An Interview with Cornettist William Dongois


by Jeffrey Nussbaum

The following interview took place in New York City on October 1, 2005. Dongois had just performed a program of large-scale works by Giovanni Gabrieli with the New York Collegium, directed by Andrew Parrott.

Jeffrey Nussbaum: I know that you have been very interested in the topic of improvisation and you presented a lecture/demonstration at our recent Cornett and Sackbut Conference in Toulouse. I also find it fascinating but also a subject filled with questions. Just starting with the meaning of the terms is baffling. Ornamentation, embellishment and improvisation are often used to mean similar things, but with Renaissance and Baroque music what is it really? We can ornament a cadence with several notes based on what Ganassi or Bovicelli tell us, but it's not improvisation, at least not in the sense that we usually mean. Adding divisions to a simple line might be closer to true improvisation, but I think it usually lacks the spontaneous aspect of improvisation as we know occurs in jazz. Then again, maybe we are at a disadvantage because of our intimate twenty-first-century understanding of jazz. Perhaps it's leading us astray?

William Dongois: First of all, what we have today from the ancient repertoire are many different kinds of music. What is the "repertory"? What we call "ancient music" and consider as "classical music" or "serious music" or as it is called in French, musique savante, because it is written, is only a blend of different kinds of music. That music played different roles artistically and musically during various periods. Some types of written manuscript and printed music are placed in the area of popular music. However, some written/transformed music falls in the area of art and polyphonic music such as the motet, Mass, ricercar, or madrigal. Regarding improvisation, some types of written music are only fixed versions from some "standard" form. In that case, we should decide the form of the performance, like an arrangement in jazz, then we can add something (notes, lines) to really create "music." In the other case, sometimes music "still written" includes things musicians normally add. We have examples of the art of improvisation and divisions in the treatises. We get from the past dances, rondos, canzonas, sonatas, motets and other kinds of polyphony, all different kinds of music, some of which is complex and others less so. The composition and its structure sets limits on what performers can do. From there, what is improvisation? It starts from the moment something unplanned happens. This can happen on several levels with several aspects. We can improvise a structure, a new line in the polyphony, add more notes or less notes, or create divisions and ornaments.

The word "improvisation" is a world of possibilities on several levels. We have written sources that explain how to make all sorts of divisions, which is one level of improvisation, but we must have an understanding of which types of compositions these divisions may fit and consider the repertory. One example is the treatise from Ganassi.1 We have a lot of examples and we can imagine the repertory that these examples would have been used in and in what sort of settings. To play the examples from Ganassi as there are written is very difficult rhythmically but also because of the speed if we compare the value he uses, 24 and even 28 notes for a brevis. What kind of performance and with what sort of music still remains somewhat of a mystery.

At least, it is more or less the same with the music from Dalla Casa a bit later. Who can imagine today, a performance with Le chant des oiseaux from Janequin like Dalla Casa proposed? Which musical setting, which kind of ensemble, who would have played that? Who tries to play that today on the cornett in a concert?

Another problem is to consider the written music generally. There are clearly two kinds of written music, two different tendencies to fix music on the paper. One tendency is to fix only the structure and the basis of the music, simple chords and/or basic polyphony. The other practice is to write the musical line as closely as possible as a florid improvised line might have been played. This can be done only as much as the limitations the notation of the time would allow.

On paper there are two kinds of printed music: "white music" (only the structure) and "black music," (full of divisions, ornaments). There are also two kinds of "composers": the "professional composers," for a chapelle (Josquin, De Rore, Monteverdi), and the "players" (Ganassi, Dalla Casa, Rognoni, Fontana, Castello). The composer/performer such as Gabrieli or Bassano composed motets ("white music") and probably composed on the order, more or less, of how they played (organ music, divisions, or "black music"). Each level of improvisation, whether it is to play alone on a ricercar, to improvise a melody on a polyphonic piece, to improvise from the structure from a known ostinato, to create divisions on a line, or to add only some ornaments presents a world of different solutions. My interest is to find a way to practice so that I might be able to be free on the repertoire I play. The goal is to play free improvisation on a standard without any note, to stay more or less in the style of that period, play in a variety of styles, and play divisions on a line and create ornamentations, if the music is already divided.

We also need to understand that divisions were not regarded in the same way in all places. In Venice around 1601 we know, from the documents, that the players performed very elaborate divisions. They really tried to show how much they could do. A very important thing is to respect the melodic line, which is something that was not always done as we know from the surviving music. Sometimes only a few extra notes should be added and sometimes much more elaborated divisions can be added, but a respect for the original line needs to be kept in mind. Of course it is not only the type of music that is being played but the nature of the ensemble also helps determine the sort of divisions you perform. If everyone in the group is playing in a rather straight and conservative way without divisions and an inflexible sound, then it would sound out of place to be the only one playing very elaborate divisions. We must always respect not only the spirit of the line that the composer wrote but also the context today, including the musicians you are playing with. It may appear to be a paradox, but even though you are adding extra notes the purpose is still to show what the original line is all about. Someimes a good division is the division the listener doesn't notice. It's the line that has nice movement.

