Interview of Marcel Mule by Claude Delangle.
Claude Delangle : I always enjoy visiting you, and I come almost every year, but today I will be taking notes, since my students asked me to. They said to me : “ You know Marcel Mule but we don’t !”.
My point here is to transmit a form of legacy. You have often told me about the events that brought you to use the vibrato when you play saxophone. Could you explain them again, chronologically ?
Marcel Mule : Everything begins with the jazz, because when in arrived in Paris in the early 1920s, I heard a lot of jazz orchestras concerts. I was very surprised and even outraged to discover saxophonists who sounded quite weird to me, they had a tremulous sound, with a kind of vibration. I can still remember this big fellow who was playing at the Folies Bergères, he probably did not know all the notes and was furiously blowing in a soprano, it was phenomenal. I was a bit shocked.
But on the other hand, I had to start playing jazz because it was an interesting source of income, and since I was in the military at that time, it was easing a bit my daily life. So this is how I was brought to involve myself progressively in jazz orchestras, for replacements. I was doing a bit of everything.
But I never abandoned the substance of the sound I was taught by my father, who was a very good old-school saxophonist. He had a real artistic talent, he was a great musician and played the instrument very well. Therefore I had received the first guidelines and principles from him.
Between the age of 13 and 20 years old, I did not play music, or only as an amateur, since my father wanted me to become a school teacher. I became a school teacher and, after seven months, I went to Paris to enter military service and I was allowed at that time to choose a regiment with military music. As a musician, I got to know my fellow students of the music conservatory, which of course did not have a saxophone class. Some musicians were very good and I started playing in an orchestra. It was laborious since I had to be always available and I was going from place to place, but still I had shaped a sound, with my equipment at that time, which fitted jazz orchestras.
Over time I managed to find the wavy vibrato which was quite popular in jazz music. I was labelled an excellent jazz instrumentalist; still my refrains were modest, I was doing some but it was not what I enjoyed the most. On the other hand I was quite successful with the sonority I had worked on and shaped, and after two or three years, I had already entered the Garde; I was in the “Ritz” orchestra. A black man was directing, he had immediately accepted me and considered me a remarkable element. He liked me a lot, and I tried to improve this sound I had found. At that time we were playing very melodic things, we played the works of an American composer, Irving Berlin, we played some Bostons, we played slows that we called blues.
We could experiment new sonorities, and I was doing very well in this music. I was still playing at the Garde without any vibrato in the sound.
C.D. : Would you not have been allowed to use it ?
M.M. : Well, maybe I would have, but I did not even try, there was no opportunity to use it. I entered the Garde in 1923, I became soloist almost immediately since I replaced François Combelle, who was the father of Alix Combelle. He knew me and he advised me to enter the Garde. I passed the exam and my admission caused great surprise, since nobody knew who I was. I was considered to be an interesting soloist, almost remarkable ; I was said to be playing almost perfectly, and all of my interventions were approved and enjoyed.
Years passed, but at the Garde I was not changing anything ta all. I was playing at the Opera Comique, and we were only playing Werther, at least once a month, sometimes more. I was also playing here and there in orchestras like Colonne, Padeloup, Lamoureux, Société des Concerts. Somehow I was a bit of the official saxophonist but not in jazz music, I played in a different way, without vibrato, it was something different.
In 1928, at the Opera Comique, we played a ballet composed by a good musician- a pianist- who knew me as a jazz saxophonist. We played some “fox-trot”, a blues, and other dances I do not remember the name, that were popular at the time. In the blues, he had written a very expressive and outstanding phrase for the saxophone. I understood immediately how it was meant to be played, and I knew him, but we had not yet had an occasion to talk about it. During the rehearsal, I played as usual, just as I would have played Werther. Then he says to me : “ I wrote it very expressive, which means with vibrato ”. So I tell him “ but here we are not used to playing this way, it is a symphonic orchestra, not a jazz orchestra ”.
“It doesn’t matter, just play as you usually do in jazz.”
