- Marcel Tabuteau: How Do You Expect to Play the Oboe If You Can’t Peel a Mushroom?
Reading Laila Storch’s description of lessons with Marcel Tabuteau transported me back to my lessons with one of Tabuteau’s students, Earnest Harrison, in the late 1970s. The following words from Storch’s personal diary of 1943 were used almost verbatim in Harrison’s studio, and much of the current oboe playing population will recognize these instructions: “[The oboist should] start long tones like an engine, gradually, not suddenly, increasing the wind intensity by blowing faster from 1–9, while the lips do the opposite. On the return, 4–3–2–1 must be up, up up inflections before the “down” resolution on 1” (p. 245). Other memories of studying with Tabuteau were told in Harrison’s studio as well, including tales of his mercurial temper, juxtaposed with his unpredictably kind moments. In one of Storch’s letters home, she writes, “My lesson was a dilly! Tabuteau was just on the verge of being in a very bad humor, I could tell. He was sort of at the explosion point, but I had a pretty [End Page 766] good lesson anyhow. He called me ‘Stupide’ and then later tells me ‘good,’ ‘fine.’ Said it was the best tone he had heard out of me yet” (p. 236).
The biography’s opening chapters introduce the reader to Tabuteau’s early years in France and his time studying with George Gillet at the Paris Conservatory, where he won the “1er Prix de Hautbois” in 1904. In 1905, at the age of seventeen, Tabuteau was hired by Walter Damrosch to play in the New York Philharmonic, as many European musicians were, and this began his life as an oboist in the United States. Tabuteau played with the New York Philharmonic until 1908 when he took a position in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini where he remained until 1914. In 1915 he began playing under Leopold Stokowski in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Tabuteau played with this orchestra until 1954. Beginning in 1924, he taught at the Curtis Institute of Music. In 1954 Tabuteau retired from Curtis and the Philadelphia Orchestra and moved to France. He lived there with his wife until his death in 1965.
While this summary provides a brief outline of Tabuteau’s life and the format of the biography, Storch’s book offers much more to the reader than a recitation of Tabuteau’s life and accomplishments. Storch began her studies with Tabuteau in 1943, studied with him regularly until 1946 and remained friends with him throughout his life. She chronicled her years at Curtis in regular letters to her mother from which she quotes throughout the book. In her early years in Philadelphia, Storch worked for the Tabuteaus as a personal aide and secretary. She answered letters for Tabuteau, responding to requests for lessons from prospective students, ordering reedmaking materials, making travel arrangements and hotel reservations, and taking care of other aspects of life. She shopped and ironed for them as well, and by seeing the Tabuteaus in day-to-day life, she learned much about them. Due to her association with the Tabuteaus in both a musical and a social context, Storch is able to introduce her reader to many aspects and experiences of this extraordinary man.
One of Tabuteau’s passions was food. He was what one today might call a “master chef,” creating meals that were lengthy and enjoyable events. Storch meticulously recorded many meals prepared by Tabuteau. In early 1944, Tabuteau asked Storch to help serve a meal he prepared for Mr. and Mrs. Toscanini, Mr. and Mrs. Ormandy, Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Hilsberg (he was the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra), and the Tabuteaus. In the midst of serving the meal (borscht, salad, mushrooms, ravioli, champagne and red wine, with fruit, cookies, and coffee for dessert), Ormandy requested that...