Last season, having had the pleasure of seeing trumpet soloist Marc Geujon with the Orchestre Symphonique de Mulhouse, we wanted to know more about the art and personality of one of the most talented of French trumpet players. Given a warm welcome at Geujon's home, Jean Landras learned about his threefold experience as concerts soloist, principal trumpet at the Paris Opera Orchestra and professor at the Paris Conservatoire, the CNSMD.

Marc Geujon
© Louis Gantiez

Jean Landras: Music wasn't a big thing in your family. What led you to become an international soloist and a professor with a big reputation in the trumpet world?

Marc Geujon: I was born in a village in the Pas-de-Calais. My family worked in agriculture and the food business and it didn't include any musicians. However, I went to concerts given by the municipal brass band; I discovered music at around 12 years old and started to practice. Like all the villages in northern France, the music school was associated with the local band and it gave me an excellent start. It was towards the end of the era where the musical institutions received strong support from the mines. They would recruit excellent musicians, veterans from the bands of the Republican Guard or the Gardiens de la Paix. The generational span was enormous: at 13 years old, I had a desk partner who was 65! The social span less so: we were all generally from the same background and we had the same good humour, the same sense of respect and sharing. The teachers often imparted a lot of goodwill. All that changed when the mines were gone with the ensuing social and cultural upheavals, but many brass instrumentalists followed this path for example at the Paris Opera Orchestra where I work. We speak "chti" (the Pas-de-Calais dialect) to each other and that certainly adds cohesion to the group. That's the same way – although from a different region – in which Maurice André achieved such a close connection with audiences.

Why the trumpet?

After my year of learning to read music, I wanted to play trombone. Sadly – or happily, I suppose – there wasn't a trombone left in the band's stock of instruments, so they gave me a trumpet. In other words, I became a trumpeter somewhat by chance! Then, I had the good fortune to take courses at Arras with Philippe Vaucoret. He accepted me into his class without being at all convinced that I was right for it, suggesting that I would be better with the tuba. But with me insisting to carry on with the trumpet, he made me start again from the ground up, regardless of the two years I had already done in the village. For six months, all I was working on was minims and semibreves, a question of finding a sound, correct positions and, most importantly of all, a completely clean attack. I owe him a lot, because that's stayed with me. And then everything went quickly until I reached my "médaille d'or" [translator's note: regional conservatoire first prize]. We've stayed very close and it's thanks to him that I've followed this profession.

Why do you think people find the trumpet so seductive?

The way you produce sound is the same for an instrument with a mouthpiece as it is for the human voice. The trumpet is an amplifier which picks up the vibrations in the air produced by the system which produced speech: the windpipe, the larynx, the tongue, the lips... So it's able to bring the same nuances, the same breath. The trumpet approaches the voice not just by a certain resemblance of the sound, like the cello does, but because it forms a single body with the musician's own physiology.

What did your higher education do for you and what were the ensuing stages of your career?

My chamber music professor at Arras, the horn player Jean-Noël Melleret, suggested that I continue my training with the trumpeter Éric Aubier, a brilliant pupil of Maurice André. After hearing an incredible performance of his, I introduced myself. He accepted me into his class at Rueil-Malmaison and, the following year, took me into the Paris Conservatoire. He also helped me with my first baby steps from student into the professional world, teaching me to love this business, inviting me to play with him and with other fabulous trumpeters into concerti for multiple trumpets. On one occasion, we accompanied Maurice André on a tour with the Orchestre de Chambre Paul Kuentz. My collaboration with Paul Kuentz continued (with the B minor mass, the Christmas Oratorio and so on) and it's to him that owe the chance to play alongside the great trumpeters that he worked with.

My first that I have a good memory of was with the Orchestra of the Republican Guard, where I spent seven years as solo trumpet. It's a wonderful orchestra which has had a series of eminently competent musical directors. I learnt a great deal but the military aspect has a kind of rigidity which wasn't always easy to associate with the music. Then, I spent a while as solo trumpet at the Orchestre Symphonique de Mulhouse, followed by the Orchestre de Picardie. In that way, I attempted to get closer to my family home in Paris. Eventually, I was able to get the role at the Orchestre de chambre de Paris before having the good fortune to win the contest for principal trumpet at the Paris Opera Orchestra – the job I currently hold. In parallel, I work as a concert soloist and as a professor at the Paris Conservatoire.

