He’s killing students, or how to get rid of that oboe teacher!

The personnel file for Louis Joseph Friard, oboe teacher at the Brussels Conservatory. Etat du personnel enseignant 1833 – 1907 Conservatoire royal de musique de Bruxelles, B-Bc ARC-007.

For a long time, I have been preoccupied with the ways to improve the teaching and study of the oboe at the conservatory. I have frequently spoken to the professor about the poor intonation of his students, a defect which sadly has its source in the ear of the master; but he reacted to my observations as a landscape painter who saw nature in yellow and red, and who was shocked to be told that the trees were green. It was clear to me that changing the professor was the only way of remedying this problem; but humanistic considerations always stopped me at the moment when I wanted to propose the subject. Having arrived in Brussels in [18]24, Mr. [Louis Joseph] Friard was named professor of oboe at the Royal School of Music in 1825.[1] He now has twenty-four years of service. Married and the father of a family, the only thing left to him today is his position at the conservatory and the fruits of some savings as a means of living. I believe that he is not a naturalized Belgian, and consequently we are not able to grant him a pension.

Nevertheless, there is a very grave consideration which obliges me to bring the replacement of this professor to your attention, and to look for a way to assure a provision for his long service. The consideration is: by a vicious system of breathing technique, Mr. Friard seems to have seriously damaged the health of his students; because Joseph Disclyn, who obtained a second prize in 1837, died of a chest illness the year after his concours. Ferdinand Vanden Heuvel, first prize in 1843, and his brother Henri, second prize in the same year, both died from the same illness in 1844. Charles-Hector Martinent, a talented musician, succumbed to a similar illness, after having obtained the first prize in 1846. Finally, the student [Michel] Van Lamperen, who was awarded a second prize last year, caught the same illness, and was forced to suspend his studies, he will not be able to participate in the concours this year. Mr. Victor Lafaye, another talented musician, also suffered for a long time and was noticeably worse; but as he took a job in the government, he has stopped practicing his instrument, and his health returned.

I am not a doctor and cannot decide if all the students who died prematurely had a deformation which caused these morbid results; but I have observed that nothing similar has manifested in the other wind instrument classes.

To sum up, I think, sirs, that occasion is favorable to suggest Mr. [A.] De Labarre as a replacement to Mr. Friard[2]

This somewhat shocking letter, written on 17 June 1849, to the administrative commission of the Brussels Conservatory from the director François-Joseph Fétis, undoubtedly had an enormous effect. Nevertheless, Louis Joseph Friard was to remain oboe teacher until 1861, when he was made a professor emeritus followed by his retirement in 1865 at the age of 75 years old. Was the oboe truly such a deadly instrument? Is this why Fétis found it necessary to replace Friard and if so, why did he remain professor for another twelve years?

Fétis clearly liked to stir things up among the administrative commission of the conservatory. This commission had to approve of all of Fétis’ choices of teaching personnel, as well as budget and regulations for the school. These decisions would then be passed on to the Ministry of the Interior, under whose jurisdiction the conservatory fell. Anyone wishing to advance his career in the conservatory not only had to be on friendly terms with its director, but more importantly with the highest levels of the Belgian government. Fétis resented this constant control by an unmusical governing body and often rebelled against it. This is not at all surprising. While Fétis had not been the first choice for director of the new conservatory in the newly founded nation of Belgium (in fact he was practically at the end of the list behind many famous musicians and composers), as part of his application he was asked to draw up a blueprint for the teaching of music, not only in the conservatory but in the whole of the country. This investment of power in one person led to frequent conflicts.

The story of the oboe class begins the previous year. In June of 1848 a French oboist A. Delabarre solicited a position at the conservatory as teacher of a second class of oboe, the first being that of Friard. His rather detailed solicitation letter sheds some light about oboe playing at that time.

