Gaston Crunelle (1898-1990)

Michel Debost | July August 2011

   In 1945 at the end of World War II, I was 10 years old and living with my family in Burgundy where the conditions were not as harsh as in Paris. From time to time we had house guests including Jan Merry, an excellent semi-professional flutist, who  gave me lessons. 
   Merry was a close friend of French composers Andre Jolivet and Charles Koechlin. In fact, he was the creator of the original editions of Jolivet’s Cinq Incantations for flute alone and Charles Koechlin’s Chants de Nectaire, a set of 96 pieces for flute alone. During one of my lessons, Koechlin showed up. He looked like a Greek prophet with a shepherd’s cape and a long beard. He very kindly wrote some nice words on my copy of his Sonata for two flutes, something I still treasure today. 
   About ten years later, Maurice Marechal (a famed cellist of the time who premiered Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor, 1915) came to visit and insisted I play something for him. I was working on the Fauré Fantaisie, Op. 79. I played it for him, and he told my parents I should try for the Paris Conservatoire, where he taught. At his suggestion, I made an appointment with his colleague and friend, Maître Gaston Crunelle and  trembled in my shoes as I proceeded to it. I had doubts that I was good enough, and after the audition that is exactly what Crunelle told me. When he learned that I was working from the Altès Méthode, he approved. When he realized that I had never practiced any structured set of scales, however, he assigned me to learn by memory the Exercice N°4 from the Taffanel & Gaubert 17 Daily Exercises for Flute – all the major and minor scales, that I teach to this day. As we all know this is the alpha and omega of flute playing.
   Crunelle had specific instructions about how the Exercice No. 4 should be practiced. The regimen encompassed: all slurred, all single tongued,  all double tongued, repeated duplets on each note, and repeated triplets on each note. Many varieties of articulation, including those found in exercises by Patricia George and Molly Barth as well as my Scale Game, were worked into this exercise. I am still surprised when I hear young players tackle the biggies of the repertoire, especially here in North America, while being incapable of playing the scales relevant to the work at hand.
   During the audition, Crunelle did not want to hear much else, and above all no Bach or Mozart. He was often criticized in his teaching for this, notably by Rampal, but his opinion was that “20th century pieces take hours of practice; Bach and Mozart take years.” He said that very often, and so do I. Consequently, his repertoire assignments to me for the two years I studied privately with him were basically the French Conservatoire pieces (Fauré, Chaminade, Enesco, Ganne, Gaubert, and Taffanel) that are found in the Schirmer collection Flute Music by French Composers, edited by Louis Moyse. In addition, he assigned the Georges Hüe Fantasie and Alfredo Casella Sicilienne et Burlesque, inexplicably absent from this collection. The Conservatoire pieces, which are sometimes looked down upon as high school works or as being not worth the paper they are printed on by many, were in Crunelle’s opinion and mine, the perfect tool to learn the flute and music. The pieces are short in duration, lasting an average of six minutes. They offer melodic passages for phrasing, tone study and nuance and passages in high and low ranges. They also offer opportunities to practice attacks, slurring, staccato, cadenzas and of course technique; and all of this is within the time frame of a weekly lesson. Try to do that with one of the big works by Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev, or Schubert.
   When I was accepted to his class, it was the happiest day of my life. The Conservatoire was free (it still is), and the admission, for that reason, was highly competitive. You had to attend every class, three times a week, and receive your lesson in front of your peers. The standard structure for the lesson was scales, exercises from the Taffanel & Gaubert 17 Daily Exercises for flute, an etude and a piece. The repertoire he selected was mostly the Conservatoire pieces that had been dedicated to him: Dutilleux Sonatine, Sancan Sonatine, Bozza Agrestide, Jolivet Chant de Linos, Messiaen Le Merle Noir, Gallois-Montbrun Divertissement and Concertinos by Tomasi and Boutry. This policy did not please students who thought that only masterpieces were worthy of their care.
   Monsieur Crunelle had a science of teaching whereby he would bring any player, taken early enough, to the maximum of what he could do. He worked as hard with the less gifted as with the brilliant ones like Nicolet, Larrieu, Rampal, and Galway. Gaston, as everyone called him, except his students, was exactly my father’s age. He was born in 1898 and died in 1990. He studied with Philippe Gaubert at the Conser-vatoire. I always knew him as a modest and amiable, if demanding, gentleman. He had no ambition as a soloist. I do not think he ever traveled outside of Europe and contented himself with excellent orchestra playing, namely being Principal in the Opéra Comique, where Marcel Moyse had played before him. Being a good musician in those days of silent movies was a gold mine that involved sightreading tons of music for the great movie houses. Gaston would say: “Nothing is impossible to read; just don’t stop!” It is true that most technical problems are just badly read.
   Monsieur Crunelle was active in chamber music, with the Quintette Instrumental Pierre Jamet, where he replaced René LeRoy in 1940 when the latter fled to America. It was during the occupation (1940-1944) that Crunelle was appointed Professor at the Conservatoire. The circumstance of his nomination has been the subject of various more or less accurate accounts. Since its founding around 1800, the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique had only one professor and one class of twelve students for each wind instrument. In 1940 Moyse was the flute professor. However, in 1941 he refused to return to his job in occupied Paris and failed to inform the Conservatoire of his decision. He was not in the Resistance, but might have had concerns because of his Jewish-sounding name. He did come back surreptitiously a few times to play for the German radio. His position at the Conservatoire was declared vacant in absentia, and Crunelle was appointed.
   Moyse did not have many friends in Paris. As Canadian flutist Robert Aitken says, “He shot from the hip.” When Moyse came back to Paris at the end of the Occupation, he was told that there was no legal reason to fire Crunelle for his sake. He sued the school, and after many years won a Judgment of Salomon. He would again have a class, but it would disappear when the last student had graduated. Moyse waited for the official notification, and then left in the middle of the school year with his whole family for Argentina. When that fell through, he continued on to Brattleboro, Vermont.
   Oblivious to all these sordid events, Crunelle characteristically encouraged me to go study with Moyse. This was the type of man he was. For sixty years I have had an affectionate admiration for Gaston Crunelle.
   Documents and the picture of Crunelle for this article were graciously made available by Denis Verroust, President of the Association Jean-Pierre Rampal. This organization is the living memory of Rampal, publishing many of his performances, live or radio-recorded, as well as CDs of 78 rpms of Gaston Crunelle playing Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto (with Pierre Jamet, harp) and the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, among others.