“All right, but it is your call”. And I thought it would be a scandal. And I played this phrase, with moderation still, and he liked it. The musicians were impressed, I could hear enthusiastic discussions. Some of them I was a new musician, it was not the same person who was playing ! I was afraid of scandal, and it was a success. And my fellow musicians, who were at the Garde with me and who were sitting behind me told me “ You should play like this at the Garde.”. But I said it was impossible, since it was not the same kind of music.
Anyway, it made me think about it, and gradually, with moderation, I started using the vibrato in other types of music. I played Ravel’s Bolero this way.
C.D. : And in the “Vieux Château”.
M.M. : No, I played the Vieux Château with different conductors without vibrato, and only later I played it with vibrato. Then progressively I started using it at the Garde and they were really enthusiastic. I completely changed the way I was playing in terms of expression, I thought I was playing with expression but I was not entirely satisfied with it. One must know that, at that time, there were flutists like Moïse who played in a classical way.
C.D. : Did the horn players use the vibrato ?
M.M. : At the Opera, Devemy and Vialet used it too.
C.D. : But for them, it was not due to the influence of jazz music ?
M.M. : Not at all. It was because of the need for expression. Some oboe players were also using vibrato. One of them at the Garde had a perfectly wavy sound, it was beautiful. An other at the Lamoureux Orchestra also did, but most of them were still playing with a straight sound, that gave all the passion to their interpretation and that was close to the sound of strings in terms of emotion.
As for me, there was still much work to do. But somehow I managed to establish myself that way. I was considered to be one of the greatest soloist in Paris, and every time I was playing it was amazing and surprising. This change had happened, and it was completely different. I think it was a great evolution. And the funny thing is that this ballet, which was a suite of dances, was named “ Evolution ” !
And then for years I received letters from musicians who wanted to play the same way as I did, and, well, what could I do but to explain it to them.
C.D. : So how did you explain it ?
M.M. : I realised that what I was doing, in terms of vibrato, corresponded to a certain speed, which I codified if I may say, and I advised them to work at first with long notes, of course, and then to use it in phrases- for instance in Ferling studies, which were an excellent instrument of expression, and must remain so because they are quite simple pieces that can prepare to any form of musical phrasing. And I realised that, as I was making others work on it, I was learning a lot myself. I learnt a lot from students.
I taught this with authority, since I was sure that I was doing the right thing, and the students I was teaching were enthusiastic and showed good will since they agreed with me.
In the Garde too, a few musicians were not really convinced about me imposing this, but most of them did approve it. And I was considered the best soloist in Paris simply because of this ! Saxophone was revealed because of this !
The main thing I was imposing- and that I would still impose if I were still teaching- was an average normal speed of 300 ripples a minute. Considering the fact that the vibrato is made of a higher note and a slightly lower note, one must therefore lower the sound a little bit- not too much- following a certain pace. I used to ask my students to play a note without vibrato, and then a lower note with the same finger position and the same mouth position. I asked them to gradually speed up, until they reach a vibration of 300 ripples a minute. This is the first step, the beginning of the work, but one must be careful that counting does not become an obsession and a restriction. If you set your metronome on 75, it makes it four vibration per beat. If you set it on 100 it makes it three per beat, if you set it on 150 it makes it two. If you set it on 60, which is a little bit harder, it makes it five. But one can do it very well. I would advise the students to do this work and then to apply it to melodic phrases, while always controlling the speed. One must not go too fast, and especially not too slow, because this would sound like the “wa-wa” one can sometimes hear with some instrumentalists and bass voices. I knew a flutist who played in an incredibly agile and smooth way, and one day he was very surprised to hear that the vibrato could be worked with a metronome.
After all, why using the metronome ? It looks like a non-sense. I used to impose the students a certain speed and there were some particular cases at the conservatory, for example that of a student who was playing very well but, in my opinion, his vibrato was too dense and I really struggled to make him slow down. When he was able to do it, it was beautiful, and then I would always ask the others : “ It is good. Why ? “.
It was my opinion, and it still is, since my experience showed it was successful. From this moment on, the instrument started to be accepted by many. So, why was it me who brought all this ?