Sirs,

The improvements that you have introduced at the Royal Conservatory of Music have given me hope that you will be disposed to favorably receive my request for which the interest of art is attached rather strongly, in order to erase any question of personal interest.

As I have been called upon many times as a member of the jury for the concours of wind instruments, I was convinced that the teaching was on the path of progress, and that the professors have made it their work to pass on to their students a correct and easy technique, by adopting the [instruments] with perfect mechanism. The oboe class is the only one which has not achieved the same result, and since its existence, that is to say for more than twenty years, it has not trained one student who has achieved the acclaim that so many other classes of the Brussels Conservatory have.

Without permitting myself to condemn any type of teaching; and without having the intention to contest the merits of an old system [of instrument], I would like to propose, sirs, to open a new class, and to admit me as professor for the new system oboe, or oboe perfectionné.[3] Many years of research and conscientious study have revealed to me the secrets of this instrument, the resources of which, neglected or ignored until now in Belgium, are necessary for the exigences of modern composers.

I will not refer to my past in Paris, as first prize of the conservatoire and artist of the grand opera: it is sufficient to have the honor of being known to many of you, sirs, and notably the director of the Brussels Conservatory, to not have need of any other recommendation. I permit myself only to anticipate an obstacle, the only one possibly which can inhibit or delay my admission. I am speaking of the worries that you could have for the increase in your budget. I would respond to this objection by declaring my ambition is limited to proving that I can produce students, and that my pretentions are very modest so that the sum of appointing two professors together will not exceed the sum of a sole appointment; leaving to your wisdom to compensate me later when the circumstances permit it, and according to the merit that you have accorded me.

I dare to hope, sirs, that my proposition will seem convenient enough to merit, for your part, a favorable response.[4]

Little is known of De Labarre (Labarre or Delabarre as he is also referred to), except that prior to his arrival in Brussels he had been working in Ghent and that he currently held a position in the royal court ensemble as well as the opera. This solicitation was passed on to Fétis in July of 1848 and only in August of the same year did Fétis offer a reply.

Sirs,

The solicitation of Mr. Labarre … dealing with creating a second oboe class at the conservatory, there are two principal questions to examine here: the first is to know if the Minister of the Interior will grant an increase in subsidies to create a second oboe class, and if he is prepared to do this, if there are not more urgent needs for the school. As I do not have information on this first point, I don’t think I can give advice on its usefulness.

The second question to examine is this one: is the number of oboe students great enough that it would be good to establish two classes for this instrument? Here I can definitively reply, no. This instrument offers such little opportunities to those who study it, that it is only by great pains that I arrive at four or five students in the one class that exists at the conservatory, even though I provide instruments to the beginners.

Mr. Labarre is an artist of admirable talent; but no matter what my desire might be to attach him to the establishment under my direction, I have made him aware that I cannot touch the position of the current professor until there is a law for the pensions accorded to professors of the conservatory. Anyway, if Mr. Friard has for a long time lacked results in his teaching, we must give him credit that, for a few years, he has made successful efforts, as he trained Mr. La Faye [who according to Fétis’ letter mentioned above was already sick and had ceased playing the oboe], Martinent [who according to Fétis would die in a few months], and especially Mr. Pleetinckx [the eventual successor to Friard in 1861], who obtained the first prize this year, and who will be a very distinguished oboist.

Mr. Labarre has said in his solicitation that two classes, according to his modest pretentions, would not cost more than one! What does he mean? Will he teach for free? We have never accepted this sort of proposition at the conservatory, because we well know that it leads to future engagements.[5] Is he proposing to divide the salary of one professor between two? Aren’t the rights of the current professor being violated at this point, and I don’t think the commission would agree to this. Mr. Labarre has already deprived Mr. Friard of a necessary part of his income by coming from Gent to take his place as first oboist at the theater: he can not want to deprive him of the half of the meager sum which remains for supporting his family. After these considerations, I admit that I do not understand how two classes would not cost more than one.

