Gaubert: Médailles antiques, for Flute, Violin, and Piano

Born in the southwest of France, Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941) moved with his family to Paris when he was seven. His father, an accomplished musician, took him to the father of the famous Paul Taffanel for flute instruction. Before long, Gaubert became a pupil of Taffanel fils at the Paris Conservatory, where he earned a premier prix in flute in 1894, when he was only fifteen. His talents extended beyond the flute. In 1903, he received an award for the composition of fugue. The following year, without ever having conducted in his life, he entered an audition for the post of assistant conductor of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, and won. The next year, his ability as a composer was recognized when he was accorded second prize in the Prix de Rome competition.

His career would be a balancing act of his various talents. From 1919 to 1938 he served as chief conductor of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, enthusiastically including many contemporary works in that group's prestigious series. It must have been a splendid evening when, in 1934, this great flutist conducted the premiere of Ibert’s Flute Concerto, with his former pupil Marcel Moyse as soloist. Gaubert first appeared as a conductor at the Paris Opéra in 1920, introduced his opera Naïla there in 1927, and was named its chief conductor in 1931, championing such then-modern works as Puccini’s Turandot and R. Strauss’s Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier.

In 1919, he was named flute professor at the Paris Conservatory, where he also taught conducting. At the Conservatory, Gaubert produced a generation of flutists who emigrated to the United States and defined the aesthetic of flute-playing that would dominate American orchestral playing. These acolytes brought with them such hallmarks of Gaubert’s influence as a homogenized tone throughout the instrument’s registers, so-called “sensitive timbral control” (affording a broad expressive range), a prevalence of vibrato, and the use of silver flutes, as opposed to the once ubiquitous wooden flutes. The tenets of his pedagogy are preserved through the method for the flute he published in 1923, based on notes Taffanel had made for an instructional volume. Gaubert made a small number of recordings as a flutist and/or conductor (collected on a CD currently available on the Alpha Productions label), and he also played the flute obbligato on Dame Nellie Melba’s 1904 recordings of the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor and the Handel aria “Sweet Bird that Shun’st the Noise of Folly.”

Hs catalogue of compositions includes two operas, a ballet, an oratorio, numerous orchestral works (including a symphony and several sets of “symphonic pictures”), a violin concerto, a few songs, quite a bit of chamber music, and lots of music for flute, including three sonatas. “His music is neo-classic, but threatened with modernism,” wrote an alarmed contributor to the 1924 Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians.

As a composer, his closest affinity was perhaps to the style of Ravel (though also to Debussy and Dukas); in fact, he played in the ensemble for the 1907 world premiere of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for Harp. Gaubert’s Médailles antiques (Ancient Medallions) is structured in two sections, with a short pause (or a long breath) in between. In fact, the music of “Nymphs at the Fountain” returns often as a memory in “Dances,” yielding the impression of a single movement. The title suggests something about antiquity, although the piece does not make overt gestures in that direction; the nymphs could as easily be cavorting in a water feature of the Tuileries as in the Castalian Spring of Delphi. The “Dances” portion sounds occasionally Iberian, although Debussy’s Faun also seems to have gamboled past its locale.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published by Oxford University Press.

(June 2019)