I’m always a little suspect of autobiographies. Are we really going to get a realistic picture of someone’s life in a book they authored themselves? Seriously, who’s going to write about their shortcomings and failures and dirty little secrets? So when I picked up Music, My Love by Jean-Pierre Rampal I had my rose colored glasses firmly on my face.
Not surprisingly, Music, My Love is the story of a great man who was famously successful in nearly every musical endeavor. His many friends include all of the greatest musicians of his age, he did fabulously well on every audition and his wife and children loved him dearly. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading about Jean-Pierre Rampal's charmed life. It was about the man I would have wanted him to be. Given that he left us more than a decade ago, it’s unlikely that scandal is going to tarnish him. Maybe he never had a dark side or a character flaw. I choose to believe that he was as delightful as his autobiography makes him out to be.
For me, the most interesting aspects of the Jean-Pierre Rampal story are in how much the world changed, both historically and musically during his career. Only forty years my senior, I tend to think of Rampal as a contemporary. After all, he played for two decades after I first picked up my flute. I took it for granted that his early musical experiences had been similar to mine. But factoring in mid twentieth century history, the world was a very different place. Historically it was a time of war. Musically it was a time of limited repertoire.
World War II has always been, for me, history. The atrocities of the war years are so incompatible with my conception of the modern world that I tend to classify those events as ancient history. Yet the world was still in the thick of it a mere twenty years before I was born. Jean-Pierre Rampal was a teenager when France declared war on Germany. A year later Nazi troops were occupying his homeland.
In spite of the food shortages and limits to personal freedom, Jean-Pierre continued playing the flute and began his studies to become a doctor. But life changed when he turned 21, the age at which he was required to begin mandatory service in the Chantiers de Jeunesse in France. The greatest flutist of his age was forced to spend his days felling trees and clearing ground. Yet he still found a way to continue the music. Jean-Pierre applied for a place within the service orchestra and of course was chosen first flute.
When it looked as though service in Germany was inevitable, Rampal took matters into his own hands. With a bogus letter from a medical school, he and a friend tricked the bureaucracy long enough to escape to Marseilles. He spent the remainder of the war hiding out in Paris and attending the Paris Conservatory. He never did go back to his medical studies to the great disappointment of his mother. Medicine’s loss is music’s gain.
In 1949, with the war behind him, and finally having given up any pretense of becoming a doctor, Rampal began his musical career in earnest. Oddly, one of the obstacles he faced in building a solo career was the lack of repertoire. The nineteenth century did not produce many serious solo works for the flute. There was, of course, Mozart and Quantz from the Classical period, but Baroque music had fallen out of vogue during the previous century. The rich, pre-Mozart flute repertoire had fallen into obscurity.
Baroque music was re-discovered during the early twentieth century. Bach’s music in particular became very popular. Marcel Moyse had recorded the Brandenberg Concertos and a number of other works by Bach and Telemann. But many of their flute works as well as those of Vivaldi and Handel were still gathering dust, lost in library archives.
Jean-Pierre Rampal was a Mozart devotee. “Mozart, it is true, is a god for me,” he says in his autobiography. But Mozart does not a solo career make. In an effort to expand the repertoire, Jean-Pierre hunted down many old Baroque manuscripts, in some cases editing them for publication. Take note the next time you’re thumbing through your music collection. Chances are good you’ll find a piece or two bearing his name as editor.
Music, My Love is the story of a delightful man and his colorful life, both on stage and off. I’ve been a fan since I was a teenager, but until reading this book, I did not realize the extent to which Rampal has influenced the modern flute playing world. He raised the status of the flute to that of solo instrument. The extensive flute library that we have inherited owes much to his persistence in recovering forgotten repertoire and to the many pieces written for or premiered by him. Our musical lives are richer for his having played the flute. Bravo Jean-Pierre.
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