Fernand Oubradous: A Half-Century of Woodwind History

Jean-Pierre Seguin (translated by Philip Gottling)

(The following article is very timely because of the recent death of I.D.R.S. Honorary Member, Fernand Oubradous, in January 1986. The interview by French bassoonist, Jean-Pierre Seguin, first appeared I in Le Basson (No. 6, March, 1980) and reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and the publisher, Les Amis du Basson Francaix. Ed.)

Fernand OubradousThe "Société de Musique de Chambre pour Instruments à Vent", later called the "Association Symphonique de Chambre de Paris," celebrated its centenary in 1979. This prestigious organization was founded in 1879 by the flutist Paul Taffanel, principal flute of the Paris Opera and of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire [translator's note: the latter became the nucleus of the Orchestre de Paris]. Taffanel brought together the greatest French wind players of the period: the oboist Gillet, the clarinettist Mimart, and the bassoonist Leon Letellier, among others. This ensemble, then a novelty to the public, caused numerous composers to write for wind instruments. Gounod's "Petite Symphonie" for wind instruments dates from this period and was first performed under Taffanel's baton April 30, 1885.

In 1893, Paul Taffanel, named Professor of Flute at the Paris Conservatory then later conductor of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire and the Paris Opera, stepped down from conducting the ensemble. The clarinettist Prosper Mimart took over, organizing the veteran members and adding some new ones: the oboist Bleuzet, the clarinettist Lefebvre, the bassoonist Eugene Bourdeau, the horn player Vuillermoz and the pianist Grovlez. He entrusted the musical direction to another famous flutist and conductor, Philippe Gaubert.

Oubradous on the phoneThe ensemble met with success yet again; unfortunately the first world war stopped the ensemble in its tracks. After an unsuccessful attempt to start up the group again in 1922, the oboist Louis Bleuzet, who considered himself to be the keeper of the flame, tried again in 1940 He called Fernand Oubradous to his side.

Was it a premonition? Bleuzet died after the second concert. Oubradous took control of the destiny of the Association.

One hesitates to speak of Mr. Oubradous for fear of stating the obvious. The biographer is either presumptuous or blissfully unconscious when he proposes to retrace the career of an artist who naturally escaped the cliched conventional route to success. He was a man of too much subtlety and too many diverse qualities for that. Moreover, who among us would attempt to tell Mr. Oubradous's story without being afraid of omitting something important, of forgetting to explain this or that aspect of his multi-faceted talent?

Composer, teacher, conductor, the multitalented Fernand Oubradous was all that. He remains as one who has brought the French school of wind playing into the present; he lives on as one who has trained some of the most prestigious musicians around. This is the personage we honor: a soloist, a fondlyremembered instrumentalist who put his mark on generations of bassoonists.

We asked Mr. Oubradous for an interview , and it is the essence of an interview without constraint or false solemnity which follows.

Jean-Pierre Seguin: Maître, I would first like to thank you for receiving us. This interview will permit our readers to know you better and to measure the importance of your contribution in the promotion of wind instruments and, in particular, the bassoon. First of all, could you please tell us why you decided on a career in music? Your father was of course a musician.

Fernand Oubradous: That’s true. But don’t forget that my grandfather - my father’s father - was a fiddler. He played at dances all over the Languedoc. My father François was principal bassoon at the Paris Opera and at the Société so that music was all around me. And then I was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of the Toulouse clan.

J.P.S.: The Toulouse clan?

F.O.: Yes, you know, at the time everything was run by the clans. Of course I was born in
Paris, but my roots caused me to be adopted by the Toulouse bunch which included people like
Garrés - my piano teacher - people like Busser, Mazelier, and lots of others.. .

J.P.S.: You speak of your piano teacher; didn’t you start on the bassoon?

F.O.: Oh, no! The piano was my first instrument. You know, I started at the same time as
Mme. Darré But the piano didn’t really interest me except to work on the chord progres-sions
I was learning in my classes. I worked with Noel Gallon, Jules Mazellier, and orchestration
with Andre Bloch.

J.P.S.: But, the bassoon?

F.O.: I’m getting to it.. One day my father asked me, “What do you want to do with your
life?” I didn’t really know. “Okay,” he continued, “even if just for a military career, you
could start studying a wind instrument. You won’t have to spend a fortune: there are four or
live bassoons here, all you have to do is take one. I’ll make you a few reeds and we’ll see. "
That’s how it all started. I liked it a lot more than playing the piano. At the beginning, it
didn’t go so easily, but there was something inside, something difficult to explain - that’s the
case with George Thill, for example - all of a sudden, I had a “voice.” I didn’t have any
technique. I worked hard. I had, of course, my pianistic technique, I knew how to move my
lingers, but when I started to work professionally, I had to get serious.

J.P.S.: You talk about the music business, but before that, weren’t you at the Paris Conservatory?