JN: What were you doing last night in the Gabrieli concert? Was there much embellishment?

WD: On my part I did a bit, but I certainly would not have done more than I did. I have great respect for Andrew Parrott and like him very much. Under his direction I feel that I only need to play and not think too much.

JN: I think the HBS readers will like to know a bit about your background. When you grew up was your family musical?

WD: Not really. My father played trumpet in amateur bands but he quit when I was about 4 or 5 years old. I was born in Langres, which is about 60 km north of Dijon, but in the Champagne, no more in the Burgund, and grew up in Reims, which is about 160 km northeast of Paris. When I was about 8 or 9 I began to play the clarion in a youth brass band from the "Fire Team" (pompier in French, the band was called "La Fanfare des Cadets des Sapeurs Pompiers de Reims" and was for very young boys from Reims.) I had the opportunity to join this band while I was at school. After a while of playing the clarion, I lost my mouthpiece. I took my father's trumpet mouthpiece and my teacher André Kemblinsky, who happened to be the trumpet teacher at the local conservatoire, noticed this and invited me into his trumpet class when I was about 10 years old. I made a quick progress on the trumpet and graduated from the conservatoire when I was 16, which is several years younger than most graduates. After that I had some personal problems and didn't play for a year. I had one very difficult year in which I couldn't play much more than one octave and a third. So, after a very good summer on the bicycle, I decided to start again and be as spontaneous as possible and proceed very carefully. I got into good condition, and by the end of the year I was able to be admitted to the Conservatoire National de Paris and entered Pierre Tribal's as a "first." My teacher, Pierre Thibault, suggested that I start from the very beginning in order to develop a good embouchure. After several attempts I didn't get good results. I went to several teachers at that period, one of whom was Jean-Jacques Greffin, who was teaching in Marseille and developing a new school and concept in pedagogy for the brass players. He was my savior.

At that time I also met Frédéric Richard, who is now, as far as I know, still a recorder teacher and singer with Marcel Peres. He was into musicology and had many ancient copies of old instruments, including a recorder, cornett, shawm, and crumhorn, and I tried to play them. The cornetts, including the normal cornett and cornettino, were Monk instruments so I decided that I would like to play cornett. I spent the first six months alone with the instruments. What a musical disaster for the ears of my neighbors!

JN: At that time, were you still a student or were you playing trumpet professionally? What year was that?

WD: I was teaching in Reims, my home city, and playing in a little orchestra (five operas and about ten operettes each year). Because I was still having some embouchure problems and didn't have a secure high register, I didn't see much of a future as a trumpeter.

Once, André Kemblinsy, the trumpet teacher in Reims (I was his assistant) gave me information about a course for cornett for musicology students at the university. There were also two courses in Metz with Jean-Pierre Canihac. Jean-Pierre became my cornett teacher and I began practicing three and four hours a day. For the next few years I took the course in La Seu d'Urgell (Spain) with Jean-Pierre and teachers from Hesperion XX. I played with Jean-Pierre Malgloire and even with Bruce [Dickey] and [Concerto] Palatino. After a short visit to Bruce, I decided to go to Basel to study. This was around 1988 or 1989, and I was totally focused on the cornett. I sold all my trumpets to get money because I had to stop teaching in the conservatory, since I wasn't given the flexibility to continue teaching while I studied in Basel. It was a difficult decision, but I saw a future with the cornett and early music. I studied with Jean-Pierre Canihac for a time, but being in Basel was special. Having access to the library and all the music and sources was particularly important. In France it is very difficult, especially in the provinces, to get music from a library. I knew that by playing cornett I would need to develop my historical and musicological side as well as purely musical side. Of course I appreciated Bruce's teaching a great deal.

JN: Do you play in the center?

WD: I play on the side of the center. I play on a small mouthpiece, but I've had a great deal of experience making mouthpieces on my own. Sometimes they turned out great other times no so good. Getting a really good instrument when I started to play was difficult. I tried many different instruments where the octave was sometimes a ninth and sometimes a seventh! I played a Monk instrument, which was quite good, and changed after two years to a wood instrument from Michel Litaye. I started doing some research on tuning and ended up destroying at least two instruments. I bought several Fanciullacci instruments. At that time Serge Delmas was my student and I suggested to him to make cornetts. Now he is making wonderful instruments. I played for a long time on Delmas cornetts and now also on McCann, Schuler, and Gohin instruments. With my evolution in improvisation I prefer an instrument with a small bore and in some high pitch (A465 or 490) with a very fast response.

JN: So, after studying at the Schola and playing with Hesperion XX you began to have more professional experience?

