music and has endeared him to audiences throughout the world. This quality is equally evident in person. The day of our interview was bitter cold in New York, but his Park Avenue hotel suite was an oasis of easy warmth. A large round-faced man, his presence was like a stamp of authenticity on the quasi-baroque sitting room in which we talked.
     A red turtleneck, the watchband worn outside the sleeve, accented a dark blazer and soft black boots. The two golden flutes lay in an open double case on a desk nearby.
     Rampal speaks excellent English in a melodious, constantly modulating baritone and exudes a childlike, ingenuous charm completely lacking in artifice or pretension. His ruddy face flushes quite red whenever his feelings are involved and acts as an almost perfect emotional barometer.
     Of all wind performers, he alone travels in the select company of the truly international concert artist — a field dominated by violinists, pianists, and singers. When I questioned him about this unique position, his answer was typically modest.

     "It is, primarily, the literature. The piano has a large repertoire of fantastic works; the same with the violin. Conversely, the cello repertoire is much less, so it is not as common to hear a cello recital."
But what of the clarinet? It certainly has an enormous literature.
     Yes, but it is short, quite short. Many good works, of course, but mostly of this century, and not enough of the other periods. No Bach, for example. One must have seven or eight full programs in order to travel, to tour.
     For instance, I come to this country several months each year for recitals, chamber music, appearances with orchestras, and recordings; if I wish to return I am obliged to have many programs — a wide range of choice for those who would hire me. I do not think this is possible on the clarinet, or on any other wind instrument for that matter.
     As for the flute, we are coming into what I think will someday be called the "Golden Age of the Flute."

And what of your audiences? Do you notice a difference here from other countries?
     No. It is quite the same now all over the world, but I must say that American audiences are very enthusiastic. And they are not snobbish. They don’t go with a preconceived idea of "I want to hear this" or "I want to listen to that." They trust the artist, especially if they like him. "Make your choice, play your program — we trust you." It’s very good.
     And very inspiring. It’s a young audience in this country — even the older people. Very direct, and I like this.

I’m very struck by the beautiful engraving on the mouthpiece of one of your flutes: it’s almost like an inset. Is that the Louis Lot?
     Yes. Made by Louis Lot himself in 1869.

Is it the lower pitch, then?
     No, because for a brief period they actually made the pitch higher. This started somewhere around 1867 and lasted for maybe ten years, no more. Then it went back.
     So I’m lucky to find this flute; I would say it’s about 440. Now they are playing 442 or 444, and it’s not too hard to get up there.

Are you referring to orchestras in this country?
     Some of the orchestras. Until recently it was generally 440, and this was best, but now they are raising it. I think New York is now 442. Boston, of course, has been high for many years. In France we play 443, 444. This is not too bad, if they don’t go any higher, bat some places are becoming impossible, especially in Europe. In Belgium, in Austria, they are now 448!
     They think it is more brilliant, but it kills a violin. It is death for an old Strad, to pull it tight like that, and it is not good for the wind instruments. You can-not get the roundness, the sonority of tone.
     I hope the pitch will eventually go down: 442, no more.

How did you happen to acquire this flute?

     By chance; just by luck.
     I had heard that Louis Lot made one gold flute — only one. But what had become of it? Nobody knew.
     Then one day somebody told me of a golden flute in an antique shop. I immediately went to the shop, played the flute, and of course bought it. That was in 1948.
     Then, when I came to this country on my second visit, I purchased the gold Haynes at the factory in Boston. I have used it ever since, but I always carry the Louis Lot with me.

Is there a big difference in tone between the two?
     Not so much. In the beginning, yes, because I was not used to it, but after one or two years I was able to do the same things on both.

How would you describe the difference between a gold and a silver flute?
     It is very little, like the difference between silver and silver plate. Silver is more brilliant, and gold is more mellow — darker. And if you have a brilliant tone by yourself, naturally, then I think it is good to have a gold flute.

I notice both of your flutes have only the low C foot joint.
     Yes. I don’t like the low B.

Because of the difference in tone?
    No. It is just not necessary. Besides, it ruins the other low notes and upsets the balance of the instrument — all for the one time a year you play the low B. This is nonsense! Nobody plays a B foot joint in Europe. Nobody.