F.O.: Yes, and that was met with mixed success: I got my prize in my first year, in 1923. I
stayed with Bourdeau three months but I was one of the worst students in the class. I have a
lot of respect for that man; he was a born musi-cian, a pianist, an organist, and we got along
very well. I met him often on Sunday afternoons at the opera when I subbed for Louis
Letellier. It happened like that the first time I set foot in that venerable building, I played first
on “Faust”; fortunately I was an okay musi-cian! Then on January 1, 1923, Letellier replaced
Bourdeau at the Conservatory. He was a remarkable bassoonist with a sound that filled the
opera house, but musically less refined than his predecessor. It was with him that I finished my

J.P.S.: So you started in the music business as a bassoonist?

F.O.: Not right away. A year after receiving my bassoon prize, I was offered a position as music director at the Théâtre de l’Atelier. That’s where I met all my buddies: Ibert,
Auric, Honegger. I was there to conduct their music, but when one of them didn’t have time
to finish a piece of music, I would do it.

J.P.S.: What happened to the bassoon during all of this?

F.O.: Our orchestra work consisted of playing the entrances, exits; stage music, basically. So,
I could practice my bassoon four hours a day and then with Paray I had my chance to join the
orchestra in Vichy as third bassoon, before becoming principal. At the time, it must be
said, one started out on third before moving up to first chair. Gaubert was third flute at the
Paris Opéra and even Monteux was in the viola section of Concerts Colonne.

J.P.S.: You then joined the Paris Opéra, but weren’t you also at the Société?

F.O.: Indeed. I was principal under Straram at the Orchestre National, at the Paris Opéra,
but, you know, my father was at the Société with Gaubert. One day Gaubert said to my
father, “There is going to be a bassoon opening in the Société and since your son is in the Orchestre Lamoureux, he doesn’t have to audition.” That’s how I joined the orchestra as
third bassoon before playing second next to my father. I then succeeded him as principal.

J.P.S.: Do you have any particular stories concerning this period?

F.O.: I have one which marks my debut as principal. Imagine this: one day I found myself
the only bassoonist for a rehearsal of a Beethoven symphony, the second, I think. Well, in the
Beethoven symphonies it’s the second bassoon part which is the more important. I played all
the bass lines from memory; Gaubert noticed but didn’t ask me to do it. That was the beginning
of a collaboration with him. He asked me to play the Mozart concerto at the Société, carrying
me to a privileged level then reserved for Marcel Moyse alone.

J.P.S.: That was the beginning of your recording career?

Oubradous and his Colleagues

F.O.: Yes, I received the Grand Prix du Disque a half-dozen times. Before recording as
a conductor, I recorded as soloist the two concerti of Mozart, the Boismortier, the Adagio
from the Weber Concerto, the Andante and Hungarian Rondo, but also a lot of chamber
music: the Beethoven duos, the Sonata for bassoon and violoncello and the Quintet of
Mozart, and quite a few trios: Auric, Ferroud, Golestan, Hahn, Milhaud, Ibert, Rivier, etc.

J .P .S .: Bassoonist, conductor, composer, you’ve put your mark on a number of musical
institutions. Could you mention a few?

F.O.: There’s the reed trio of 1927, the concerts of chamber music we did forty years ago
already, and finally, during the fifties, the Acédémie d'Eté in Nice which last year welcomed 1919 students from 26 countries..

J.P.S.: And is the Société des Instruments à Vent still dear to your heart?

F.O.: It is one of my greatest sources of pride to have succeeded Taffanel and Gaubert, continuing a tradition dating back to 1870.

J.P.S.: And it’s because of you that there is a wind ensemble class at the Paris Conservatory?

F.O.: It’s true that it needed to be created. I made bassoonists and other wind players play
quintets, trios, and solos before having them play in larger ensembles. The wind ensemble
class became the logical consequence of this research.

J.P.S.: You have numerous students, for the most part with brilliant careers, I think?

F.O.: I won’t mention any names for fear of forgetting someone, but if you look at the list of
international prizes, conservatory professors, principals in Parisian or regional orchestras,
you’ll see that the majority of wind players have passed through my class.

J.P.S.: A few words about reeds?

F.O.: I never had any bad blood with reeds. I say often, “Have a lot of respect for them, but
treat them as often as possible with contempt.”

J.P.S.: This quality of contempt is reserved only for the greats, mon cher Maître. But we’ve
taken up a lot of your time. What is your advice to young people?

F.O.: Well, I would say to them that the bassoon is one thing but that the individual is another. If a student has talent, let him develop and use it. But along with that he should ac-quire a deep general knowledge and a solid musical culture: I am thinking of music history, analysis and harmony, without which one cannot hope of being a complete musician.

J.P.S.: Thank you, Maître, and it is our turn to invite you. When you celebrate your diamond
anniversary in the music world, we’ll be there to celebrate the day with a concert in your

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