Being a soloist in the Garde, when someone wanted a soloist to play in an orchestra, they would ask for me, so I kind of imposed the vibrato. My credit is perhaps to have analysed it. I knew, and I still know, many people who played beautifully, with remarkable sonorities, but who did not really understand what they were doing, they were not able to codify their technique. They did not think about it. On the other hand, I read some years ago in a method book of my granddaughter Nathalie, who is a violinist, that the work of the vibrato is codified. As for the speed, it is a bit different from the saxophone, but not that much.
So this is the story of the success of the instrument, of its eloquence and its voice !
The first time I played Imbert’s Concertino, it was for a radio recording, with the conductor of the Padeloup orchestra, René Bâton. He said to me : “ It is interesting, when you play it sounds like a feminine voice, a soprano voice.” He heard it this way, and it pleased me because it was the result I was looking for. I was lucky enough to control it and not to make mistakes.
C.D. : And it encountered a general approval.
M.M. : A general approval, absolutely. It was an incredible success ! Among the composers who liked it, for instance, there was Darius Milhaud- I played a lot with him-, Jacques Ibert, who used the Larghetto once to begin the opening sequence of a movie. I had to take a thousand precautions, he wanted a very specific colour, and of course a vibrato.
So I played it several time and I felt that he was looking for a certain tone. Eventually we did it, and it was amazing. He told me : “ It really moves me.”, and I will always remember it, it was his conception of the instrument.
In the “Chevalier Errant”, he gave an important part to the saxophone, with a very expressive phrase and two very eloquent cadences as well. The first time we played this at the Opera, after the name of the composer was announced, a musician added “ and the soli at the saxophone were made by Marcel Mule.” You see how important it was.
Just to show how enthusiastic people were, during the same evening, the violin soloist, who was Henry Merckel at the time, came to congratulate me.
When I played the solo oboe at the National Orchestra, some musicians had said “ so, you are teaching us today ? ”. So to say, the impact of the instrument was huge ! Inevitably, it had to cross the borders : I played in Switzerland, in Germany just before the war, in England, in the Netherlands …
I would like to mention something, a story about Jacques Ibert, with Sigurd Rascher. Someone wrote in the ASSAFRA journal that somehow I was jealous of Sigurd Rascher. As if I could be jealous of him ! I did not indulge myself in telling them that they were wrong. He just recently asked about me. We were both part of a jury in Genève in 1970 and we had a brief explanation. But I am not jealous of him, and neither is he of me.
He impressed Jacques Ibert a lot with his very high register.
I met him in 1932, at an audition at the Russian society. Glazounov’s Quatuor was played. He introduced himself, he was a teacher in Copenhagen at that time. “ I play the saxophone on four octaves ” he said. Later I could hear him play and I understood… Jacques Ibert was very impressed.
Ibert was amazed by the altissimo register but he came back from it. One day he came to me and told me he had written a concerto. I heard the first movement, the Larghetto, and told him that it was reaching a very high register, which was not really my area. He said that he did not particularly want it. So I played the Larghetto like this, and I said in Genève that Ibert liked it better that way.
C.D. : How did you learn how to play the saxophone ?
M.M. : I did not learn the saxophone by myself. I received a great help. My father taught me how to play the saxophone, he gave me the first good principles and guidelines. He had a certain artistic regard. He made me sing on the instrument, but sing without expression. It was a contained expression, you had it in you but the others would not enjoy it, that was the difference. Here, with the vibrato, everybody can enjoy it, but you have to use it with elegance and measure. You must know what you are doing.
C.D. : What was your father’s musical instruction ?
M.M. : He only knew people in the military music, that is all. Local teachers had showed him the way at the beginning, and then he improved himself on his own.
C.D. : Did other persons teach you how to play ?
M.M. : No, but I started playing the violin when I was 9 and my provincial teacher taught me well. When I came to Paris I had the opportunity to play with a great violinist who led me to discover many things in terms of interpretation.
C.D. : And then you carried your technique over to the saxophone.
I was tempted to do so with the saxophone of course. I played violin in the warmest and most expressive way, but not saxophone, it was not considered right. But on the other hand, when I heard the oboe player I mentioned earlier, I was amazed by his sound.