Any flutist who hears you in person must admire your low register — the power, the volume, and especially the attack. The notes speak instantaneously, without the slight lag that is so common. Have you developed this in any special way?
     No, I don’t think so. There are many levels of flute players, of course, just as with pianists and violinists; but I think most of the great flute players of the world are great because they have a good technique of attack. The attack must come from the diaphragm. And if you have a good attack coming from the diaphragm, and not from the throat, you have a good low register.
     Except if you have bad lips — a bad configuration of the lips. That is different.
     That is what I call a gift from nature, and you must have that gift to play an instrument. Most of the time when people are not good on an instrument it is because they chose the wrong one. They say, "I want to play the flute," and would have been better on the oboe. It is difficult to say in advance what would be best.
     Some people are just able to produce better sounds than others who are just as clever and study with the same teacher.
     When Mr. Stern presses a string on the violin, what is the difference from another man? A small thing. Just flesh. It is impossible to know exactly why.
     Flutes are made very exactly by machine and then finished by hand, yet there is no flute identical to another. Why? A small thing. Only a small thing.
     And so it is with the low register. You must have the gift, and then the attack must come from the diaphragm.

Where do you begin with a student who doesn’t do this?
     It is difficult, especially if the student is already strong, but strong with some mistakes.

It is easier if he is a weaker student?
     It is better, yes. If somebody is already good, but not good enough — strong, but with many mistakes — then you have to take out the mistakes to build something else. You have to destroy.
     It is like you do with old buildings in this country. Instead of repairing and fixing, as we do in Europe, you destroy it, take it out, and then put in a new one.
     But this is difficult to do with a human being. It is dangerous. You have to be careful.

     Yes, especially in the beginning. You must not say, "All is wrong." Instead you must say, "That is very good," and then, little by little, you try this, you try that. But you must be very patient.
     Unfortunately, I am not so patient, but I know teachers who are.

I understand your father gave you instruction.
     Yes, from the beginning. I started when I was 13. Not so young, but then, not so old.
What made you want to start the flute?
     Listening to my father. He was professor of flute at the Conservatoire in Marseilles, so, as a result, I became very involved. And when I started to play, I started with the tone of my father in my head. So he was my only teacher and model.

Did you have regular lessons with him?
     Only at the conservatory, never at home. He never gave me a private lesson. (Sometimes in passing my room he would say, "Be careful of this, or that . . ." And we played duets often — every day. But he never taught me privately.)
     You know, in France we don’t teach privately. It is by class — always.
     So I went to the conservatory 3 times a week, and he taught me no more than the others.

Did you study solfege?
     Yes, everybody is obliged to study solfege. Sometimes I think we make a little too much of it, but essentially it is good, and I think it is necessary. In the United States, however, there is not enough of it.

Do you do much teaching?
     I teach at the Paris Conservatory, but, with 150-160 concerts a year, I am usually gone over 6 months.
     Fortunately, I have a very good assistant, Alain Marion, who conducts my classes while I am gone. He is a marvellous teacher: a young man, a pupil of my father and myself, and a fantastic player.

How do you feel about the masterclass, as compared to private lessons?
     Much better, because people can help each other. There is competition, but a nice competition. They are inspired by each other — a sort of osmosis.

How frequent are your masterclasses at the conservatory?
     Three a week, and each one is from 9:00 until 1:00 — four hours.

That’s a very large class.
     Yes, but in 7 hours you can hear many people. Each one plays every 2 days for 10 or 15 minutes. They have time to improve before they play again, so it is better than if they play every day. And they get involved in the playing of the others — it is very good.

I notice that your embouchure is formed to the side of your mouth. Is there a reason for this?
     No, it is a mistake. It was my mistake when I was young, and I somehow managed with it. I must have been a lazy boy. And when young people say, "Ah, so you play this way," I tell them not to imitate me. It is, finally, a personal thing.

How do you feel about the thumb Bb? Do you add it automatically in flat keys?
     Yes, always. I use the thumb Bb constantly, except in sharps, and even then I use it sometimes, because it is a better fingering.

Do you ever slide the thumb from B natural to Bb?
     Yes, there are some passages where this makes a nice effect if you do it well. It is a good technique to know, but it must be practiced to work out the gymnastics.

