Paris Conservatory Solos de Concours, A Look at Five Pieces by Female Composers

Caity Piccini Massoud | December 2015

    While the flute contest pieces at the Paris Conservatory from 1824 until the end of the twentieth century have featured a breadth of styles and unique challenges, they have predominately been composed by men. The first woman commissioned to write a contest piece was the well-known French song composer Cécilé Chaminade in 1904. Jeanine Rueff was the next woman to compose a contest piece for the flute fifty years later, followed by Ginette Keller in 1968, Thérèse Brenet in 1974, and Betsy Jolas in 1977. These women all have received numerous prizes, been honored with awards, and have led successful careers, yet their important contribution to the flute repertoire is often underplayed.1 These works are outstanding pieces that are not performed and heard enough.

Solos de Concours
    Since the establishment of the Paris Conservatory in 1795, the solos de concours have been used to test each student’s mastery of his or her instrument. These compositions challenge them to attain pure tone, clean articulation, and flawless technique all within the scope of a musical interpretation. Every June, graduating students put their years of training to the test in order to graduate from the Conservatory with the highest honors, earning either a Premier or Deuxième Prix. A majority vote for a prize from an uneven-numbered jury panel (not including the flute professor) is not only a personal achievement for a student, it can also lead to employment, including a position in the l’Orchestra de Paris as well as conductor Jules Pasdeloup’s Société des Jeunes Artistes du Conservatoire.

Early Repertoire
    In the first flute concours in 1824, students performed Benoit Berbiguier’s Fifth Concerto. From 1824 until the late nineteenth century, test pieces alternated between those written by flute professors Jean-Louis Tulou and Henri Altès.
     Upon his appointment as professor in 1893, Paul Taffanel sought to raise the standards of flute playing and challenge his students with new works commissioned by contemporary composers. In order to elevate the quality of flute playing and showcase the instrument’s displays of musicality as well as technical brilliance, Taffanel championed test pieces that challenged his students. He stated that the composition should “contain the wherewithal to test the examinees on matters of phrasing, expression, tone control, and virtuosity.”2 Taffanel also advised composers of newly commissioned works to write one continuous movement of contrasting sections or an Andante followed by an Allegro and to keep the pieces under six minutes in length.3
     Taffanel selected composers he thought would epitomize the French style of flute playing in their pieces and hoped that these works would purify the solo flute repertoire.4 For example, Gabriel Fauré’s Fantaisie, Op.79 (1898), Alphonse Duvernoy’s Concertino, Op.45 (1899), Louis Ganne’s Andante et Scherzo (1901), and Cécile Chaminade’s Concertino, Op.107 (1902) all contain not only technically challenging virtuosic passages, but lyrical lines that present their own difficulties as well as require musical expression and shaping. 

French Teaching Methods
    New works in the early 1900s showcased the flute as a strong solo instrument and highlighted the advancements made in its construction following the acceptance of the Boehm flute at the turn of the century. In her dissertation on chamber music in France from 1850 to 1950, Susan Nanette Hayes notes that “the acceptance of the Boehm flute in France as well as the introduction by Paul Taffanel of new teaching methods at the Conservatoire, had a direct effect on the music written for the instrument.”5 The teaching methods Hayes refers to include the advocacy of pure tone, natural vibrato, and impeccable technique. Taffanel instructed his students in masterclasses and lessons, emphasizing good tone quality, sonorous colors, and finger dexterity. Taffanel often demonstrated in class his sonority in the low register and was known for his singing tone.
    Taffanel’s student Georges Barrère remembered, “quality as well as quantity of tone and fine technique were only a small part of his splendid characteristics as a flute player.”6 In his interviews with Edward Blakeman, Marcel Moyse remembered Taffanel’s sound sharing similar qualities to that of a singer. Concerning Taffanel’s vibrato, Moyse described it as “light” and “discreet.”7 Taffanel’s student Adolphe Hennebains recounts, “When he spoke to us of notes with vibrato or expression, he told us with a mysterious air that these notes, forte or piano, seemed to come from within himself. One had the impression that they came directly from the heart or the soul.”8 Taffanel was an inspiration to his students, and he defined the French school of flute playing, a tradition that would be passed down through Conservatory flute professors and carried on through the music he commissioned.