C.D. : So the saxophone was played without vibrato ; what about the flute and the oboe players, did they use it ?
M.M. : There were only two or three oboists who used it : before Moïse, there was Philippe Gaubert, a great flutist, who had a very warm sound but did not use vibrato. I knew many flutists like this who played remarkably well. Lavaillote, at the Opera, had a pleasant sound, but it was not the same emotion as with others who played around 1925, for example : Cortet, Crunelle, and others like Dufresne at the National Orchestra. There were the musicians that were very expressive, and there were those who tried, especially an English horn who would have given you a stomach ache !
C.D. : A saxophone method book mentions a vibrato technique with the knee…
M.M. : It was Viard, one of my rivals at the time, he was trying to impress. He was a second-hand saxophonist and played with the knee. When he played the soprano, it was very complicated : he was putting the soprano on top of the alto ! But he was quite popular. One day he played the rhapsody of Debussy, it was not a great success !
He used to come to the STRARAM concerts. It was an association which had been founded by a choir leader of the opera who was called Straram. He had bought an orchestra after he married a woman who was extremely rich. He had recruited all the best elements of Paris and had gathered them in his orchestra, which enable him to show himself as a conductor. Just as Münch did years later.
So there was Viard but he was not very successful as a soloist. I did it a bit myself, but not for long, since I was doing so many movies at that time and I was doing concerts with the Quatuor. I was playing a bit everywhere.
C.D. : Which one of your passed activities do you consider today the most important ?
M.M. : Teaching at the conservatory gave a real boost to the instrument. Bichon told me that there are 150 saxophone teachers today in France !
C.D. : Tell us about the Quatuor.
M.M. : The Quatuor was created in 1929, under the initiative of Georges Chauvet, who was very precious in the foundation and the duration of this group. He was the secretary, and accomplished a colossal work- he even did copies of the transcriptions- and he really cared a lot about it. He was playing the baritone. At the beginning, when we discussed the idea together, he said “ surely we will have an occasion to play together ”, and when he saw the development of the quatuor, and that it was becoming serious, he really invested himself.
The Quatuor changed with time. We were not exactly satisfied with one of the elements from the Garde ; it was not as expected and certainly not sufficient ! We split off from him, and an other musician left by solidarity. There was a scission.
We had two other elements : one of them was called Lhomme and played at the Garde, the other was Paul Romby. Romby had entered the Garde in 1934 but he was not really satisfied with it. He invested himself a lot in the Quatuor. We did a limited number of concerts, because of our obligations with the Garde.
In 1936, when, for multiple reasons, I decided to quit from the Garde, Romby followed me. Chauvet left because he was close to retirement and we replaced Lhomme with Charron. And we called it the “ Quatuor de Saxophones de Paris “. Before Gourdet, there was Gauchy and Josse. Then there were many changes. Gourdet arrived, he presented almost all the concerts, he was a remarkable speaker, and we changed the name for “Quatuor Marcel Mule“.
The Quatuor did a lot for the saxophone in general. For instance, when we dared playing a Mozart quatuor, the “ Quatuor of Dissonances ”, it was almost reckless, but there was nothing else to play. An we were judged on this ! Then there was a bit of a larger repertoire, but we had more success when we played Mozart. We played everywhere in Italy. Of course we did not have a repertoire, apart from Glazounov, it was not very cheerful. Still we managed to make something out of it. We played a few small pieces from Pierné, Absil, Jean Rivier, Pierre Vellones and others ; still it was a limited repertoire.
In these day, there were still composers who were also very good musicians and who wrote well. You could play their compositions, they were accepted by the public. But today …
C.D. : I have a recording of the Bolero directed by Ravel. Were you there this day ?
M.M. : I played in concerts with Ravel but I do not remember playing with him for a recording. I played at the first audition of the Bolero at the Opera for the Ida Rubinstein ballets under the direction of Straram. It was in 1929 I think.
C.D. : Did Ravel particularly like the saxophone ?
M.M. : Yes he liked it very much. But one could not have any contact with him, he did not say anything and was quite a secret man, but he estimated us.
C.D. : Did he hear the Quatuor play ?
