Our composer of the month for July is yet another important member of the French flute school and arguably one of the founders of that, Paul Taffanel. He was also a conductor, performer, and a prolific chamber musician. He played a very important role in re-vamping the school of thought with regards to Bach’s era.
Born in Bordeaux, France, Taffanel received his first lessons on the flute from his father at the age of nine. After giving his first concert at the age of ten, he studied with Vincent Dorus at the Paris Conservatoire. Once he graduated in 1860, he won his first of several awards for flute performance at age sixteen. In 1893, Taffanel became Professor of Flute at the Conservatoire. IAs Professor, he revised the institute’s repertoire and teaching methods, restructuring the traditional masterclass format to give students individual attention while building a reputation as an inspiring teacher. Taffanel also revamped the required repertoire for his Conservatory students. Beginning in 1894, he replaced much of the 19th-century music popular at the time with works by Johann Sebastian Bach and other composers of the 18th century. Until then, French musicians (save for a handful of organists) had ignored the Bach revival that had swept England, Germany and Austria. Alfredo Casella, who had studied Bach in Italy before coming to Paris, noted that none of his classmates at the Conservatoire knew that composer’s music!
Taffanel toured widely in Europe. This placed him ahead of his contemporaries in awareness of baroque repertoire. Thanks to this awareness, Taffanel’s impact on the early music revival in France cannot be overestimated. His work sparked and helped fuel a growing interest in France in early music, with editions such as Saint-Saëns’ of music by Jean-Philippe Rameau. In addition to his teaching duties, Taffanel became an important opera and orchestra conductor, serving from 1890 to 1906 as chief conductor at both the Paris Opéra and the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. Previously these positions had been awarded to string players; Taffanel was the first flautist to hold them. Taffanel’s duties at the Opera included directing all new productions, among which during his tenure were French premieres of various Wagner operas and Verdi’s Otello. At the Societe des Concerts Taffanel championed Camille Saint-Saëns and other contemporary French composers. He also gave the world premiere of Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri. He revised the conservatory’s repertoire and teaching methods, putting the music of other, foreign composers, including Bach, back into the institute’s repertoire, just as he had as a teacher. Finally, founding the Société de musique de chambre pour instruments à vent (Society of Chamber Music for Wind Instruments) in 1879, he revived the wind ensemble music of Mozart and Beethoven while also encouraging the composition of many new works, including Charles Gounod’s Petite symphonie. In addition, during the 1880s, Taffanel participated in “historic” concerts, playing his Boehm flute alongside viola da gamba and harpsichord in performances of baroque music.