Cécile Chaminade
    For the 1902 solos de concours, Taffanel called upon Cécile Chaminade, a popular musical figure of the time. Chaminade regularly performed her works in concert, and the publication and wide distribution of her songs served as her main means of income. Chaminade built a career largely on her own, despite the social confines of her era. She was accepted to study at the Conservatory, however, her father did not approve and instead obtained private lessons for her with Conservatory professors. Without the exposure to an educational institution’s atmosphere and the influence of peers, Chaminade relied on the guidance of her mentors and her own intuition to shape her musical style and taste. Her music was noted for its beautiful melodies, “elegantly and naturally developed” ideas, and “fundamentally French” style.9
    Chaminade’s Concertino, Op.107, met Taffanel’s solos de concours requirements. It provided challenges of expression and technique within one continuous movement. Chaminade took each repetition of the flute’s melody as an opportunity to add embellishments and ornamentations. Throughout the piece, there is also a continuous build of energy. Chaminade indicated the increases of intensity with stringendo markings over florid passages, including a vivo section featuring winding slurred triplets in alternation with double-tongued sixteenth notes. The second theme, marked più animato e agitato, explores a melody at a forte dynamic in the lower range of the flute. This gave Taffanel’s students the opportunity to mimic their professor’s resonant sound in the low register. Chaminade’s Concertino added a refined work to the growing solo flute repertoire of the time.

The War Years
    Upon Taffanel’s death in 1908, Adolphe Hennebains was appointed as flute professor. Hennebains and later successors, including Leopold Jean-Baptiste Lafleurance, Philippe Gaubert and Marcel Moyse, passed down Taffanel’s teaching traditions and upheld the French school of flute playing. Despite the turmoil of World War II and the Nazi invasion of Paris in 1940 that forced many citizens with Jewish ties, including Moyse, to flee the city, the Conservatory remained open. Moyse’s vacant position was filled by Gaston Crunelle, who remained at the Conservatory until 1969. The war caused artists and musicians to seek ways of preserving French tradition, culture, and talent. Claude Delvincourt, named Conservatory Director in 1941, fought to keep all of the students at the Conservatory and insisted that they had important roles in the orchestras and choirs to avoid their being taken to German prison camps. Delvincourt also supported young contemporary composers and named Olivier Messiaen professor of harmony in 1941. “Messiaen’s class quickly gained a reputation as a sympathetic home for the most adventurous student composers.”10
    The war brought a wave of extremely challenging and increasingly difficult works for the flute students competing in the concours. In her dissertation, “The Paris Conservatory and the ‘Solos de Concours’ for flute, 1950-1955,” Kathleen Cook points out the departure from trends of the early 1900s. She states, “Solos written at the beginning of the twentieth century are similar to each other regarding form, length, and harmonic and technical emphasis. These solos, highly romantic in quality, contain a two-part form, which consists of a slow, often cantabile opening movement followed by a faster more technical second movement. The solos of 1930 and after are more diverse and of greater difficulty and the individual styles of each composer becomes more obvious.”11
    New, more difficult concours works included Henri Dutilleux’s Sonatine (1943), André Jolivet’s Chant de Linos (1944), Sonatine by Pierre Sancan (1946), and Olivier Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir (1952).

Later Women Composers
    In the middle and latter half of the 20th century a number of women wrote solos de concours pieces, including Jeanine Rueff, Ginette Keller, Thérèse Brenet, and Betsy Jolas. They were all affected by Messiaen’s ideas, either directly as members of his progressive studio, or through the influence of his teaching and music. Their pieces, written from 1954 to 1977, featured rhythmic complexity and extended techniques while still demanding artistic expression. They often strayed from the two-part Adagio-Allegro form suggested by Taffanel, but continued to perpetuate the French tradition as well as Taffanel’s goal of elevating the instrument and expanding the repertoire.

Jeanine Rueff
    During her time as a student at the Conservatory, Rueff studied with Henri Büsser. She became an accompanist for the institution in 1950, an assistant to the saxophone and clarinet studios, and professor in 1959. Rueff was a winner of numerous prizes and competitions including the Grand Prix de Rome in 1948.
    In 1954 Rueff was commissioned to write a flute work for the concours. Her piece, Diptyque, for flute and piano, seems characteristic of Messiaen’s rhythmic complexity and is perhaps a reference to his own composition by the same name for organ in 1930. In her dissertation, Cook suggests that Reuff’s title, Diptyque, may be a reference to the art term diptych, two tablets or paintings either attached or intended to be hung together: “The two defined sections of Rueff’s Diptyque, Moderato and Allegro, are full of colorful contrasts in style and mood.”12 The opening Moderato in 5/8 features free cadenza passages for the flute. The chordal accompaniment of piano gives the flutist liberties in the more florid and technical passages and allows for interpretive freedom. The second section is a rhythmically driven Allegro, alternating between 7/8 and 3/4 meter. Challenges include the use of five against three and rhythmic displacement. Flutter-tonguing is utilized as an extended technique.

