Robert Willoughby: American grandmaster of the flute By Robert Bigio
Robert Willoughby, who is now ninety years old, is one of the most successful flute teachers in America, one whose former students include countless first flute players in American orchestras. He was a busy performer of solo recitals and chamber music, a tireless promoter of new works for the flute and one of the pioneers of the baroque flute in the USA. Bob, as he is always known, is a man of few words who cannot be said to be a flamboyant character, but it is no exaggeration to say that he is revered by his students and colleagues. Bob Willoughby was born in Grundy Center, Iowa on 6 June 1921. His mother’s family was of German and Swiss ancestry. Bob’s maternal grandfather, as a younger son of a well-to do family, inherited nothing and emigrated to the USA with his wife when they were in their late teens, where he became a farmer. Grundy Center was a largely German community where at least one church had services entirely in German. Bob’s father’s family, which is of English extraction, emigrated to America from Nottingham in the early eighteenth century. His great-great-grandfather had been a preacher in New York State. His grandfather farmed in Iowa, at a time when a farmers did not have a great life expectancy. He retired at the age of fifty, thinking he might live to sixty, but he lived to ninety-four. Bob remembers him. ‘He was born in 1834. When the American Civil War started in 1861 he was considered too old to fight!’ Bob’s father was a lawyer, and Bob was expected to become a lawyer himself. In the fifth grade, aged about ten or eleven, he began to play the flute. There was no flute teacher at his school—he was taught by band directors—but he did have an excellent mentor who was an oboist. It was not until after he left high school that he had a flute lesson. He then went to the famous summer school at Interlochen. ‘That was in fact my downfall in terms of becoming a lawyer,’ he says. From Interlochen he was offered a full scholarship to study at the Eastman School of Music. ‘I was still not sure about a career in music,’ he says, ‘but I loved Eastman. It was the best move I ever made, apart from marrying my wife.’ He started at the Eastman School of Music in 1938, where his teacher was the great Joseph Mariano. ‘Mariano was a nice man,’ remembers Bob. ‘He had a huge sound, and he played really beautifully.’ Mariano, who only died in 2007, was at the time still in his twenties. It is said that he repeatedly refused the first flute job in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Bob’s time at Eastman ended after four years, at which time the USA entered the Second World War. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, was put in the reserves and in February 1943 began his training as a bomber pilot. Why, I asked him, had he not joined a band? ‘I thought every joy I had for music would disappear if I went into a military band!’ he said. ‘I had always been athletic, so I thought I could fly a plane, although I had never done it.’ He had his basic training in the USA, then sailed as part of a convoy to Britain, where eventually he was posted to an airbase in Bungay, Suffolk. ‘I flew my first mission on my birthday,’ he remembers. That day, 6 June 1944, of course, was D-Day. Was he nervous, or was he too young to even think about that? ‘I guess I had a certain amount of anticipation, but that was what we called a milk run, when we just flew across the Channel and straight back again. It was quite safe, really. The second mission was different because we bombed an airport further afield. I always remember seeing a sky full of fighter planes, and I had heard that they would attack bombers when they were over their target. I have to admit that I was really scared, but it turned out they were our fighters. I didn’t know that at the time, but that was the most frightening mission I ever had, because I didn’t know what to expect.’ He flew thirty-five missions in all, with only one almost ending in disaster. ‘We had just flown across the Channel when two engines failed—fortunately on opposite sides. We dumped everything we could into the sea and headed home. We had just reached the runway when a third engine failed. We were very lucky that day.’ Bob’s wife, Mac, remembers visiting Bungay with Bob many years later. ‘He stood at the end of the runway and for a few seconds turned as green as the leaves.’ At the end of the war, after his discharge, Bob returned to America and took up his flute again. He had not touched it for some years. He got a place as a graduate student at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where he studied with Georges Laurent, the first flute in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Laurent had studied with Philippe Gaubert and Paul Taffanel at the Paris Conservatoire. ‘Laurent made me work my tail off. I practised four or five hours a day and made as much progress in one year as I had in four years at Eastman,’ Bob remembers. Laurent was very demanding. ‘I still remember one time I had worked very hard on everything he had asked me to do, except for one thing. Of course, that was the thing he asked me to play. “What’s the matter—haven’t you been practising?” he asked. He really gave it to me! Everything else went well, but I left the lesson feeling really down and told myself that was never going to happen again. That was a good lesson.’ After a year in New England, Bob got a job as assistant principal flute in the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the best in America. As assistant principal he doubled the first part in some concerts and played first flute in others. The conductor was George Szell, a famed martinet. ‘He was not hail fellow, well met,’ says Bob. Szell was a stern disciplinarian but a wonderful musician. ‘I admired him greatly, but you could never love this guy. When he arrived in Cleveland he did some housekeeping—he fired about twenty people, but, in his defence, they were mostly people who would not have got in normally, except for the war.’ The first flute at the time was Maurice Sharp, who had been there for ten years already when Bob arrived. Maurice Sharp remained as first flute in the Cleveland Orchestra for about half a century. Bob stayed in Cleveland for nine years. For the last six years he also worked at the Oberlin Conservatory, where he taught for sixteen or seventeen hours a week. ‘That was a killer. After nine years I quit the orchestra and quit Oberlin, too, except they talked me into going full-time.’ He had been offered the first flute job in another orchestra, which was not as good as the one in Cleveland, but he says he was worn out by the combination of work. He taught at Oberlin full-time until 1986, apart from a year as first flute in Cincinnati under Max Rudolf, which he took because he wanted the fun of playing first flute. He liked Rudolf and got along fine, but says he once sat in the orchestra playing a Brahms symphony that he had played many times before and thought, ‘I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing this.’ Oberlin made him a good offer, so he returned as a full-time professor. ‘I think I did the right thing. I got to do a lot of chamber music at Oberlin, and I love teaching.’ He had known Mac, who is the children’s author Elaine Macmann, from his time at the New England Conservatory. They saw one another occasionally over the years, and in the summer of 1957 they decided they were the right people for each other. Bob and Mac are quite different characters: Bob introspective and even taciturn, Mac lively and voluble. They make wonderful company for anyone privileged to spend time with them. Mac admits to being Bob’s principal cheerleader and is adored for her part in encouraging such camaraderie among Bob’s many students. After thirty-seven years at Oberlin, Bob and Mac had bought a plot of land on the island of New Castle, New Hampshire, just off Portsmouth. Mac was living there while their new house was being built, and Bob stayed in Oberlin. This was not a suitable arrangement. Bob had been asked to judge a competition at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, where changes in staff had led to a flute position becoming available. He was offered the job, which allowed him to live in New Hampshire and commute once a week to teach for twelve hours. He accepted the job and enjoyed it for ten years before the weekly flight began to lose its appeal. He was then offered a job at the Longy School of Music in Boston, commuting distance from the house in New Hampshire. He agreed to teach for five hours a week. Now nearly ninety years old, he continues to teach there, although for only three hours. The baroque flute entered his life about 1970. Bob was one of the first baroque flute players in America. He had had a baroque ensemble using modern instruments, but during a sabbatical year in London (he and Mac are committed Anglophiles), he travelled to Amsterdam to have lessons with Frans Vester and Frans Brüggen. He started buying flutes, simply to find a great instrument to play on, and built up a fine collection of instruments. He made a number of recordings on the baroque flute, and his many students include two of the leading American baroque flute players, Janet See and Jed Wentz. Bob Willoughby’s many years on the faculty of the Oberlin Conservatory gave him the freedom to perform solo recitals and chamber music concerts and to play new music to an extent that few orchestral musicians can manage. He made many fine recordings, some of which are now being re-released. My first contact with Bob’s playing was on BBC Radio 3 many years ago, when I turned on my radio at the beginning of a broadcast of Frank Martin’s Ballade. I did not know who was performing, but I was captivated by the playing. Afterwards, it was announced that the performers were Robert Willoughby and Frank Martin himself. This remains my favourite performance of the work, one in which the musicianship shines through the virtuosity. More recently Mac Willoughby played me a recording of Bob performing the Villa Lobos Bachianas Brasilieras number 6 for flute and bassoon. The playing had the energy of a man in his thirties, but the sound quality seemed much better than one would expect for something recorded in the 1950s. I was astonished when Mac told me the recording was made when Bob was seventy-three. I sense that Bob Willoughby feels his greatest achievement is to have produced so many fine students, and these are the source of the endless pride to him. I have met many of these students. In every case their eyes light up when Bob’s name is mentioned. Can there be greater compliments? This article first appeared in Flute (The Journal of the British Flute Society) in December 2010.
Robert Willoughby in August 2009 Photograph by Robert Bigio Joseph Mariano, professor at the Eastman School of Music Photograph by Louis Ouzer Air crew during World War Two. Robert Willoughby is standing sixth from the left. He joined the Army Air Corps because, he said, I thought every joy I had for music would disappear if I went into a band! Robert Willoughby in an early formal portrait Robert Willoughby with some of his many students. Top row, left to right: Aralee Dorough, first flute in the Houston Symphony Orchestra; Katherine Borst Jones, professor of flute at Ohio State University and former president of the National Flute Association; Mark Sparks, first flute in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra; Patricia Spencer of the Da Capo Chamber Players; Ervin Monroe, recently-retired first flute in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Bottom row, left to right: Mary Kay Fink, piccolo player in the Cleveland Orchestra; Robert Willoughby; Janet See, baroque flute soloist.
Max Reger: Serenade in G major Op. 141a. Robert Willoughby, flute; Marilyn McDonald, violin; John Tartaglia, viola. Vivace—Larghetto—Presto (15:35) Boston Records BR1054CD
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It is with sadness that I report that Robert Willoughby died on 27 March 2018.