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Remembering Rampal (1922-2000)

Michel Debost | March 2013

    In 1948, a young Parisian schoolboy was learning the flute and attending every concert of his favorite instrument. He often attended concerts at the Ancien Conservatoire. Built near the Folies Bergère, it resonated with much different sounds. The theater was a wooden gem with acoustics like those of a good violin: mellow, warm and effortlessly sing-ing. It was small, but until the end of WWII, the Société des concerts rehearsed and performed there. Chopin, Lizst and many other legends had played there.
    The Concours Final des Prix was held there until the early fifties. Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir and Dutilleux’s Sonatine were premiered for the Concours, won in 1952 by Alexander Murray among others, with Rampal on the jury. Altès, Taffanel, Hennebains, Gaubert and Moyse taught there. Rampal earned his Premier Prix there in 1944 after a mere eight-month meteoric passage through the school, playing Jolivet’s Chant de Linos commissioned especially for that event. Jolivet told me ten years later that Jean-Pierre’s performance was not quite what he had written, but that it was maybe better!
    For fire-safety reasons, the whole building, decorated in painted wood, was eventually restricted for the public. To this day, the Ancien Conservatoire is the seat of the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique. The old theater is still there, and the sound is still beautiful, but it is not open to the public.
    It was here that Jean-Pierre Rampal sprang into the limelight. He was about 25, and his playing was magic with his effortless virtuosity, free singing sound, and impeccable style. Nothing seemed contrived; everything flowed naturally. His interpretations seemed evident. He would present the integral J.S. Bach’s Sonatas in two evenings, a novelty in those days. It was also unusual to play the figured bass of the sonatas with cello and harpsichord. Robert Veyron-Lacroix, Rampal’s accompanist, was inventing his realizations as he went along, rediscovering a long lost tradition.
    Rediscovery of the Baroque flute tradition started fifty years ago with Rampal. Everywhere he went, he spent many hours looking up and copying forgotten manuscripts, at a time before the photocopier. Jean-Pierre had an insatiable hunger for new material: sonatas, concertos, and chamber music.
    Soon Rampal was invited to perform throughout Europe and Asia. America would have to wait another ten years. Meanwhile, Rampal started recording on the old wax 78 rpm’s. The recording company was La Boîte à Musique (the Music Box), a very small affair run by an intelligent and inquisitive musicologist who was also completely taken by Rampal. One of the first records made was the Bach B minor Sonata accompanied by piano. Robert Veyron-Lacroix had not switched yet to harpsichord. Another recording was of the D major Mozart Quartet; both worn thin by Rampal’s young admirer.
    The aspiring flutist was in awe. He had been playing the flute a few years. He was far from imagining that a flute-performing career was an option for a middle-class youngster. Pretty soon, however, he could think and dream of nothing else. He prepared to study medicine. As it turned out, Jean-Pierre had also.
    Then one day Jean-Pierre and Robert came to his Lycée (high school) to break in one of their recitals. The flute fan, who was of course myself, offered to turn pages. Awe swelled to adoration. I could actually speak to him. He was easy to talk to, enthusiastic about everything, and he adored being adored. My decision was quickly made thereafter. I would continue the Lycée until graduation, but one day I would try for the Paris Conservatoire. To my own amazement, a few years later I was accepted, and the rest, for me, is history.
    Rampal agreed to listen to me every once in a while, but he would not take regular students. “To learn from me, listen to me,” he said.
    Jean-Pierre was generous with his time, with his money, with the way he gave everything in master classes and in performance. I don’t recall having heard that he ever charged for the occasional listening he did on the road or for French apprentices.
    He was also modest in his own way. One day Rampal was playing in Rome. A fidgety Severino Gazzelloni came backstage at intermission. Jean-Pierre asked him if there was a problem, “Well,” Severi said, “It says in the program that you are the greatest living flutist. Jean-Pierre, in my own city, that bothers me.” Rampal told him, “Look, Severi, you can come any day to Paris and say you’re the greatest flutist that ever lived, I won’t mind!”
    Rampal rarely said a disparaging word about a colleague. The opposite was not always true. Even in America, there were envious comments about his great technique, but negative opinions about his sound and musicality from other flutists, although the public did not seem to share those views.
    Marcel Moyse had a real aversion for Rampal in the early years. Perhaps it was because Rampal had never studied with the older man. Another factor may have been that Jean-Pierre had the career that Moyse did not. For reasons of character, paranoia, political circumstances or because of wartime, Moyse could never achieve Rampal’s success and charisma. Jean-Pierre ignored Moyse’s bitter comments. Every time he could, he would go out of his way to pay his respects to the old man, who finally relented and accepted the younger man’s sincerity.
    Rampal blossomed at a time when the recording industry was exploding with the invention of the long-playing record. Festivals were started everywhere. After the end of the war, everyone in Europe was thirsty for new artists, sounds and repertoire. Jean-Pierre fit right in.
    I love his recordings, old and recent, for their supreme ease. He was very careful about the way his sound was recorded. He did not want the volume boosted or reverberation increased.
    Jean-Pierre Rampal served as flute professor from 1969 to 1981 at the Conservatoire. Traditionally, there was only one professor in each woodwind instrument. In 1977 Jean-Pierre, with his busy travels, had more students than he could handle so a second class was created. Alain Marion campaigned hard for the position and was appointed. I sent him my congratulations, which he never acknowledged. I succeeded Rampal upon his resignation in 1981-1982, until my own resignation in 1989-1990, when I was appointed to Oberlin.
    Jean-Pierre Rampal was a real bon vivant and always ready for a good time, even in difficult circumstances. One day I dropped in to the Haynes shop in Boston for a little adjustment on my flute. Lew Deveau was delighted because Jean-Pierre was flying in from Los Angeles that same afternoon and was inviting everyone in sight to Pier IV, a place for lobsters “as big as dogs” according to Jean-Pierre. We went to meet him at Logan Airport. He seemed a little annoyed as his briefcase with two gold flutes and all his music had been stolen from between his feet at the airport check-in. The only face that showed no consternation was his. He said, “Let’s go have some lobsters anyway. Sorrow won’t bring them back.” He was right. When I called in the morning, someone had found the bag in LA, with only a Walkman missing, and the airline had put it in the hands of a flight attendant, who happened to be a Rampal fan, on the night flight to Boston.
    He loved to perform and the public loved him. Even at the end of his life, when things were getting difficult, he would stride on stage behind his round tummy, flute held high, with that look, “Oh, you lucky people. We are going to share a beautiful moment!”
    His funeral in May 2000 at Eglise Saint-Roch was attended by Madame Jacques Chirac, France’s First Lady at the time, famous musicians, a flute choir of his formers colleagues and friends, and an overflow crowd of music lovers who knew him only with their ears and hearts. When his casket was carried out of Saint-Roch, he received a spontaneous last round of applause.