REMEBERANCES OF PIERRE JAMET IN HIS CENTENNIAL YEAR
Carl Swanson, who provided the concept and the energy
to collect these memoirs, has written the following introduction and edited
or translated other portions of the article. I am grateful to the family
of Pierre Jamet for the use of the many fascinating photos. [ed. Jane Weidensaul]
By Marie Claire Jamet, Ruth Inglefield, and Carl Swanson
(This article originally appeared in the Journal of the American Harp
Society Summer 1993 issue,
Vol. 14, No. 1)
Pierre Jamet would have been 100 years old on 21 April 1993.
The events of his life have been well documented in several Journal articles,
but little has been written about the personality and character of the man.
Here then, in the centennial year of his birth, are the personal remembrances
of three people who knew him well. Marie Claire Jamet is his daughter, and
an internationally know harpist in her own right. In addition to a busy
concert career, she is professor of harp at the Paris Conservatory. Ruth
Inglefield is a distinguished American harpist and a professor at Peabody
Marie Claire Jamet
Here are some recollections of my father. As you can well
imagine, music was an important part of my childhood, particularly the harp.
I remember having begun both harp and ‘cello together(my mother was
a cellist)-I don’t remember having chosen the harp but rather simply
never having given it up!
My father was harpist at the Paris Opera and, in addition,
gave many concerts, both as soloist and with his quintet. In spite of his
busy schedule, he supervised my practicing with much care and attention.
I was ten years old and found it very unjust that my little sister, who
was only five, played with a doll while I worked on exercises of Larivière
and others, as well as at solfège with my mother. He calmly explained
that his own mother, who was a musician and painter, had been very demanding
with him and had made him practice all day long also.
Happily, he knew how to keep me interested not only in my
instrument but in music in general. For years I was cradled by a recording
of Pelleas et Melisande of Claude Debussy, directed by Desormiere and in
which my father played first harp. Since that time I have never been able
to appreciate Pelleas at the theater because for so long I had imagined
it otherwise, and no direction or décor has yet improved on my imagination.
Debussy was the cornerstone of my father’s career and
his life. He had the great luck to premiere the Sonata for flute, viola,
and harp. He loved to talk about his encounters with Debussy, and especially
the fact that Debussy had written to one of his friends, ”Pierre Jamet
has a lot of talent. He even understands what he plays!” He also talked
frequently about Stravinsky, particularly the Sacre du Printemps, because
he was at the premiere where the famous riot broke out.
The war years were, of course, difficult. When not engaged
at the Opera, he would travel many miles on a bicycle to try to get us some
vegetables and occasionally some meat from the concierge at the Opera, who
was working in the black market. We didn’t have any heat, and I remember
my father’s fingers full of chilblains, which bothered him terribly
when he played, but I don’t remember his ever complaining. My mother
was very attentive and helped him as much as she could.
In 1943 a young man of 18 came to our home. He was from Montbrison
and his name was Pierre Boulez. He had been recommended by a friend of my
parents, and he knew no one in Paris. My parents found him a room at the
home of some friends, and introduced him to the composition teachers at
the Paris Conservatory, which is how he came to know Olivier Messiaen. Pierre
Boulez always retained a great affection and admiration for my father, and
that is why he agreed to conduct the last concert, when my father turned
90, at the summer festival at Gargilesse. This was the last great professional
Soon after the war ended, my father began to tour again with
the quintet, which had been created in the 1920’s; many composers
wrote for it, among them Roussel, Pierné, Schmitt, Jolivet, Francaix,
One of my father’s most enjoyable qualities was his
sense of humor, and along with his flutist in the quintet, who was of the
same spirit, he would spend entire evenings telling stories and laughing
about their adventures on tour. I don’t remember all of the stories,
but I do remember there were many. One day the truck transporting the harp
overturned into a ditch and someone came running to my father shouting,
“Your mandolin is on the grass!” Another time, after the quintet
had played a very fashionable society concert, the master of the house asked
my father when he hoped to add more players to his little orchestra! When
I got older, he often took me with him when he played, and he was so proud
when I got my first prize from the Conservatory and then was accepted into
the Pasdeloup Orchestra.
One of his greatest joys was his nomination as professor to
the Paris Conservatory, because his real vocation was pedagogy. He had the
gift, as certain doctors are gifted with diagnostic abilities, to see immediately
the problems of a student who came to him for the first time. He had an
extraordinary patience but didn’t tolerate amateurs who wasted his
time. His lessons usually lasted two to three hours, and, at the end, the
student would leave completely exhausted, while he was rejuvenated and ready
to start again! This lasted until the age of 96 or 97! When my father left
us in June 1991, my sister Francine and I received more than 300 letters
from former students all over the world, letters that are so moving and
precious to us.
