The notion of a superstar flutist would have been a pipe dream in the 19th century. It was still pretty much unthinkable until about 30 years ago, when Jean-Pierre Rampal became virtually a household name.
Not that Rampal, who died Saturday in Paris of heart failure at the age of 78, wasn't already firmly established in musical circles by then.
After secretive music lessons during the German occupation of France, he played in orchestras, soon reaching the post of principal flutist of the Paris Opera in 1956. By the early 1960s, he was enjoying a busy career as a recitalist and chamber musician throughout Europe and making recording after recording. The steady honing of his craft finally took him from being well-known to truly famous.
As Harold Schonberg pointed out in his book "The Glorious Ones," the '70s saw the emergence of a new phenomenon in music history, stars who were not pianists or violinists or opera singers. Rampal and, later, James Galway, "though 'merely' flutists, became concert heroes, receiving the kind of fees and media attention normally reserved for top violinists and tenors."
It was enough to have Garrison Keillor quipping in his "Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra" that the "flute is the show-off of the wind section, the big shot. Jean-Pierre Rampal, James Galway -- both millionaires. How many millionaire bassoonists can you name real fast?"
There was a good reason for Rampal's rise to top-dollar status. He had a peerless command of the flute and extraordinary musicality.
Many's the flutist who can produce a single tone, a single volume. Rampal could coax a dazzling prism of tone colors from his 14-carat gold instrument, an endless variety of dynamic shadings. Many's the flutist who can play a score accurately, respectably. Rampal had a way of putting a defining stamp on a score, of making a distinctive statement that honored a composer's style, yet allowed for personal expression.
It cannot help but sound cliched, but his flute truly sang, and in a voice that radiated joy. That's one reason audiences responded so enthusiastically to him, why colleagues treasured working with him.
Long before the music world was shaken up by historically informed performances of baroque music, Rampal was presaging that movement by playing Bach with great clarity of articulation and rhythmic vitality. Such stylistic sensitivity could be savored in virtually everything he touched, from Mozart to Francis Poulenc and Ravi Shankar, who wrote works expressly for him. So did Claude Bolling, whose "Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano," composed for Rampal in 1975, became a best-selling record that further increased the flutist's popularity. (It remained on the Billboard charts for a decade.)
That collaboration with Bolling marked one of the earliest and most successful cases of cross-over-itis, a condition that would eventually affect dozens of classical artists and further inflame the voracity of profit-conscious record company executives. Rampal's musical inquisitiveness and easy way of trying out different styles endeared him to audiences, even as it annoyed a few critics. His devoted fans included Miss Piggy, who did a duet with Rampal on "The Muppet Show," one more indication of the flutist's celebrity status.
Although Rampal was eventually overshadowed by the younger, impish Galway in terms of adulation, the Frenchman's legacy remains intact. After all, had it not been for Rampal, Galway might not have made it so big. It was Rampal who paved the way.
He put the flute center stage to a degree it hadn't enjoyed since the court of amateur flutist Frederick the Great. He demonstrated how broad the flute's horizons could be, exploring far beyond the standard repertoire and making an earnest case for each new experiment. (A 1970 recording of Japanese folk songs was persuasive enough to be a big seller in Japan).
Throughout his long career, Rampal held firm to his self-expressed primary goal as a performer -- "to take possession of the hall and make contact with the audience."
I saw him do that one unbelievably sweltering summer afternoon at Wolf Trap, when the perspiration and insects (batted ever so artfully with the flute, mid-phrase) could not distract him from delivering a fully engaged, fully engaging recital.
For 50 years, Rampal never lost touch with his audience, or his art.