WD: The contact between the Schola and Germany was very strong. I began playing a lot in Germany with different groups. As with every player I performed a lot of [Monteverdi] Vespers, but did also a lot of chamber music with people from the Schola. I played with Ecco La Musica (now based in Stuttgart, in that time in Aachen), Weser Renaissance (I did fifteen recordings with them), and Musica Fiata. I played in other countries too, with La Capella Venetiana (Livio Picotti, Venezia), Elyma (Gabriel Garrido), and Musica Fiorita. I began playing together with Jean Tubery in La Fenice since the beginning, until around 1993. I didn't have many contacts in France at that time.

JN: How did La Fenice form?

WD: From the beginning of my cornett playing I had an ensemble that Jean joined. The name of my ensemble was Le Concert Brisé. It wasn't exactly with the same people as who later formed La Fenice, but a similar type of group. Jean also had a group called Pontormo, named after the painter. From these groups La Fenice was formed. Jean had the idea for the name. La Fenice probably formed in 1989. I played with La Fenice for about three years and made two recordings from 1990 to 1993 (La musique en Lorraine and "Cazzati"). We played together before the formation of the group, and also with a lot of other groups.

JN: After 1994, in what direction did you go?

WD: I had a few concerts. I lost a number of contacts since they continued to work with La Fenice rather than with me. I started to conduct research in improvisation. Then I got more and more concerts in Germany, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and played a lot because I was free, with a good library at home. I conceived a lot of programs for different chamber music groups and did the first recording from Doulce Mémoire and once again formed Le Concert Brisé in its next vintage, with Carsten Lohff, who gave me the first opportunity to perform a recital on the Süd Deutsche Rundfunk! I was very afraid. Then I played a little bit more in France because I moved to Paris. I did concerts for Jacques Moderne and recording for L'Arpeggiata and I performed regularly with Le Poème Harmonique. To finish with the story of the different ensembles that I played with since 1990, I have been performing in Concerto Vocale, the baroque orchestra led by Rene Jacobs. [Ed. note: Dongois also performed with the medieval group, La Reverdie.].

JN: During that period were you a full-time performer?

WD: Yes, it was exclusively performing and very little teaching. I would occasionally give a lesson to someone and give a course but I was mainly performing. Now I also have a position at the conservatory in Geneva. Now I find there are many more cornett students and more places to study than there were 10 or 15 years ago. Of course, there are many recorder players who want to try the cornett and don't stay with it, but there are many of them who are "serious" and do stay with it. They can study with me in Geneva, with Delmas or Tubery in Paris, with Jean-Pierre [Canihac] in Lyon, with Philippe Matharel in Toulouse, Arno Paduch in Germany, and of course with Bruce [Dickey] in Basel.

Now I am concentrating on developing with Le Concert Brisé and my own activities, performing chamber and instrumental music centered around the cornett repertory, with the main focus being improvisation. We did three recordings for the Carpe Diem label, and now we have the possibility to produce a triple CD for K617, entitled "The Golden Age of the Cornett," with a similar CD as La Barca d'Amore (improvisation, divisions, and virtuoso music for cornett solo), a CD of Venetian Music (Castello, Fontana, Grandi, Monteverdi, and Scarani) and transcriptions from Buxtehude sonatas for violon/viole on the cornett and sackbut (Stefan Legée) and church organ (Pierre-Alain Clerc). It is always uncertain how CD projects will turn out, but I think, and Alain Pacquier from K 617 agrees, that there is still a place for that repertory. There are not enough recordings from the typical cornett repertory.

JN: Has audience and concert promoter interest in early music continued to grow in Europe?

WD: I would say it is not growing as much as it once was. Festivals in particular often want to put on a big production of an opera, but programming smaller ensembles has become more difficult. It's more and more difficult to propose instrumental and chamber music concerts to producers. They prefer to have singers--famous ones of course--with the instruments. But I keep projects to play for the sheer pleasure of the music that I love, with the people I like very much, and who share my musical ideas.

One new point is that each ensemble, even young and inexperienced ones, can do some "marketing." That is, they can create a nice presentation, and develop a nice website. It is only a question of spending time and taking the care to do it. I myself spend time preparing nice programs, practice, and prepare my lessons. It is one reason more Le Concert Brisé is not so famous.

JN: How has the development of the European community affected the early music scene?

WD: I haven't seen a big difference over the past twenty years. Twenty years ago musicians traveled throughout Europe. Musicians from the Continent don't play much in England because they have a protected system like in the States. Much of the work is in Germany in the famous festivals, even more than in France because of government art subsidies.

JN: It's always interesting to me to hear a European perspective. As far as I can tell, America early music continues to struggle. While the U.S. has many great musicians and schools and orchestras, there are very few ensembles playing to the extent that European groups seem to be.

WD: Since many of the best players are in European ensembles today, part of the problem might be the great difficulty those ensembles and performers have in obtaining permission to play in the States. This leaves many of the young American musicians without contact with the best early music players.

JN: William, thanks very much for sharing your ideas with our fellow HBS members. You've certainly given us much to think about.

1. Opera intitulata Fontegara (Venice, 1535).