When the legendary Nadia Boulanger, on her 1957 tour of several
American music schools, offered me a scholarship to her courses in Fontainebleau
for that summer, no one was more delighted than Marcel Grandjany. “You
will study with Pierre Jamet!” he exclaimed. “He is my brother-well,
just like a brother.” I had studied with Mr. G “forever,”
so I was happy to know that my lessons would be similar.
And it was true; the teaching was similar. But the personalities
were different: Pierre Jamet was smaller, in general, and much more lively…jumping
out of his chair with his legs still crossed, gesticulating, telling stories,
and using more picturesque language.
Apparently a good amount of ‘brotherly’ communication
took place, for M. and Mme Jamet knew everything possible about me. I was
astonished at the distance M.Jamet traveled from Gargilesse just to give
me a lesson each week. He always seemed to enjoy it as much as I, staying
overtime to inquire about my harmony studies, explain some local history,
draw maps to places he thought I should see in Paris, and so forth.
M. Jamet and Mlle Boulanger suggested that I apply for a Fulbright
to spend a year at the Conservatoire in Paris, subject to the approval of
Marcel Grandjany, of course, and after two more years of lessons in New
York and early completion of college, I received Grandjany’s blessing
and returned to France. At the Conservatoire things were different from
Fontainebleau. We were about twenty harpists, and we sat in the classroom
twice a week watching one another’s lessons. Periodically, a group
of us would go next door for an hour of solfège and then return.
Class lessons were structured as follows: At the first of
each month every student received one etude and one concert piece, usually
with no duplication, and this was the diet for the month except for several
classes devoted to sightreading. Sometimes there was a ‘theme;’
sonata month, for example. At first I thought I would be bored working on
only two things, so I asked for(and received)another piece. But at the end
of the month I arrived to find that it was “concert day.” One
after the other, my classmates sat down and performed(from memory, in tempo,
all polished)the assigned etudes and pieces-except for me. Then everyone
was given new repertoire for the next month. I was supposed to stop working
on the unfinished pieces: This continued for several months. M. Jamet tried
everything: he left me to my own devices for a while, then began to invite
me for extra lessons and dinners. He called Grandjany for advice. My classmates
became worried too, and started trying to help, all to no avail. Finally,
in desperation(he said later), he moved concerto month up in the schedule
and assigned me to play the one by Jolivet. It was my first really contemporary
work, and I was horrified since I couldn’t even read through it. The
only hope was to memorize the first bar, then go on to the second, and memorize
that. It worked, and after a week I could already play the first movement
reasonably well. Jamet was thrilled, and launched into one of his favorite
speeches: “I am the doctor! I find the trouble and then I have to
find the cure to make the patient improve. Sometimes I need a whole pharmacy
At the end of the year I received my Premier Prix, after which
I stayed on in Paris to coach chamber and contemporary music. Time eventually
stretched into ten years of work in four European countries. I came to appreciate
Pierre Jamet as a mentor and friend.
He kept incredible track of his “children.” Although
the roll of “doctor” was important while one was in his class,
his role as Papa to a very large family of graduates was perhaps even more
important. At times he seemed to be a one-man news agency, ensuring that
we were kept informed of one another’s activities, that graduates
of different years became friends, that we went to Phia Berghut’s
Harpweeks, and that we came to Gargilesse to visit and play and be together.
The last time I saw him, at the Paris World Harp Congress celebration in
his honor, he looked very old and frail, yet impeccably dressed. (It was
rare to see Pierre Jamet without a coat and tie, even on a terribly hot
summer day.) We visited for a time, interrupted by many other well-wishers.
He could recall so many things. “Do you remember Jolivet?” he
asked. “Do you remember the time we were chasing the chicken up the
street? Do you remember when all the electricity went out and we played
with only the church candles?”
When I think of Pierre Jamet, two important aspects of personality
stand out in my mind. The first is how excited he was when he heard a new
work for harp. He was not only enthusiastic, but insistent upon the necessity
of performing these works. The second is how active he was when international
contacts opened up as a result of the first Israel Contest. Her worked tirelessly
to help create the beginnings of the large international family we enjoy
today, and made sure that many of us were involved in this new international
circle. As I complete this writing, I am in Bloomington for the USA International
Harp Competition. And I am not surprised to find that nearly one-half of
those present, jury members, contestants, and guests of honor, I met for
the first time in Paris or Gargilesse.
I began my studies with Pierre Jamet in Paris in 1969, having
completed undergraduate work at Hartt College. I had met him there several
times and had been enormously impressed with his technical ability, his
beautiful tone, and his musical expressiveness. A few lessons with him at
Hartt cemented my determination to go to Paris as soon as I had my degree.
So at the end of September 1969 I found myself, Paris street map in hand,
looking for 233 Boulevard Pereire.
