Last Friday, I posted a wonderful video from 1987 of Jean-Pierre Rampal playing Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 1 in G Major with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (see it here). It made me realize that while I have covered many important composers of flute music, that I have not focused nearly as much on the legends of flute performance, both past and present. So here we are! I figured who better to start with than the man who the Washington Post credited with “returning to the flute the popularity as a solo classical instrument it had not held since the 18th century.”
Jean-Pierre Rampal was born in 1922 in Marseille, France, the son of flautist Joseph Rampal. Curiously, although his father was a performer and teacher of flute at the Marseille Conservatoire, his parents discouraged him from seeking a career as a musician in favor of a career in medicine. After winning first prize at the Conservatoire’s annual flute competition in 1937 at age 16, he entered medical school at the beginning of World War II. In 1943, Nazi authorities drafted him for forced labor in Germany. To avoid this, he fled to Paris, where it was easier to avoid detection by frequently changing his address. Serendipitously, he then began studying flute at the Paris Conservatoire, where he would later end up teaching. After just four months of study, he won first place at the conservatory’s annual flute competition, taking after his father did in 1919.
In 1945, at the end of World War II, Rampal’s career took off quite literally overnight with his performance of Ibert’s Flute Concerto live on French National Radio. Ibert’s concerto had been written for Marcel Moyse eleven years prior, and Rampal credited Moyse with influencing his development of the flute as a popular solo instrument. He began performing within France, and then throughout Europe, as one of the first solo flute performers with piano accompanist Robert Veyron-Lacroix. They made their United States debut in 1958 with a recital of Poulenc, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Prokofiev in Washington, D.C. at the Library of Congress. Afterwards, Day Thorpe, music critic for the Washington Star, wrote: “Although I have heard many great flute players, the magic of Rampal still seems to be unique. In his hands, the flute is three or four music makers – dark and ominous, bright and pastoral, gay and salty, amorous and limpid. The virtuosity of the technique in rapid passages simply cannot be indicated in words.”
Though not attributed to Rampal alone, he certainly holds much credit for performing Baroque pieces, an era called “The Golden Age of the Flute” which had fallen into obscurity by his time. However, instead of performing them on a period instrument he drew on the full range of effects offered by the modern flute to reveal fresh elegance and nuance to Baroque compositions, which truly set him apart from his predecessors. From the 1960s to the 1980s, he enjoyed great fame, sometimes playing up to 200 concerts a year. The New York Times perhaps best summed up what set him apart as a true master: “solid musicianship, technical command, uncanny breath control, and a distinctive tone that eschewed Romantic richness and warm vibrato in favor of clarity, radiance, focus and a wide palette of colorings. Younger flutists assiduously studied and tried to copy his approaches to tonguing, fingering, embouchure (the position of the lips on the mouthpiece) and breathing.” Rampal passed away of heart failure in May 2000 in Paris.