Ginette Keller
    Ginette Keller was a student of Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen at the Conservatory before becoming a professor herself in 1970. Keller wrote Chant de Parthénope for the 1968 concours. The programmatic piece calls upon the Greek epic poem, The Odyssey, and the mythological siren, Parthénope who tries to lure Ulysses into a shipwreck with her songs. When she fails, the siren throws herself into the ocean.
    Keller’s atonal composition for flute and piano is divided into three sections. The flute’s opening melody mimics the siren’s song, drawing the listener in with soft, fluid phrases in meters without clear downbeats, such as 114, 124, and 134. Parthénope’s growing persuasion can be heard in the widening registers and intensifying melodic phrase. Siren shrieks are imitated by the extended technique, flutter-tonguing, and trills in the flute’s third octave. Keller employs additional extended techniques throughout the work such as portando and harmonics. In her dissertation, “The Paris Conservatoire concours tradition and the solos de concours for flute, 1955-1990,” Melissa Colgin states, “The return to the opening tempo portrays the final scene of drowning, painted with rolled piano chords and the flute’s plummet to the low register.”13

Thérèse Brenet
    Thérèse Brenet graduated from the Conservatory with honors and won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1965. Brenet became a professor at the Conservatory in 1970 and wrote the flute contest piece for the concours in 1974. Her Pantomime was the first concours piece for unaccompanied flute as well as the second to do away with meter altogether. On the first and last page of the score, Brenet includes quotations from the poetry of Paul Verlaine. The first is extracted from Verlaine’s poem, Pantomime published in 1869. “Ce faquin d’Arlequin combine l’enlèvement de Columbine et pirouette quatre fois.” [That impertinent Harlequin schemes the abduction of Columbine and whirls around four times.] As a reference to the Harlequin’s whirl around four times, Brenet’s Pantomime is organized into four movements: Prelude, Répliques, Ostinato, and Postlude. Following the Postlude, Brenet includes the line, “Messieurs, eh bien? Do, mi, sol. Hé! bonsoir, la lune!” [Well, gentlemen? Do, mi, sol. Hey Good evening, moon!] from Verlaine’s poem, Sur l’herbe, published in 1869.
    The first movement is brief, consisting of only four lines. Two stretches of an even, très rapide run feature an eleven-note row (the C# is absent). The first run orders the notes C-B-D-Ab-G-E-Eb-A-F-F#-Bb before the pattern repeats again three and a half more times. The second run is a retrograde, or reversed order of the notes starting on Eb. The last line’s two fragments of material alternate between the prime and retrograde version.
    The second movement, Répliques, or Replies, begins with a brilliant and rapid call from the flute in the third octave. After interruptions in the short bursts of material and persistent repetitions of C# (completing the twelve-tone row), an expressive, singing phrase closes the movement. The flutist also has to create a particular tone on specific notes marked cuivrès, or brassy. This color indication brings to mind the very sound for which Taffanel was famous. In his book, The French Flute School, Dorgeuille writes, “reference was often made to Taffanel’s ‘powerful and brassy’ low register notes.”14
    The Ostinato movement that follows uses the interval of a minor ninth as a repetitive motive. In both the beginning and conclusion of the movement, the motive is presented in a soft dynamic range in a relaxed tempo and with ease. The movement develops the motive with other material to make a violent and aggressive area of contrast. The Postlude closes the complete work with a slow line of the retrograde row from the Prelude. The row is broken into three parts by breath markings. Each part grows shorter, softer, and slower until a final fade into silence.