He and Mme Jamet lived in a sixth floor walk-up, a comfortable
apartment furnished with a marvelous hodgepodge of antique furniture and
objects, oriental rugs, and an 18th century harp(in addition to his own
Erard Gothic), the ensemble having about it an appealing luster of wear
that indicated the owners had been there for many years. On the walls were
a number of very beautiful Impressionist paintings done by his father.
My lessons were on his Erard, and that presented some problems
initially. Erard pedals are light, with virtually no resistance, and are
wrapped in leather, which over many years(the leather is never changed)becomes
as hard as rock. The first time I did any complicated pedaling on his harp,
the sound was something like horses on cobblestones! He could, and did,
play parts of the Debussy Danses on that harp without so much as a whisper
of pedal noise. Also, the French use a gut string for 5th octave G, and
this was so disorienting to me that I finally had to change my own harp
to match his, an arrangement that remained until long after I had returned
to the U.S., when my own students complained about it.
He was 77 when I began my studies. He had a wall of his studio
almost completely covered with photos of former students, as well as posters
from concert tours of many years earlier. He told me years later that he
had assembled this collage of memorabilia after his retirement from the
Conservatory because he had fallen into a difficult depression, thinking
that his career was over, and that these photos and posters gave him comfort.
If only he could have known that his teaching career, which was the love
of his life, would continue for 20 more years!
My lessons were almost always in the morning, at 10 A.M.,
and continued uninterrupted until 12:30 or so. By that time I was not only
exhausted, but starving as well. Not infrequently he would invite me to
stay and have “un whisky.” I have never developed a taste for
hard liquor, and I particularly dislike whisky, but what could I do? It
was an honor just to be asked. So I never refused his invitation, nor the
whisky, and somehow managed to force a respectable quantity of the liquid
down. So I frequently left my lessons exhausted, famished, nauseous, and
slightly tipsy, and with a splitting headache(the last three from the whisky)but
very content not simply with my progress, but also at the favor of spending
some casual time with the master.
Lessons were entirely in French(I don’t believe he knew
more than some isolated words in English, and my French was terrible in
the beginning), but he had taught so many foreign students over the years
that he had learned to speak slowly and enunciate carefully for us.
I had told him at my first lesson that I was there to learn
technique, and that I would study anything he wanted to assign. This pleased
him enormously, because so many times students, particularly foreign students,
would expect to start with the Debussy Danses when their technique was sorely
lacking. He occasionally had to tell them that if they weren’t willing
to do the technical work, he would not be able to teach them.
In the first year of study, most of the technical aspect of
my work was spent on the 50 Etudes, Op 34, of Bochsa. I studied almost all
of them with him, and to this day I believe those etudes are the cornerstone
of good technique. At first glance they don’t appear to be so difficult.
But each one focuses on a single aspect of harp technique, and works it
to death. I once complained to him about the sheer length of a particular
etude, eight or ten pages of the same pattern, and asked if we couldn’t
just do the first three pages. He carefully explained that the length accomplished
two things. It repeated the technical problem so many times that by the
end, the technique learned was automatic. It also built endurance. On some
of the more tiring etudes he even suggested that I work toward a goal of
playing the etude through two or three times, nonstop.
One of the things that I remember most about his teaching
was his ability, when dissatisfied with something my hands were doing, to
sit at the harp and duplicate exactly, without exaggeration, what I was
doing wrong. He would then demonstrate and explain the change he wanted,
allowing me, in effect, to stand back and objectively observe what was happening.
His approach to teaching was one of gentle persuasion. “Try
it this way,” he would say. “I think this might work better.”
He had a warm and sunny disposition, endlessly optimistic, and this set
the tone of his lessons. Almost any piece that was put on the stand reminded
him of a former student, a concert somewhere, and a story would come forth.
These would be sprinkled like party favors throughout the lesson, illuminating
a point in the piece, or simply providing a brief recess from the intense
He had a delightful sense of humor, and like Marie Claire,
I heard many stories about his tours and concerts. But he also loved word
plays. I was rehearsing a chamber music piece once(musique de chambre in
French)when he stopped me saying, ”Be careful not to play this too
slowly or it becomes what I call ‘musique de chambre à coucher(bedroom
I came back to the States in his 80th year and didn’t see him again
until he was 89. Absolutely nothing had changed. He looked exactly the same,
had still the exuberant energy, and was teaching more than ever. After that
I saw him about once a year. He began to slow down at 94(the year his wife
died), and the last time I saw him, at the World Harp Congress in 1990,
I was sad indeed. This great man had become so frail. His death a year later
brought to an end a significant chapter in the story of the harp, as well
as a personal chapter in my life.
His legacy to us all, aside from the many fine harpists he
produced, is the international communication that we now enjoy through several
organizations, competitions(particularly Israel) and masterclasses that
he encouraged. On a more personal level, I will always remember him as a
warm and generous man who found unending delight in the harp.