Antoine Dieppo, French trombone virtuoso and teacher

Dieppo trombone method

Illustration from Dieppo’s trombone method

Antoine Dieppo’s name is familiar as the first professor of trombone at the Paris Conservatory upon the trombone class’ official formation in 1836. He deserves to be known as more than a name on a list, however. As it turns out, he obtained that position, and also that of principal trombonist of Paris’ principal orchestra by displacing established incumbents.

He wrote a method book, which was the required text for his students. It has not maintained its place in the modern teaching literature, however. Thompson and Lemke note only a volume of nine etudes still readily available. I have a photocopy of the original edition, which gives a good idea not only of his teaching methods, but of the quality of his trombone playing.

Dieppo the performer

The Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, ancestor of the Orchestre de Paris, gave its first public concert in 1828. Its original trombonists were Jules Barbier, René Bénard, and Dévise (first name unknown). In 1835, Bénard and Dévise were dismissed so that the orchestra could improve its trombone section. They were replaced by Dieppo and a timpanist!

When Dieppo became principal trombonist of the Conservatory orchestra, he completed a trifecta of the most prestigious trombone positions in town. He was already principal trombonist at the Opéra and a band member in the Chapelle Royale. He was 27 years old.

Over the course of the French Revolution, the trombone had become essentially a military instrument. Its principal musical duty was to reinforce the bass line. Whatever refinements French trombonists had developed during the instrument’s sporadic appearances in operatic orchestras before the Revolution quickly became coarsened into a raucous and musically vacant loud noise.

Felix Vobaron became the first French trombonist to play a trombone solo in public, a set of variations he wrote himself. That piece is evidently lost, but it must have grown from the military style, inspired by what virtuosos on other instruments were doing. Dieppo’s method, on the other hand, includes extensive etudes that emulate operatic singers, a very different style and idiom indeed.

By the 1830s, the music loving public of the upper social classes was divided between what one critic called “classicists and Rossinists.” William Weber has called the latter High Status Popular Music, whose audience sought novelty and soon tired of hearing the same music too often.

Trombone soloists of the early 19th century all represented this popular tradition. There were no classical trombone solos and, until Ferdinand David composed his Concertino for Leipzig’s Carl Traugott Queisser, no one thought to compose a trombone piece suitable for that audience.

French dance orchestra conductor Philippe Musard invented one of the mainstays of what Weber calls Low Status music, the promenade concert, in 1833. These concerts presented a mixture of dance music, popular soloists, and classical music at a price the working class could afford.

Most of Dieppo’s solo performances took place at promenade concerts conducted by Musard and the various rivals who sprang up. One rival, Jullien, had to leave Paris to find success. He began a series of promenade concerts in London. Dieppo and other French trombone soloists performed there as well.

French journals did not chronicle the performances and accomplishments of popular trombone soloists with nearly the enthusiasm or thoroughness of the German journals that tell us so much about Queisser and his compatriots, but we know a fair amount about Dieppo because of Berlioz’ enthusiasm. Berlioz sat in on his classes at the Conservatory.

On his tour of Germany, he lamented that no German orchestra had trombonists as good as Dieppo. (Queisser, by the way, played viola or violin in Leipzig’s orchestras, not trombone.) We can deduce from Berlioz that Dieppo had not only dazzling technique as a soloist, but excellent musicianship as a member of a classical orchestra.

Dieppo the teacher

Dieppo trombone method

Illustration from Dieppo’s trombone method

The original faculty of the Paris Conservatory when it was founded in 1795 included three trombonists. By 1802, for some reason, the school abandoned teaching the trombone. Nevertheless, operas and cavalry bands, at least, required good trombones. The need only grew greater with the formation of the orchestra in 1828.

A clarinetist and military composer named Frédéric Berr publicly lamented that it was impossible to study such an instrument at the Conservatory. Victor Cornette published a trombone method in 1831 and probably accepted private students. The Conservatory finally established a preliminary trombone class under Vobaron’s direction in 1833. Vobaron’s method appeared in 1834 and in many respects improves on Cornette’s.

The preliminary class proved the viability of a permanent trombone class. But apparently either the Conservatory’s administration was not pleased with Vobaron as a teacher or Vobaron did not enjoy teaching. Only Cornette and Dieppo contended for the permanent position, and Dieppo was the unanimous choice of the judges appointed to decide.

By the time of Dieppo’s appointment, he and Berr had already published a trombone method. Dieppo soon repudiated it and issued his own method book. The verbal description was far superior to that in earlier method books. As stated, the exercises included several to develop an operatic, singing style not attempted by previous methods.

In 1856, Dieppo found his teaching load increased by the closure of the Gymnase Musical Militaire. Military music then became part of the Conservatory curriculum, and Dieppo was assigned to teach the trombonists. At that time, the French military had recently adopted reforms proposed by Adolphe Sax. And so military trombonists were required to play Sax’s trombones with six independent valves.

Sax’s design was the sort of new gadget all professional trombonists were eager to try, but nearly all of them realized that its radical new design provided no advantages to offset either its considerable weight or the adjustments required to learn to play it. I imagine that Dieppo did not take on his new duties with any real enthusiasm. His student and successor Paul Delise simply refused to allow valve trombones in his studio.

The legacy of a good teacher is his or her students. I can think of no better way to illustrate the impression Dieppo’s students made than to quote Jules Rivière, a conductor of a successful series of promenade concerts, as he recalled a novelty he proposed to Dieppo:

Chatting with Dieppo one day, I learnt he had arranged some trombone quartetts, and it occurred to me that I might make something of a sensation by introducing them at my concerts with three players to each part, making twelve in all. And as, for such a scheme, I needed good performers, I engaged only those who had obtained a first prize in Dieppo’s class at the Conservatoire.

My plan delighted the handsome Dane, and it was arranged that he should himself conduct on this occasion. The three pieces selected were the septuor from Lucie, the Fisherman’s Prayer from Masaniello, and Johann Strauss’s valse Philomelen. Playing a valse on a trombone was certainly a tour de force, but it was most successfully accomplished, and the performance was a triumph. . .

Many years after, I repeated this performance at the Alhambra, on the occasion of one of my annual benefits, but I did not again venture upon a valse. I replaced it by the quartett from Rigoletto

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A History of the Trombone / David M. Guion (Scarecrow Press, 2010) and source material used in writing it
Trombone / Trevor Herbert (Yale University Press, 2006)
French Music for Low Brass Instruments / J. Mark Thompson and Jeffrey Jon Lemke (University of Indiana Press, 1994)
My Musical Life and Recollections / Jules Rivière (Sampson, Low, Marston, 1893)


Antoine Dieppo, French trombone virtuoso and teacher — 2 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this. I am finishing up my Doctorate in Trombone Performance at UNT and I must tell you that your research, along with Herbert’s helped me tremendously at the end of my time there. Please continue to post. Really enjoyed reading it!

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