For the rest, I do not know how the Minister of the Interior feels about Mr. Labarre, so I don’t think I can make any conclusions about this affair.[6]

Fétis changed his tune in June of the following year by pressing the mater saying that Friard’s teaching was killing his students! It seems from this letter that Fétis had had some limited contact with De Labarre. The commissions’ advice to the Minster of the Interior was that it was currently impossible to accept this solicitation as there was no need for a second class. A similar letter was also sent to De Labarre.

In April 1849 De Labarre repeated his solicitation this time with a different approach.

Mr. Minister,

The director of the Royal Conservatory of Music has let me know of his intention to admit me as professor of oboe to remedy the weakness in a class who’s results have never been, it seems, very satisfactory; and he has authorized me, at the same time, to communicate his desire to you to hopefully agree to make an improvement which, from the point of view of art, must be considered necessary.

I have not forgotten, Mr. Minister, that I had the honor to be presented to you by the minister of France, and the liberty that I take today to ask for your benevolent support, proves to you how much value I attach to the support of a honorable man and the confidence that I have in your true passion for the arts.[7]

Following this renewed solicitation, Fétis changed his approach, as seen in the letter of 17 June 1849. The principal hindrance in replacing Friard was the fact that he was French. Foreign teachers had no right to a state pension at this time. Fétis would effectively be leaving Friard in poverty. The reply of the commission to Fétis brings to light another issue at the Brussels Conservatory.

Mr. Director,

Before following up on the propositions which you have made on the 17th of this month [June] … concerning Mr. Friard and de Labarre, we thought it would be good see what the dispositions of these men would be in respect to the proposition which you made concerning sharing [the teaching position] and to please let us know if there is Belgian artist with equal talent to Mr. de Labarre, who is a foreigner. It is evident that being of equal talent, it would be preferable to have a Belgian.[8]

In the continuation of his letter of June 1849 seen above, Fétis suggested retaining a portion of De Labarre’s salary to support Friard until a pension could be provided. We see as well that the issue of nationality is raised. The creation of the Brussels Conservatory was wrapped up in nationalistic feelings. Prior to Belgian independence in 1830, musicians wishing to train at the highest level had to go abroad and most chose Paris. Liberating themselves from this French dependence was of utmost importance.

When replying to the commission, Fétis further illuminates the situation of oboists in Belgium.

Sirs,

Regarding the positive advice that I had the honor of addressing to you concerning the solicitation of Mr. De Labarre you asked me : 1° If I knew a Belgian oboist who, with equal qualities to this French artist, would have the advantage of being from our country; 2° If he [De Labarre] would accept the position of professor with a salary reduced by the sum retained for Mr. Friard.

My reply to the first question must be negative, because there is not in Belgium a single artist who can be a good professor of oboe. This instrument has for so long been a weak part of our orchestras. I was so convinced of this truth that I had at various times, made attempts to draw to Brussels Mr. Barré, De Lavigne or Verroust, who are today the virtuosi of this instrument; but their demands were such, that I could not follow up on these overtures. Mr. De Labarre is not of the same rank, but is nevertheless a very capable artist, who did not hesitate to study the new key system by which the oboe has become acceptably in tune, and which he adopted, despite the awkwardness of learning a new fingering. This man has taste and intelligence, and I do not doubt that he will be a good teacher and train good students.

In regard to the second question, I can confirm, yes, Mr. De Labarre will accept the temporary salary of six hundred francs; but it is evident that a man of talent would only consider this salary as leading to a better one. What he proposes, is to show his capacity, by training good students; after which he would demand to have a better salary. …[9]

We learn that the Belgians are still playing on an outdated system of oboe. The salaries at the Brussels Conservatory were a pittance and only the highest placed professors, among them Fétis himself, earned enough to live from. As seen in the illustration from the records of the conservatory personnel we see that the highest salary that Friard earned was 1,000 francs. The reduced salary proposed by Fétis would leave Friard with 400 francs per year to support himself and his family. To put this in perspective Fétis himself was paid 5,000 francs per year and the teachers of trumpet and trombone 500 per year. Even the piano tuner was paid 200 francs a year.

