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Michel Debost, Flutist, Teacher, Recording Artist

Victoria Jicha | February 2021

   In the years before World War I, a young woman from a well-to-do California family wanted to travel and study voice in Europe. In those days a young lady did not travel alone anywhere, and this girl’s older brother would not approve of her plan. When the war broke out he did allow her to join the American Red Cross, which led to her serving doughnuts and driving ambulances in France. At one point she was stationed in a chateau near Dijon, and there Elizabeth Witter met young Henri Debost, a French Army lieutenant, when he was home on leave. He met the lovely girl, and soon they "played tennis and no doubt other games. The rest is history." In 1934 the couple, who knew Calder and other artists, had a baby boy, Michel. Now 70 years later he will celebrate his 70th birthday. In the intervening years he has per­formed with the Orchestre de Paris and throughout the world, written extensively about the flute in this magazine and in The Simple Flute (Oxford), and currently teaches at the Oberlin Conservatory.
   Debost recalls, "When I was nine, W.W. II had been raging for four years. I remember sirens in the night, talk about bombardments, numerous disap­pearances, and long food lines. All of these became normal occurrences for a child who had never known anything else. Finally les Americains came, and the people of France were grateful for American generosity and liberation."
   At first Debost played the piano, but he states, "The piano didn’t like me, I think. However, when I picked up the flute, it was love at first lip. A few years later I also played tenor saxophone for after­noon dances as a way to make a little bit of money. It was so long ago that I had forgotten about it until now. My first flute teacher was a friend of my father’s, Jan Merry, who loved the flute and played very well but decided at an early age that music would be just an avocation for him. His family thought that playing the flute was not an appropriate job, so he became an electrical engi­neer and taught at the insti­tute in Paris. He had a curi­ous spirit and was among the first flute players to perform old French manu­scripts on the traverso.
   "Merry was also quite fond of contemporary music and knew Andre Jolivet, Olivier Messiaen, and Charles Koechlin well. He performed many of Koechlin’s works, including his last opus, Les Chants de Nectair, which is a collection of 96 solo flute pieces inspired by nature and mythology. Some of Les Chants has been published (Bill­audot), and I have recorded seven of the the pieces. I have a copy of Koechlin’s Sonata, Op. 75 for two flutes that he autographed in 1944 or 45. I was at Merry’s house for a lesson when Koechlin appeared. He had a great beard that went practi­cally down to his chest and looked a little bit like a prophet. He liked Merry because he played and promoted his music."
   The original publication of Incantations by Jolivet includes a dedicatory inscription to Merry, but the publisher dropped the dedication line when they printed a second edition. "I think Merry’s feelings were a bit hurt by that, but I have the original edi­tion with the inscription. I worked in the Altes method before lessons with Merry, and he contin­ued with it. The method book is very progressive, complete, and teaches students about music and the flute at the same time. Merry stressed note reading, first from the Altes and then with Baroque and Classical duets, particularly those by Mozart. I believe the skill of note reading is essential for musi­cians, who can avoid many of the technical hurdles in solo repertoire when they can read music well.
   At the age of 13 Debost came to visit his American relatives in California. "I arrived at my uncle’s Nevada ranch on the Fourth of July, and the usual Western celebration of cowboys with pistols, mail coaches, horses, herds of cattle, and Indians was in full swing. I thought I was stepping into a dream and that this was normal America. I attended Tamalpais High School in Marin County in the San Fran­cisco area for one year, which also seemed like heaven after the rig­orous French Lycée, which had no sports, music, or girls. The schedule was liberal and the homework light. I studied flute with a former William Kincaid student and member of the San Francisco Symphony flute section, Merrill Jordan, who must have been less than impressed with my playing. When I called him 20 years later while performing in the Bay area, he could not believe that I was a professional flutist."
   After returning to France and completmg his high school education, Debost enrolled as a med­ical student. "Like many young people I didn’t think I was good enough to be a professional flutist. The first year in a French medical program con­centrates on chemistry and biology, and I have a degree in experimental science. However, the next fall I was accepted into the Paris Conservatory, which was a great relief. I loved it and was happy."
   The flute professor at the Paris Conservatory before W.W. II was Marcel Moyse, who feared arrest when Germany invaded France in 1940 and did not call the Conservatory or meet with his stu­dents. At that time the Conservatory had only one flute professor, and without Moyse they had to find a new teacher. "Gaston Crunelle got the job and had tenure by 1945, when Moyse returned to Paris. Then he wanted his class back and sued the French government, which led to strife between the two flutists." In the class of Crunelle, Debost won two first prizes in flute and chamber music and gradu­ated at the age of 20. "Years later at my first lesson Moyse said, ‘Oh, you studied with Crunelle’, to which I replied, ‘Monsieur Moyse, I must tell you with respect that I have never heard Monsieur Crunelle say any wrong words about you.’ I think that comment jarred him a bit.