How do you reconcile these different roles as soloist, orchestral musician and teacher?

Marc Geujon
© Cyrus Allyar

I don't like the way people assume that you can only be either a teacher, an orchestral musician or a soloist. I love being an orchestral musician at the Paris Opera: every evening, I get to hear great voices and to be part of a global event. But after having taught at the regional schools of Rueil-Malmaison and Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, being a professor at the CNSMD is also a fantastic opportunity. I'm fascinated by the history of my instrument, by what my predecessors have brought to it, by the instrument makers. It's a privileged position which allows me to transmit to future generations the things that are dear to my heart. As for working as a concert soloist, whether with pianists, organists or orchestra, that gives me the change to meet audiences just about everywhere in the world, to appreciate other musicians and to exchange ideas with them. In Europe, I've performed in Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium and Italy. And I've also played in Russia, the USA, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Japan...

Your position in Paris, encompassing the Opéra and the Conservatoire, marks you out as one of the specialists of French trumpet playing...

That permits me to make certain things clear. In particular, people generally think that French trumpet playing means Maurice André. In reality, French trumpet, the French style, is what came before André. Raymond Sabarich, his teacher, and Roger Delmotte are prestigious forebears. Initially, Maurice André wrote himself into this tradition and then, a little at a time, he appropriated everything that he played, always in the same manner, whether it was baroque, classical or modern. Thus he created – with a level of genius, for sure – a "Maurice André style" which was unique to himself.

To be more precise, I would say that the French (and Belgian) trumpet school started a long time before Maurice André. In the 19th century, it was Jean-Baptiste Arban who invented, together with some instrument makers, the cornet that we now know which is properly suited to chromatic scales. He played concerts in Russia, which brought the French school there. Merri Franquin, his pupil, was the one who introduced the C major trumpet, the modern trumpet that we know today and which is recommended for the symphonic repertoire. It was also adopted in Vienna, to the great displeasure of Bruckner! Nearer us, Adolph Herseth, principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony between 1948 and 2001, was a world leader – he was taught by French teachers, Georges Mager in particular.

Which composers and performers do you consider show the French trumpet school to best advantage?

In the 20th century, post-war, there's André Jolivet's Concertino, which is still successful with audiences even though it was originally written as a competition piece for conservatoires. I also like performing another interesting work of his, the Concerto no. 2 for trumpet and thirteen instruments, which combines a classical form with colours borrowed from jazz: I often suggest to programmers that they add this piece into my concerts. Henri Tomasi has written a lot for wind, including a famous Trumpet Concerto and other pieces dedicated to the trumpeter Raymond Tournesac. From Alfred Desenclos, the magnificent Incantation, Thrène et Danse has stayed in the repertoire. Maurice André commissioned various pieces, but sadly, there isn't anything from Dutilleux or Messiaen, which is a pity.

Thanks to my teacher Éric Aubier, a new image of a trumpeter has appeared, one of an interpreter who is resolutely oriented to modern music. He's created many works with have expanded the repertoire, on the instigation of the trumpeters Håkan Hardenberger et Reinhold Friedrich, who both studied in Paris. Currently, the difficulty a trumpeter faces being programmed with a symphony orchestra is dissuading composers to write works for trumpet and orchestra. None the less, for a second CD with the Orchestre Symphonique de Mulhouse, we have found the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra by Canadian composer John Estacio. I adore supporting music of the 21st century: the works of Thierry Escaich (who has collaborated with Aubier) are captivating. Karol Beffa and Martin Matalon have been well received by audiences. It's sad not to have anything for trumpet by Guillaume Connesson, whom I like a lot. As for me, I continue to want to make this music of today better known and better appreciated: at this particular moment, I'm working on recording albums of French music with orchestra and French sonatas with piano.