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Louis Drouët

Louis Drouët

Quartet for flute and strings Quartet cover

Most students of the flute, will have come across the studies (études) of Drouët at some point during their musical training, and yet very few people, including flautists, know anything about the life and career of this distinguished itinerant virtuoso. Drouët was born in Amsterdam in 1792, the son of a French barber/wig-maker who had left his homeland for Holland in the early 1780s. Accounts of Drouët’s musical beginnings are at variance, yet they agree that he taught himself to play on a small-sized flute from an extremely young age before receiving formal instruction from Amsterdam flautist Arnoldus Dahmen.

At the age of seven, Drouët travelled with his father to Paris, where he performed at the Opéra and at the Conservatoire. He does not appear to have studied the flute at the latter institution, but he did take lessons in composition in Paris with Méhul and Reicha. He soon thereafter made several successful concert tours of his homeland as a result of which he was appointed, at the age of sixteen, to the position of first flute and teacher to King Louis of Holland, the brother of Napoleon, who presented him with a glass flute set with precious stones. In 1811, the Emperor invited Drouët to Paris, where he was overwhelmed with honours and gifts, and was apparently exempted from conscription. His success in Paris was extraordinary, but countered by that of rival flautist Jean-Louis Tulou, whom some considered the superior talent. Nevertheless, it was Drouët who was appointed first flute to the Chapelle Royale upon the restoration of Louis XVIII in 1814.

In 1816, Drouët undertook his first visit to England; it was enormously successful, even in the face of serious competition from local flautist Charles Nicholson whose stronger tone was preferred by British concertgoers. That same year, Drouët opened his own flute-making business — L. Drouët’s Flute Manufactory & Music Warehouse — in London, with instruments being constructed to his specifications by noted maker Cornelius Ward,1 but yet again Drouët lost out to Nicholson whose own models of flutes were proving more popular. When Drouët’s firm was forced to close in 1819, the flautist left England to embark upon a professional tour of Europe, which consolidated his fame and increased his fortune.

Drouët was then based in Naples for three years, where he was director of the San Carlo and other theatres. He subsequently returned to Holland, and lived there in semi-retirement for a number of years. He made a return visit to England in 1829, accompanied by his dear friend Felix Mendelssohn, and three years later he was back in Paris.

In 1840, Drouët was appointed Kapellmeister to the duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. where he was to remain for fifteen years, first in the service of Ernest I and then, from 1844, in the service of Ernest II; he was given leave to return to England in 1841-1842 and perform by Royal Command for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the younger brother of Ernest II (Prince Albert was himself an accomplished flautist). Drouët resigned from his post in Gotha in 1854, and that same year spent several months in America (New York); it was there that he became acquainted with the Boehm-system flute. Little is known of Drouët’s activity after his return from the United States, apart from the fact that he gave a concert in Frankfurt in 1860. He spent his final years in Bern, where he died in September 1873.

Drouët played a simple-system, eight-keyed flute all his professional life, advocating and using an almost square embouchure hole. As regards his performances, he was referred to by many as “The Paganini of the Flute” on account of his remarkable finger dexterity and his mastery of rapid articulation.2 It would seem that Drouët was also an excellent teacher; he is claimed to have taught Captain [James] Gordon c.1814 and Wilhelm Popp, c.1850.3 Like most renowned flautists from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Drouët also wrote a treatise on playing the flute. His extremely comprehensive Méthode pour la flûte, ou Traité complet et raisonné pour apprendre à jouer de cet instrument was published in Paris by Pleyel et Fils aîné in 1828, and in Mainz and Antwerp by A. Schott in 1829. An English translation under the title of Drouët's Method of Flute Playing was published in London by R. Cocks in 1830.

Drouët was a prolific composer for the flute. While the majority of his works appear to be no longer extant, surviving compositions bear opus numbers that arrive at no. 492, and a further 115 works (or sets of works) without opus numbers are listed in library and museum catalogues around the world. His oeuvre includes ten concertos, innumerable duets, trios, solos, potpourris on operatic arias, variations on popular song melodies, fantasias etc., and at least 20 different collections of studies. During his lifetime, Drouët’s works were highly praised. W.N. James, referring to the concertos, remarked how they were “rich with images, flowing with the most exquisite melody, and passages of execution at once bright, pure, and exhilarating. Nothing can exceed the pure and refined taste with which he has written [them].” Today, unfortunately, Drouët’s music is not generally held in high esteem; Philip Bates’s appraisal of his compositions in Grove Music Online is typical of opinions voiced elsewhere: “none [are] of great musical merit though admirably conceived as vehicles for virtuoso performance.”5

In this regard, it should be remembered that Drouët was first and foremost a virtuoso, and that his music was a product of its time, conditioned by prevailing popular taste and the expectations of audiences with a hunger for instrumental pyrotechnics; the concertos, fantasias, variations and potpourris are understandably showpieces intended mainly for Drouët’s own performances in public. The numerous studies and the Méthode, while pedagogical in nature, were also a reflection (albeit indirect) of the flautist’s technical prowess. Nevertheless, it is clear that Drouët was capable of composing works that were more than mere self-indulgent fripperies. The unpretentious quartet for flute and strings, for example, affords evidence of his early study of formal composition and counterpoint, and leads one to enquire what other overlooked works by Drouët might be worthy of revival.

1 It would appear that this business enterprise was also briefly involved in music publishing. At least four of Drouët’s settings of popular airs, with variations, for flute and piano (God Save the King (op. 27), My Lodging is on the Cold Ground (Op, 28), Robin Air (Op. 29) and Rule Britannia (Op. 30) give his name as the publisher. In 1816, Drouët also published Captain L. Mackenzie’s Sonata Concertante for piano & two flutes, Op. 2 and the same composer’s Air with Variations (the cavatina ‘Nel cor più non mi sento’ from Paisiello’s L’amor contrastato).
2 Drouët was renowned for his double-tonguing: “The word that M. Drouét used was ‘Territory’, because each of these syllables gives distinctly the proper expression to the tongue. This word, however, should be a little qualified and softened; and when made ‘Teth-thi-to-dy’, will express the four notes admirably”. (W. N. James, A Word or Two on the Flute [Edinburgh: Charles Smith & Co., 1826], 125).
3 Gordon’s widow claimed that Drouët had taught her late husband, but it now appears she may have been confusing the Dutch flautist with Jean-Louis Tulou (see Percival Kirby, Captain Gordon, the Flute Maker.’ Music and Letters 38/3 [July 1957]: 258)
4 James, A Word or Two, 170
5 https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.08195

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