   "Crunelle was a thorough, business-like teacher, who was intent on building technique and preferred contemporary and conservatory pieces; he assigned very little music from the Classical or Baroque eras. He had studied with Philippe Gaubert and taught with materials such as the 17 Daily Exercises. My fanatic interest in scales came from Crunelle, and I have great respect for him because students who completed a course of study with him played at their best possible level when they left. They were not all stars, but they were at their best. This was true for me as well. Because of his work and care, I was playing at my top level upon graduation.
   "I served in the French army, most of it in Algeria under a tent. Two years is a long time when you are 20, and the experience was similar to that of young American soldiers in Vietnam, with the same result: defeat and casualty. Somehow I man­aged to return physically unhurt, although I felt morally and musically worthless. During this time I did not play the flute for two years and was very depressed when I returned to France. I almost took a job with Boeing Aircraft, but an old peasant friend in Dijon said that flute playing must be sim­ilar to riding a bicycle: you never forget. Luckily he was right.
   "A good background was an obvious asset, but like many people, there were ups and downs as I tried to regain my playing ability, and this caused me to analyze everything I was doing. Vladimir Horowitz, Artur Rubenstein, and Pinchas Zucker­man also had musical, mid-life crises; I just had mine at a younger age than they did. There was nothing else to do but to rebuild my playing slowly, from the ground up, and alone. Much of that work became the basis for the way I play and teach today. Comfortable music made me feel good about the flute again, and basic exercises and music that I loved filled the time. I tried to discover what worked and what did not, and self-imposed dead­lines made me practice.
   "I have always been against musical dictators who say, ‘Students should always do this and never do that.’ If a particular fingering works better than the traditional one, use it. If you need to breathe twice instead of once, do it if it makes you feel better. You can work the passage up to a single breath later. When teachers declare absolute laws, students feel they must observe them, which creates a condition that is terribly refrigerating. I studied with Moyse for a short time, and he was terribly dictatorial. Many things were forbidden, and students did not know what the taboos were until he jumped on them about something. Jean­Pierre Rampal had a great influence on me, and we became great friends, although he never gave me a real lesson. He said, ‘If you want to learn from me, just listen to me when I play.’ He was my son’s godfather, my wife’s professor at the Conser­vatory, and eventually, contributed to my appointment there."
   Debost’s early career attempts should be hearten­ing for students, who are rejected repeatedly after auditioning for orchestral positions. The Paris Opera turned Debost down six times, and he now jokes about drinking wine to relieve the disap­pointment. He won competitions in Moscow, Prague, Munich, Turin, and Geneva, but states with humility, "I lost most of the competitions and jobs that I auditioned for. I congratulated the win­ners and moved on. It is arduous to work in an opera orchestra, so failure at the Paris Opera was ultimately good for me. Can you image playing 14 Carmens and 25 Fausts? Some opera orchestra musicians are crazy, you know.
   "Finally I won second flute in the Societe des Concerts and later became principal, although the orchestra declared bankruptcy in 1967. Out of that financial demise, the city of Paris and the French Republic took control of the orchestra and created the Orchestre de Paris. This was the beginning of what I think of as my golden age of orchestra play­ing. The conductors were Charles Munch, Herbert von Karajan, George Solti, and Daniel Barenboim, and the guest conductor list was extensive. Barenboim conducted there during my last 15 years. He was a terrific musician, and one of his greatest assets was his sheer concentration. He conducted the orchestra and played concertos from memory. When he looked directly at a member of the orchestra, his concentration level was so intense that it seemed as if his eyes crossed.
   "The only way to teach students that type of concentration is to require short bursts of memory and sight-reading. Players who concentrate intently for one minute, the normal length for standard sight-reading, are forced to read ahead of where they are playing. There is no time to look back or apologize for mistakes, just to keep going and look at the next measure. I ask students to play all excerpts and basic flute pieces from memory and do the same for them. Sometimes I goof, which makes them feel good. During the second semester at Oberlin, when students think they can breathe again because they have played the required pieces and exercises by memory, I ask them to sightread, usually easy pieces, and I sightread with them on occasion."
   Debost came to the United States to teach at Southern Illinois University for a few months in 1967, the year that the Orchestre de Paris was formed. "I came as a bachelor and left married to Kathleen Chastain. She was the best student there, and I told her mother that Kathy should come to study with me in Paris, although her mother did not buy it. Thus began the second chapter of my American experience." During the following years, Chastain studied at the Conser­vatory, and Debost played in the orchestra and began recording for E.M.I.
