World-renowned French flautist with magical gift for music

Sat, Jun 10, 2000, 01:00

"It must be a passion - as important as the water you drink or the bread you eat." This is how the French flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, who died on May 20th aged 78, described his relationship with his instrument. The passion fuelled a remarkable career, which spanned more than 50 years.

Until the 1950s, it was unusual for a wind instrumentalist to appear as a soloist with an orchestra, but Jean-Pierre Rampal's talent, flair and commanding stage presence broke through this barrier, bringing the flute into the limelight and paving the way for other flute soloists, such as James Galway. He also became one of the world's most recorded artists, with more than 400 records spanning the essential flute repertoire, quantities of new discoveries and first recordings of hitherto unknown works.

Born in Marseilles, he was the son of a flautist: his father was a professor at the Marseilles Conservatoire, and first flute in the city's orchestra. As a boy, he listened to the radio constantly, devouring music of all kinds, but symphonic music in particular. At the age of 12, he was given his own flute and went to the conservatoire to study with his father.

Each day after school he would choose three new pieces from the music shop, to be played after he had done his homework. When he had exhausted the flute repertoire, he plundered the oboe, clarinet, violin and cello shelves for new material. In addition, a publisher friend of his father sent weekly parcels of new pieces from Paris. He was already beginning to search in libraries for unpublished music; later, he edited such works for publication.

Although an exacting teacher, his father did not encourage his son to become a professional musician, and the beginning of the second World War saw him entering medical school, where he studied for three years. Towards the end of that time the Nazi occupation forces drafted him for compulsory labour in Germany. He refused, went underground and made his way to Paris, where he began attending classes at the Paris Conservatoire.

Five months later, he graduated with the first prize, and after the liberation of Paris became first flute at the Paris Opera, where he stayed for six years. He quickly gained recognition as a soloist, making his first broadcast in 1945 with Ibert's Flute Concerto, and his first record, Mozart's Flute Quartet in D, in 1946.

As his solo career blossomed, he established a 30-year partnership with the pianist Robert Veyron-Lacroix, popularising the notion of a complete recital of flute music. He also belonged to the French Wind Quintet, and in 1952 founded the Ensemble Baroque de Paris, one of the first groups to bring to light the repertoire of that era.

On recital tours to the US, he often met resistance from city orchestras to his performing concertos with them, generally fuelled by the resident flautists, who regarded the idea as a threat. Gradually, however, he broke through this resistance and, in fact, paved the way for many orchestral flautists to perform more often as soloists.

From the 1960s onwards, he was regularly giving at least 150 concerts a year, while simultaneously teaching, making records and researching and editing new works for the publishing houses of Georges Billaudot, in Paris, and the International Music Company, in the US.

He was also the much-loved professor of flute at the Paris Conservatoire from 19691981. He believed that flute-playing should be "natural", and not a forced discipline. He encouraged his pupils to have a presence, style, expression, and, above all, spontaneity - not to be afraid to take risks. He felt that technique should be so well mastered as to be forgotten in performance.

He paved the way for a surge in the popularity of the flute, and for the current high standards of performance. Works considered extremely difficult in the 1950s are now played as a matter of course by college students.

But, while highly regarded outside France, he thought his own reputation within the country "curious". Writing in Le Monde in 1990, he said that no musical critic in France took any notice of his records. "Everything continues as if I didn't exist. This doesn't matter; I still play to full houses."

He was interested in music beyond the classic repertoire. He recorded an album of Japanese folk songs and Claude Bolling's Suite For Flute And Jazz Piano, and even performed with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show.

He also played a legendary instrument, the most famous flute in the world. The only gold flute made by Louis Lot in 1869, was mislaid after the death of its first owner in 1880. Somehow, one day in 1948, it found its way into the hands of the young Jean-Pierre Rampal.

He is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter.

Jean-Pierre Rampal: born 1922; died, May 2000.