In September 1849, the commission and Fétis further discussed this salary reduction which had been proposed to De Labarre but not to Friard. Fétis explains that of course Friard would wish to keep his position at full salary, but:

… I have only proposed his replacement because the teaching of oboe is the sole which is completely defective at the conservatory. This has been notorious for some time; if I hadn’t proposed this improvement of courses earlier, it is because I didn’t find anyone in the country who was capable of improving it and that, for some part, I always hoped that the revolting injustice of refusing a pension for professors of the schools of art would stop. Nevertheless, waiting longer for the improvement of oboe classes is no longer possible. …[10]

The final reply to the situation from the commission is found in a letter of October 1849.

Mr. Director,

The commission has attentively examined your reports …, concerning Mr. Friard and de Labarre and despite the all the repugnance we have for the extreme of firing a professor, we are led to believe as you, Mr. Director, that the interest of the Conservatory necessitates the regeneration of the oboe in this establishment, acknowledging that it is almost notoriously public knowledge that Mr. Friard is no longer at the height of teaching in his art, notably concerning the oboe, and we are disposed to adopt the combination [of professors] which you have proposed; but this affair is delicate and we would like as much as possible to soften the regrets of Mr. Friard and to save his pride. To this effect and before making a positive decision on this point, we ask you, Mr. Director to please speak with Mr. Friard to make him understand, without confirming our intentions, that he is being threatened with being fired simply because of the current insufficiency and that it is in his interest to request an honorable retirement with the provisionary indemnity from the salary of his successor. This way we reach our goal without a violent shock, without too much trouble.[11]

The correspondence of the administrative commission has no further mention of this affair, however in the minutes of its meetings[12] we see that Fétis informs them on 18 October 1849 that he does not feel it is necessary for him to talk to Friard. The response of the committee comes on 29 October 1849 stating that if Fétis will not discuss the matter with Friard then there is no call to change the current personnel situation.

Most likely there is more to this story than what we can glean from these documents. Perhaps Friard had connections with highly placed government officials or the royal family, which could be why he maintained his position for a further 16 years. Or perhaps De Labarre withdrew his solicitation and there was no viable candidate until 1861 when Friard’s own student would take over. We can however assume that the Brussels Conservatory remained behind the times in its oboe curriculum, both the capacity of its teacher as well as the type of instruments which they used.

© Text and translations, Richard Sutcliffe 2019


[1] The École royale de musique was the forerunner of the Brussels Conservatory.

[2] Uncatalogued correspondence of the Commission Administrative of the Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Bruxelles, 17 June 1849 n° 590.

[3] Correspondence with the period oboist and researcher Christopher Palameta suggests that the “new system” referred to here would have been at least the 13 keyed instrument with a newly designed bore invented by Triébert in 1843.

[4] Uncatalogued correspondence of the Commission Administrative of the Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Bruxelles, 28 June 1848.

[5] In fact, in a letter dated 19 February 1849 n° 545, Fétis proposes exactly the same proposition in order to incorporate Hubert Léonard as a violin teacher to replace Lambert Joseph Meerts who was suffering from a mental illness.

[6] Uncatalogued correspondence of the Commission Administrative of the Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Bruxelles, 18 August 1848 n° 497.

[7] Idem, 4 April 1849.

[8] Idem, 28 June 1849 n° 233.

[9] Idem, 29 July 1849 n° 611.

[10] Idem, 28 September n° 632.

[11] Idem, 3 October 1849 n° 252.

[12] Procès-verbaux des Séances de la Commission administrative du Conservatoire Royal de musique de Bruxelles N°s 354 à 507 3me volume du 13 juillet 1846 au 26 décembre 1853, B-Bc ARC-001-(3).

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