There are teachers in this country who feel the opposite, and don’t want their students to use the thumb Bb at all, even in flat keys.
     But it is made for that! If you play a fast scale with a Bb and no B natural, why should you avoid it? The action is very fast, and in flats the other is not so logical.
     It is not a false fingering. In fact, from the standpoint of tone it is the best fingering. The Bb fingering with the first finger of each hand closes more pads — it is not as open as the thumb Bb. If you have a Bb next to a B natural, it is better to use the small key on the right than the "one and one" fingering, because, again, it is very direct and does not add another pad.

What about the difference between the lower and upper registers on the flute? Do you make any changes in the mouth?
     No, not in the mouth, only in the direction of the blowing, and this is not the same thing. If you change the mouth position, you lose the homogeneity of the tone. To produce a beautiful, homogeneous tone, so there is not a stop or a jump between notes, you must think always of the passage from note to note, even in rapid music.
     And you must retain the same mouth position. Otherwise you have a flutist for the low register, a flutist for the middle register, and a flutist for the high register. You have three flute players, and you must be only one — always the same.
How do you effect this change of air direction? In other words, what actually causes the air direction to shift? Some players move the lower jaw for the transition between registers.
     No, I do not agree with this. It is all done on the wall of the flute, and I think it is just a matter of closing or opening the lips. It is really a simple thing, and involves only the gymnastics of moving the air column. Think of the air column as a part of your body, like a finger, which you can direct up or down very easily.

Flutists the world over go sharp on the high notes.
     It is because they change the position of the mouth, and they don’t play with their ears. (A very good player doesn’t go sharp. Julie Baker doesn’t.)
     A musician must always play with his ears, and not trust the instrument. They are all false. And besides, I can take a flute and change the pitch by almost a fourth of a tone without moving the embouchure or the mouthpiece. It’s very easy. So if you don’t play with the ears — impossible! You must always adjust, and always think the note before you play.

Is there a change in your tongue position between registers?
     No, it is the same.

And where do you place the tongue when you articulate?
     Between and behind the teeth.

Between the teeth?
     Only a little. A tiny bit.

Not where the upper teeth join the gums?

Would you say your tongue is pulled back any to produce your tone?
     The tongue is just — how can I say this? — a stop, a valve. You keep everything open from the diaphragm. The throat doesn’t move. As soon as a wind player plays with his throat, he produces a bad tone. An unnatural tone.

And the vibrato?
     Also from the diaphragm. When you speak, you speak from the diaphragm, not from the throat. When you play, it must also be from the diaphragm.
     And when you speak, it is always with a vibrato. It is impossible to talk without vibrato — impossible. You would have to try very hard.
     And it is the same way with the flute — you must play the flute the way you speak. There is no method for vibrato. You must not worry it, it is natural.
     So if the attack is from the diaphragm (everything is open), and if you have good breath control (by that I mean you keep your breath in — you don’t push, you don’t force it out, you don’t overblow), then there is no problem. The vibrato will be correct, the phrasing will be normal.

How do you find the recording process? Can you work in it and still feel free and expressive?

Many people feel confined by it.
     Yes, especially someone who works alone, like a pianist. But you still have your public. There is an engineer, there is an assistant — there are always people. You play for somebody. Yesterday I started recording sessions with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau —he is a fantastic musician. You play for these people, and even in a recording studio you can find the excitement.

Are there any specific things which you do in these situations to help your own playing, for instance, microphone placement?

     Of course. I trust the engineer, but I also know myself and what I have to do with the different microphones, the different types. I know that this position is better than another, etc., and it is now very rare that I make a mistake in this regard.
     And if, by chance, I am playing for a new company and a new engineer who does not know me, then I am able to help him.
     I know what I have to do. It is a different thing from playing in a hall — it is not the same.

You play differently?
     A little. You know, on the stage you are a prisoner of the people. In a recording you must bring some-thing else, to replace that. The tempos are not completely the same, and so on.

It’s not really a tangible thing?
     No. But you find it instinctively. It’s a different way.

