Today in the United States there is a growing interest in the French bassoon, a renascence of interest in this fine instrument.
To add to this renewed appreciation I would like to share information and lore relating to Auguste Mesnard, the last bassoonist to play the Buffet as first bassoonist with the New York Philharmonic.
Material for this article was obtained from Auguste Mesnard's unpublished memoir "Memoires d'un Musicien D'Orchestre" and several interviews with his son André Mesnard shortly after his father's death on November 21, 1974, at the age of 99 in New York City.
Auguste Mesnard was born in Cognac, France on November 17, 1875. His music education began with his study of the violin at the age of ten with the village barber. His formal education ended early due to financial need. At age eleven he worked as a clerk in the Cognac firm of Remy Martin, followed by employment as a clerk in an Angoulème (near Cognac) furniture store and, for a short time, as an apprentice in a hardware store. After hours he continued his study of the violin and began taking courses at the "Ecole Nationale de Musique d'Angoulème" in 1889. For the next four years he played second violin in the orchestra of the Angoulème Municipal theater which presented operas, opera-comiques and melodramas. He graduated from "Ecole Nationale" with first prize in 1891. He was then presented by the school as a candidate for admission to the Paris Conservatory. In preparation he practiced twelve hours a day for four months to try to make up for the time he lost in having to earn a living. He was admitted to the Paris Conservatory only as an auditor (Massenet was a member of the jury) until the next competition for admission, six months or a year later. Unable to avail himself of this opportunity for lack of money he returned to Angoulème where he resumed his routine at the Angoulème "Ecole Nationale" and theater. Shortly thereafter, the director, having decided to found a symphony orchestra and lacking a bassoonist suggested that Mesnard drop violin and take up the bassoon.
In November of 1893 he decided to try to gain admission to the Paris Conservatory where he was admitted to the bassoon class of Eugène Bourdeau. He was awarded first prize in July 1897, playing the Mozart Bassoon Concerto, Andante and Finale. He was then engaged by the "Concerts Rouge" comprised of fifteen musicians, all Paris Conservatory first prize winners (Jacques Thibaud, age seventeen was Concert-master). Concerts Rouge was really a left bank cafe, one of the first to include in its program serious classical music.
His next position was with Orchestra Lamoureux to replace the absent second bassoonist on the orchestra's trip to London in May of 1899. There, together with the London Symphony Orchestra, directed by Henry Wood, he was introduced to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. In September of 1899 Mesnard became regular second Bassoonist of Orchestra Lamoureux, having been hired by Charles Lamoureux. He took part in the first performances of Debussy's "Nocturnes" and "L'Après-midi d'un faune" in January 1901. Debussy was present at rehearsals. Mesnard participated in the concerts of the "Societé Nationale de Musique", founded by Vincent d'lndy and César Franck, for the performance of contemporary music. Some of the guest conductors with the Orchestra Lamoureux were Felix Weingartner, Siegfried Wagner, Alfred Cortot, Hans Richter, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss.
The 1903-4 musical season was disastrous for Mesnard in the matter of earnings. Outside the monthly 100 franc ($20) salary from Orchestra Lamoureux, there were few jobs available.
In May of 1905 Walter Damrosch arrived in Paris looking for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon players to engage for the New York Symphony Society. Mesnard presented himself at the audition and was offered first bassoon. After much hesitation, he accepted and signed a contract for a salary of 9000 francs ($1800) a year with the added possibility of teaching at the Institute of Musical Art. Also engaged by Damrosch at this time were George Barrère (flute), Marcel Tabuteau (oboe) and Léon Leroy (clarinet).
Arranging for a one year leave of absence from Orchestra Lamoureux, Mesnard left for New York on September 13, 1905, arriving October 8, 1905. After the first season with Damrosch, he asked for a raise from the $38.46 a week he was receiving, saying that he was thinking of returning to the Orchestra Lamoureux. He got the raise. He remained with Damrosch from 1905 to 1908. He then obtained the first bassoon chair with the Chicago-Philadelphia Grand Opera Company, where such artists as Caruso, Mary Garden, Maggie Teyte and John McCormack made appearances. He was offered the post of first bassoon by the Philadelphia Orchestra (under Stokowski) in 1912 but he refused the position because he thought a perfunctory audition before the board of trustees would be demeaning. He accepted the offer of the New York Philharmonic (under Josef Stranski) for first bassoon where he remained until 1922. During this period of time he was also a member of the Columbia Gramophone Company.
His last two years with the Philharmonic were difficult years for him as W. Mengelberg, the new conductor, and he had a serious personality clash. This resulted in Mesnard resigning his position as co-principal which he shared with Benjamin Kohon, after the Philharmonic Society and the New York Symphony Society joined forces to form one orchestra. Mesnard in his memoirs has especially biting words regarding Mengelberg, describing his endless lectures and terming him "a preacher in the desert". Leaving the Philharmonic was a severe blow to this proud man which left him quite bitter and cynical.
Mesnard then joined the Wagnerian Opera Company which was a touring company. He was with this group for no more than a year as his ties were on the east coast. He then played with the Capital Theater Orchestra (of which Eugene Ormandy was concertmaster at the time) in New York City and when that closed, with the Roxy Theater Orchestra. His last engagement was with the Works Progress Administration Orchestra (WPA). He retired at the age of 70 in 1945.
One cannot help but conjecture what might have happened had Mesnard accepted the first bassoon chair with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski in 1912. Would he have become as influential for the French bassoon as many of the woodwind players of this orchestra became for their instrument, as, for example, Guetter or Tabuteau?
What was Mesnard's tone quality like? This question is difficult to answer today due to the scarcity and quality of records of the time. Sol Schoenbach related to Gerald Corey, editor of this journal, that when he was growing up in New York City, Mesnard had the nicest tone of any French bassoonist playing in New York. Schoenbach also stated that he marveled at how smoothly Mesnard played his Buffet.
I would surmise that Mesnard's tone quality was relatively "dark", after trying several of his reeds which are relatively round at the "throat" and quite heavy throughout. They seem to be in marked contrast to many French bassoon reeds and are more related to the German style reed.
It is interesting to note that Mesnard, in the various groups with which he played in this country, nearly always had a second bassoonist who played a German system instrument.
Mesnard's favorite Buffet was manufactured in 1900. Of special interest is the fact that only the wing-joint is made of rosewood and all the other joints are made of maple. This instrument is the one he is holding in the pictures accompanying this article. He did not prefer the Jancourt 22 key perfected system. The instrument pictured has sixteen keys as he wanted a minimum number of holes drilled in the upper section of the wing-joint.
(Editor's Note: Laurence Ibisch, a longtime subscriber to "To The World's Bassoonists" and I.D.R.S. member, is a social worker and psycho-therapist by profession. His music education includes a B. M. from the University of Wisconsin. Bassoon teachers were Harry Peters, William Polisi, Frank Ruggieri and Arthur Weisberg. While in the US. Army Mr. Ibisch played bassoon in the West Point Band and since then has played in several amateur orchestras. Mr. Ibisch is now the proud owner of the Buffet bassoon played by Auguste Mesnard.)