M.M. : Yes. I had arranged some of his songs and melodies in order to draw his attention. He had heard them and had decided to write something, but he fell sick. But no one ever had any contact with him. He was coming on the stage but he did not enjoy it.
C.D. : He was very rigorous about the tempo. He went to see Toscanini in his lodge to tell him “ Sir, your tempo is absolutely incorrect.”
M.M. : Oh yes, Toscanini barely ever did any mistakes, but that time he did. He intended to “interpret” this. He was doing some accelerandos. It was not the right thing to do.
The ballet showed a dancer on the stage. For each new intervention of an instrument, a new dancer would come in, and it ended with a crowded stage. It was astonishing.
C.D. : Did you play his version of the “Tableaux d’une Exposition” with him ?
M.M. : No, I played it around 1925 with a conductor named Emile Cooper, and then with Monteux who was playing it a bit too fast.
C.D. : If you agree, let’s talk a little bit about the equipment you played with. During the years 1925-1930, what mouthpiece did you use ?
M.M. : The old mouthpieces, with a large bore and resistant reeds, with tightly open tables. These mouthpieces were supplied by the instrument sellers, like Selmer.
C.D. : These mouthpieces were made of wood ?
M.M. : Of wood, yes. Then we had the ebonite mouthpieces made by Selmer, and then they created the metal mouthpiece which I used for a very long time. In 1923 I was playing on a Selmer instrument. Then, around 1928, I started using the Couesnon. The tester for Couesnon fell sick, it was Mayer, a clarinettist who played the saxophone at the Opera for the ballets. So I was hired by Couesnon to replace him, and since the instrument was not entirely operational, I kept playing on the Selmer for a while, but the director asked me to do a model that I could use. So we remade the whole process of fabrication, but it was not easy because one always struggles to change something in an established company.
They were already selling a good amount of saxophones. The foreman was a bit of a saxophonist and a bit of a clarinettist. It was not easy to run the tests. Still, after a year, we managed to create an alto which was quite successful and that I used for 18 years, until 1938. Then, I changed for Selmer.
C.D. : Why did you quit from Couesnon ?
M.M. : I was not satisfied with what Couesnon was doing at that time, and I had more interesting propositions from Selmer. There were better perspectives, and I decided to go where it was working well.
C.D. : So how did it go at Selmer’s ?
M.M. : It was difficult as well. We had to deal with a factory director in Mantes, Lefebvre (his son later replaced him). This Mr Lefebvre, who was very professional, did not like transformations, and yet changes had to be made to maintain production. We managed to change things gradually.
The Selmer company grew considerably. It was a very well directed business. There were undeniable progress that were made, but not always the way I would have wanted. Then there was Nouaux, who obtained a few ameliorations. It is a field in which one must always seek improvement.
C.D. : And at the music conservatory, did you struggle with some of the students ?
M.M. : I did not have any problem. I do not reckon a student who would not work. I was paying a very close attention to the sound. I check for these 300 ripples every time I hear a beautiful voice. Many women sing in a very beautiful way, more than men I think. There are truly extraordinary feminine voices.
Take two musicians : one of them has the sound as I conceive it, and the other has the imperfections I often mention; make anyone listen to both of them and ask them to choose. I bet you that it will always be the first one who is chosen, it is a human thing. It is a natural satisfaction of the ear.
As I said in Gap during an exchange with Londeix, I think it is an auditive pleasure, which is perhaps even stronger than the visual pleasure. When you stand in front of a beautiful landscape or a magnificent painting, it causes you a shock. But I do not feel then the same satisfaction as when I hear a voice or an instrument with a really moving sound.
It is the same for flutists, some of t helm are really remarkable. We used to have excellent horn players in France, but it was decided that the vibrato belonged to an expired romanticism. I heard it on the radio. I remember some interesting horn sonorities, from Thevet for instance. AT the beginning there was Devemy who started to put emotion in the horn, and taught many students.
C.D. : It is true that, nowadays, no horn players use the vibrato. The oboists use it, as well as the flutists and the bassoonists. The clarinets don’t use it, or barely ever, neither do the trumpet players nor the horns. Do you think it because of the habits, the trend, the tastes ?