   In 1957 Rampal, who was under contract to a record company that would subsequently declare bankruptcy, played the world premiere of the Poulenc sonata. "E.M.I. asked Rampal to record the Poulenc, but his company would not release him from the contract, so E.M.I. asked me. I jumped at the opportunity. Poulenc loved all the woodwind instruments, but especially the flute. He was 60 years old at that time but very entertaining, nice, and quite adorable. The record company decided that Poulenc would be the pianist on the record, so I rehearsed with him at his little flat above the Palais du Luxembourg on the Left Bank in Paris. We also performed a tour of three or four concerts. However, early in 1963, Poulenc died suddenly, and his friend Jacques Fevrier played the piano in my recording.
   "In those days I was an admirer of the metro­nome, which I no longer am, and took a metro­nome to the first rehearsal with him. Before ring­ing the doorbell, I set the metronome to 84, the tempo of the first movement, and walked up the five floors to his apartment with the pulse ticking in my ear. After the usual amiabilities, we began to play, but Poulenc stopped and protested, ‘It’s way too fast, way too fast’, to which I replied with metronome in hand, ‘It is your tempo.’ He explained that 84 was not his tempo, but the pub­lisher’s tempo. ‘They asked me to put a metronome marking on it, but it means nothing. Don’t worry about it. Don’t play so fast.’
   "In 1962 I planned a debut recital in Paris with Christian Iraldi and although I do not remember the exact program, the second part included the sonatas by Prokofiev and Poulenc. I sent a recital invitation to Poulenc, and he sent the following telegram: ‘Do not play me after Prokofiev, because it will dwarf my music. He is so much stronger than I am.’ Poulenc was such a nice guy that I switched the sonatas on the program."
   Debost played in the Orchestre de Paris for 30 years and had the opportunity to work with the world’s most accomplished conductors. "My impres­sions have changed from what they were when I was a young man in the orchestra. At age 25 I loved every piece because I was discovering the masterpieces for the first time. I enjoyed the con­ductors, too, even though some didn’t turn out to be the greatest. However, I have marvelous memo­ries of playing with these people.
   "I thought Bernstein was great because he was a wonderful musician with a personality that inspired us. He added a dimension to everything he did. It bothers some musicians when conductors are a little off the wall, but I always thought Bernstein was fascinating. Rafael Kubelik was wonderful with Mahler, Bruckner, and of course Dvorak. He was basically a classical conductor. Istvan Kertesz was a terrific, young Hungarian con­ductor but drowned while swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. I liked Bernard Haitink very much. He was a deep but extremely vulnerable per­son and subject to depression; but he was touching. The best Beethoven I ever played was with Joseph Kripps, and his conducting of the Leonore Overture #3 was just breathtaking.
   "I loved Munch and thought he was so great that I named my son Charles after him. Munch had an almost mystical approach to conducting. Andre Cluytens was a Belgian conductor who was highly regarded as a fine interpreter of French music. I liked Carlo Maria Giulini, also a mystical conduc­tor, and we thought he was always praying because his face became almost transfigured when he con­ducted. I didn’t like Karajan as a person, not only because of his Nazi past, but because he was such a prima donna conductor.
   "When Karajan was our musical director in 1975, he was scheduled to conduct the Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, but they went on strike; and he couldn’t stand having a month with nothing to do. He called Paris, said he was free, and the orches­tra was assembled to record some music they had never played with him before. We gathered on a Tuesday morning and started recording as soon as the red light came on. As we listened to the play­back, I asked him, ‘Maestro, why do you so carefully rehearse for a concert but not for a recording?’ I remember once spending an hour rehearsing the first 16 measures of a Beethoven symphony with Karajan for an upcoming concert. His reply in flu­ent French was, ‘It is very simple. The only thing that you will never do again is a concert, but if you are not happy with a recording session, you can do it again tomorrow.’ I have always thought that was such an intelligent statement." [These comments about conductors were part of an interview with John Knight in The Instrumentalist, May 2003.]
   In 1990 Debost was still first flute in the orches­tra but decided it was time for a change. "I wanted to do something new, and because Kathy is American, we planned to come to the U.S. for a year. A former Paris student, Judy Mendenhall, called to say that Thomas Nyfenger, who was teach­ing at both Yale and Oberlin, was in bad health and wanted to retire from Oberlin. I auditioned for what I thought would be a one-year sabbatical and wound up staying for 15 years. Everybody told me that I would be bored to death in rural Ohio after living in Paris, but Kathy and I fell in love with the place, probably because the contrast was so great. After all, I am from peasant stock in Burgundy. When I get homesick for Paris, I just get on a plane and go; it is only a 10-hour trip, unlike the big undertaking that it was when I was a child."