Betsy Jolas
    Betsy Jolas was born in Paris, but moved to the United States in 1940 for a six-year stay during the war. After receiving her degree from Bennington College, Jolas returned to Paris to study with Darius Milhaud, Olivier Messiaen, and Georges Caussade at the Conservatory. Jolas was greatly inspired by Messiaen and went on to teach as his assistant at the Conservatory in 1971. On working alongside Messiaen, Jolas recalls, “It was absolutely wonderful. It was absolutely the best class that you could possibly have at the Conserv-atory. He really had the best students; he was the best teacher.”15 The freedom that Messiaen granted his students to form their own opinions and point of views allowed Jolas to find her own style of writing.
    The 1977 concours featured Jolas’ Episode Second: Ohne Worte. Like Pantomime, it is an unaccompanied flute piece. The atonal work is comprised of both improvisatory sections and sections with measured, rhythmic drive; passages that give the performer freedom to fluctuate tempo are followed by clearly notated rhythms within measures of 44. Episode Second utilizes a number of extended techniques including harmonics, multi-phonics, quarter tones, portamento, and glissando. In her dissertation, Colgin remarks, “Jolas achieves an interesting contrast between the improvisations, which include most of the extended techniques couched within stretches of fluidity or pointillism, and the metered sections, which underscore rhythmic vitality. There is an ease of flow as the rhythmic sections dissolve into the improvisations.”16

The French School
    According to Michel Debost, Paris Conservatory flute professor from 1981 to 1989, “There is nothing secret about the French school, no secret recipes as in French or Chinese cooking; the French school is simply a practice. Just as the Russian or Juilliard school of playing the violin is a common reference, the French school of flute playing means using the instrument fluently and flexibly through articulation, dexterity, and tone production.”17 From the solos de concours of Taffanel’s time as flute professor until today, the repertoire commissioned for every yearly examination has challenged students to use their instruments with ease while faced with difficulties in the score. As a result, Conservatory contest pieces continue to be used as studies to develop flawless technique, clear articulation, pure tone, and musicality through phrasing. Despite the vast array of styles and forms composed since 1824, each solos de concours addresses these fundamental flute performance topics. The five women who composed contest pieces for the flutists at the Conservatory preserve the French style of playing through their compositions, yet these pieces are rarely given the accolades they deserve. These works are important additions to the standard flute repertoire.    

1 Heidi M. Boenke, Flute Music by Women Composers: An Annotated Catalog (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988).
2 Edward Blakeman, Taffanel: Genius of the Flute (NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005), 187.
3 Ibid.
4 Melissa Gail Colgin, “The Paris Conservatoire concours tradition and the solos de concours for flute, 1955-1990” (PhD diss, The University of Texas at Austin, 1992), 38.
5 Susan Nanette Hayes, “Chamber Music in France Featuring Flute and Soprano, 1850-1950, and the Study of the Interactions Among the Leading Flutists, Sopranos, Composers, Artists, and Literary Figures of the Time” (PhD diss., University of Maryland, 2006), p.28.
6 De Lorenzo, Leonardo, My Complete Story of the Flute: The Instrument, the Performer, the Music (New York: Citadel Press, 1951), p. 187.
7 Edward Blakeman, Taffanel: Genius of the Flute (NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005), 196.
8 Marcel Moyse, “The Unsolvable Problem: Considerations on Flute Vibrato,” Woodwind Magazine 2, no.7 (1950): 4.
9 Marcia J. Citron, Cécile Chaminade: A Bio-Bibliography (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), 8-9.
10 Caroline Potter, “French Music and the Second World War” French Music Since Berlioz, Ed. Richard Langham Smith and Caroline Potter (England: Ashgate, 2006), 289.
11 Kathleen Roberta Cook, “The Paris Conservatory and the ‘Solos de Concours’ for flute, 1900-1955” (PhD diss, The Univ. of Wisconsin, 1991), 54.
12 Ibid., 129.
13 Melissa Gail Colgin, “The Paris Conservatoire concours tradition and the solos de concours for flute, 1955-1990” (PhD diss, The Univ. of Texas at Austin, 1992), 38.
14 Claude Dorgeuille, The French Flute School, 1860-1950 (London: Tony Bingham, 1986), 16.
15 Bruce Duffie, Interview with Betsy Jolas. 17 July 1991.
16 Melissa Gail Colgin, “The Paris Conservatoire concours tradition and the solos de concours for flute, 1955-1990” (PhD diss, The Univ. of Texas at Austin, 1992), 125.
17 Kathleen Roberta Cook, “The Paris Conservatory and the ‘Solos de Concours’ for flute, 1900-1955” (PhD diss, The University of Wisconsin, 1991), 29.