Coming from the rich cultural heritage of Europe, what is your reaction to the musical climate of this country where all of the media are dominated by popular music?
     Well, it is a problem — all is publicity. A company promoting a washing machine must speak to a big mass, to a large audience; so they use pops music. They can’t promote cigarettes playing Mozart, you know. It doesn’t catch the people.
     In Europe most radio stations are sponsored by the state (the private station is rare), so they play light music, they play classical music, and they are not obliged to go in just one direction.
     TV is the same (the French TV is nationalized). You have part theater, part serious music, part jazz. But here all this is left to the educational channel. On the others what do you get? Only pops. It appeals to the masses, to the large audience, and they don’t want to be educated. It will never be done unless there is some form of control.

Can you think of any other country that has gone as far in this direction of exploiting the media commercially?
     No, I can’t. Japan has a large number of channels, like here, but they also have many more serious programs.

How many stations do you have in France?
     Only two, but if you have two good channels, it is enough. Here you try one channel, you try another — quite nothing. In Italy, France, or Germany, there are few stations, but it is a rare occasion when you can’t find something to interest you. You always have a choice: something light, something serious.
     And in France it starts at 11 in the morning and stops at 2 in the afternoon; then starts again from 6 to midnight. Nobody complains. But in the U.S. it is on all the time, and I think eventually this must certainly stun the brain. I have many friends in this country who do not have TV because they do not want to spoil their children.
     It is like hearing music all the time. Finally, you don’t listen to it anymore. If there is anything I detest, it is this constant background music — in every restaurant, every plane, every airport. People get used to the fact that they don’t have to pay attention —they don’t have to listen. And this is not good for music.

How do you feel about music on television? Does the poor fidelity bother you?
     Ah, but is it more inferior than a phonograph recording? One is as false as the other, each in its own way — you cannot trust the techniques (and even if you do have a beautiful record, it is usually played on bad machines). Neither is like a live performance.
     So TV is really not so bad in comparison, and if it is well done, why not? Personally, I like it. I’ve only made one program here (for the educational channel in Chicago), but I saw the tape, and it was very well done.

You perform modern works on your concerts, but I have never noticed any of the aleatory or avante-garde works. Is there a reason for this?
     For me the avante-garde music is cool — very cold. It brings me no feeling, so I prefer to leave it to others. I want to get involved when I play, to express something within myself, and with avante-garde music … well, maybe I am too old. It is not of my time.

Can you put your finger on what you do wish to express?
     No one thing. But if you play Bach, if you play Schubert or Debussy or Prokofiev, there is something to catch, to show, through yourself, to the public. Yet each is different.
     Many composers of today have the impression that everything has already been written in music, that they must make something new. But what is new?
     Music is music, it is sound. You write a melody, a harmony: it is natural. It comes from within. And when a composer writes his music, if he has a strong personality, he will evolve an honest style, perhaps even a new style. The styles of the 18th century, of the 19th century, were like this. But now Prokofiev is old, and somehow, finally, this modern music is music no more.
     If you make only noise, then open the window and listen to the streets. A screech, a rasp, a howl — it means nothing. I can do this myself, I don’t have to buy a ticket.

How widespread do you think aleatory music is in this country as compared to others?
     It is not so prominent here as in Europe. France has not so much, but Germany and Italy are spending a lot of money for this music.

In this country it has never won any support from the public, so it is concentrated in the universities and not concert situations.
     Yes. In concert situations you don’t see anything — very little avante-garde music is ever put on a program.
     But you must remember that composers of all music must live by their teaching if they are to continue. If you are not Mr. Stravinsky, how can you get money for your work? When you are unknown it is very rare, and you are lucky if you get one commission a year.

Do you have any ideas about what direction things are going to move?
     I don’t know. It is moving all the time, it has already moved. But where? In what direction?
     It is like the Polka. Or the Charleston. They leave off for a while, then they start again.
     Ten years ago the young people started to promote the serial music as if it was new; but it is an old system, dating back to before World War I. It disappeared. Ravel came. Prokofiev. Stravinsky. We forgot the serial music. Then, suddenly, after the last war, it came again, and we said, "This is modern music!"
     But it was old music; it is a cycle and a circle. I think the old music will stay — the ancient, the classical, the romantic (we have a big background, you know).
     But little by little we always discover what our fathers already knew.
     And perhaps one day our children will happen upon our avante-garde music and say, "Ah, Classic! A little old, but not bad."