   American flutists became acquainted with Debost through The Scale Game, which he admit­tedly stole from Gaubert and wrote for students working on technique. "The scales that Americans play are a perfunctory scale line that consists of two octaves. This is not quite enough to develop breathing, tone, intonation, and of course the fin­gers. Students often come to Oberlin to look at the college, and when I ask them to play a scale, they play a two-octave band scale. Scales not only teach technique and fingerings but also teach students about music, articulation, breath control and man­agement, sound, and intonation. These are all vital to good flute playing. Oberlin students play all assigned literature, including scales, in front of me, just as it was at the Conservatory, where the level is unbelievably higher. The only difference is that in Paris students play scales and arpeggios in front of a class of students instead of just the teacher."
   When auditioning new students for the college, Debost looks for intelligence and a performance level that indicates previous practice and a desire to succeed. "Teachers can accomplish something with a student who has a little bit of intelligence, although it’s not that common. We admit as few as two students and as many as six or seven, depend­ing upon how many graduated the previous year.
   "I sat on the jury for the competitions in Lyon and Stuttgart last June and thought the perfor­mance level was very strong, even musically. I often hear musicians say that players have great tech­nique but are not musical, which is not always true. Regardless of the lofty interpretation, if the instru­mental skills are not solid, forget it. On the other hand, players should have a musical goal for the technical skill they want to develop. The two are closely related. You can’t just say, ‘Today I will prac­tice technique, and tomorrow I will practice sound.’ I don’t agree with that."
   Articulation is another aspect of flute performance that tends to vary from country to country. "The way flutists from France and the Latin countries speak definitely makes the tongue wag a little bit faster, but I think differences in articulation styles are more a matter of taste. America flutists like a mushier articulation, and perhaps they are right. French is a dental language, and very forward, while English is a mouth language. English speakers roll their vowels around, while French vowels are more crisp. German, Spanish, and Arabic are throat languages, which of course affects articula­tion. However, given all of these differences, play­ers can certainly learn to articulate any way they please, if they have a desire to do so."
   Debost approaches flute literature in a way that might surprise other teachers. "The book, Flute Music by French Composers, is very good for inter­mediate players. These little romantic pieces are easier and more understandable than music by Handel, Blavet, and Bach. Many people think Baroque pieces are easier than music from the French book, but I think they are terribly difficult. The Six Pieces for flute and alto flute by Boehm are tuneful and contain very few style problems. I believe that Baroque music should wait until high school or college, but perhaps I learned that from Crunelle, who thought Bach was too difficult for conservatory students. However, we were a group of strong players, and perhaps he didn’t teach Baroque repertoire because it is ambiguous, subjective in nature, and allows for various interpretations.
   "When Rampal took over Crunelle’s class he changed in the other direction and thought the pieces commissioned for the end-of-year exams were worthless. He assigned Baroque music and Classical concertos, not conservatory pieces. Although I loved Rampal, I thought that he was wrong to do what he did, because it destroyed the commission system that gave us some of the best 20th-century pieces, including Sonatine by Dutilleux, Le Merle Noire by Messiaen, the Ibert Concerto, etc. A few years after Rampal joined the Conservatoire faculty, the school discarded the commission system, and nothing has been com­posed for the year-end exams since then. Of course, some pretty bad music emerged out of the commis­sion system, but out of approximately 60 or 70 pieces written for the Paris Conservatory, at least 15 have entered the realm of standard repertoire and are still played today."
   Disabilities that fall under the umbrella of arts medicine, such as T.M.J. and carpal tunnel syn­drome, are more prevalent today than at any time before. Debost admits to being puzzled why this happens. "When I arrived in Ohio, T.M.J. was the latest fashion, but we don’t see it much anymore. Carpal tunnel is popular at present. Some people think that carpal tunnel starts from the cervical vertebrae (neck) and moves on down to the fin­gers, but I think it is the other way around. When a hand rests on a table, there is no stress until one, then two or three fingers are raised. This is when the stress begins. Flutists who press down on the keys, particularly with the right hand, create even more stress when they lift the fingers. I believe that this is the origin for some of the strain that leads to carpal tunnel problems. I call that hard, finger action ‘slam and squeeze’, and the stress from it moves from the fingers, through the arm, and up to the neck. These are my thoughts on hand and arm problems, although I have never had any of these disabilities."
   In a 2002 interview for the Oberlin Alumni Magazine Debost stated that the most valuable les­son teachers can convey to students is to never sep­arate the instrument from music. "You have to prac­tice technique and instrumental playing with a musical idea, but you cannot play music properly without instrumental knowledge. It is a two-way street. Many students say, ‘I didn’t come here to do this or that,’ and ‘I want to play this; I don’t want to play that.’ This is not a good approach. Students should learn about technique with a musical idea and should play music with technical solutions. Not everybody agrees with that. In the closing chapter of my book I write, ‘Do everything. If you succeed you are no better than when you fail – and when you fail, you are no worse than when you succeed.’ Just do it. Tum the page, say bravo, and go on."