M.M. : I think it is mainly because of teaching. I remember that all the students in my class almost had the same sound.
C.D. : Did you give many examples ?
M.M. : Yes of course, and I often showed them how I used to play. They would laugh about it, and they were right to !
C.D. : Did you give long examples ?
M.M. : No, it was always mainly on details.
C.D. : Did some of your student face important basic technical lacks and problems ?
M.M. : No, there was no problems with the students who had been taught by my former students who had themselves become teachers. Luckily I was assisted in my work. I had Mr Bichon with me, your former teacher, who is incredible. He did a great job in the Rhônes-Alpes region, he invested himself and dedicated himself to his students.
C.D. : Who were the personalities who inspired you during your career ?
M.M. : Toscanini was someone. I never played with him but I saw him directing an orchestra. It was something special, with rigour he obtained the very best of his musicians. He wanted exactly what he read, if one may say since he was almost blind. There was a limpidity, a clarity in his executions that the others could not reach. And it is still a mystery. He had an immense determination. Many would say “ with him, we do not play as with the others”. He was very demanding, and he had a great influence.
C.D. : In 1989, when we made researches on your teaching at the conservatory, we realised that Claude Delvincourt had played a very important role in the evolution of French music.
M.M. : Of course ! And especially for us, since he is the one who made a saxophone class possible. He was the director of the conservatory of Versailles, where I would attend to the saxophone class jury every year. He would always say “ When will there be a saxophone class in Paris!”
At that time, Rabaud was the director in Paris. He appreciated our work with the saxophone, and said that “if they had the credits, they could create a class right now”. But he could not do it.
When Delvincourt became the director, I asked for an appointment two months later and he immediately said “I know why you are coming, be sure that it is the first thing I am doing. “ And he kept his word, he created the saxophone class and several others like the percussion class. He was well-received in the political sphere. It was during the war and he was helped by Cortot, who had been minister of the Beaux-Arts of the Pétain government- which he was reproached of course- but he did a lot of good things because of his personality ; he imposed many of his musician opinions.
So I went to see him for this. I had often played with him, especially once the Rhapsody of Delannoy with Fournier at the cello. He had taken it seriously and we had worked well, it was interesting. Sometimes he conducted the Symphonic Orchestra of Paris, so I knew him well.
I was told to ask him about the saxophone class. I would not be surprised if he contributed to the creation of it. Just as for the percussion class : Passerone, the percussion teacher, went to see him as well. The presence of Cortot helped, but it was Delvincourt who elaborated and submitted the project.
C.D. : Claude Delvincourt was a very enterprising person.
M.M. : Yes, one would say that he had an idea a day ! Perhaps it was true but he did not have anybody to help him put some order in his ideas. He was nos supported and assisted as he should have been. He was a very nice, friendly and generous person.
C.D. : When he created the Cadets Orchestra of the Conservatory, he protected many young people.
M.M. : He did a wonderfully clever manoeuvre. The Cadets Orchestra allowed the students to avoid leaving for the Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO, or Mandatory Work Service). He was a very approachable man who knew all the students. As far as we are concerned, he was a great benefactor.
C.D. : He was a very good musician as well. Leduc just re-published his musical works.
M.M. : He had written “Palmyre” for an orchestra with a saxophone, and I often had the opportunity to meet him. He had also written an opera, Lucifer, with a great saxophone solo. He really enjoyed the instrument.
C.D. : Did you know the other teachers well ?
M.M. : No, apart from the teachers of the wind instrument sections, that I knew from the orchestra like Crunel, Devemy, Benvenutti.
C.D. : How many students were there in your class ?
M.M. : A dozen, like today, it did not change. Sometimes there were more, We always spent at least an hour with each of them. It is the minimum.
C.C. : Mrs Mule, did Mr Mule, who is a very calm person, shared the difficult moments with you ?
Mrs. Mule : No, we had young children. He is a very serene man.
M.M. : I wanted them to learn music. I was making them work, it was not always easy. They learnt the piano, and then had the career we know.
Interview : Claude Delangle
Traduction : Antoine Germain