In 1998 there were some twenty living sociétaires. As the dozen or so years of work on this project were coming to a close, I enjoyed several afternoons with former sociétaires of the Société des Concerts.
Lucien Thévet, first horn solo at the Opéra and Société des Concerts, was president of the Association Amicale dAnciens Sociétaires; Robert Casier, first oboe solo at the Opéra and Société des Concerts, was its secretary. Thévet was 84, and had been appointed more than sixty years before, in 1938; Casier, 75. Both were fit and elegantly turned out, both with decorations in their lapels. They were talkative and factually precise about events that had taken place four and five decades beforethough at one point Thévet paused for a time to search his memory, then remarked with a smile: Well, that was a long time ago.” Both were in general agreement on the points we discussed: the atmosphere of the institution during its last decades; the festivals, tours, and recordings; the orchestras sound and general performance practice.
What was especially interesting was how they seemed to exude the same spirit the documents record, of camaraderie and the honor they felt to be a part of a historic society. They focused on their pleasure at creating concerts of the first order,” on the friendliness of the artists, the solidarity, and on the relative lack of conflict in the affairs of the institution. We ourselves were the society: there was no boss.” Neither seemed to have any doubt that the Société des Concerts of the 1950s and 1960s was without rival. Proof of that, said Casier, was that Rubinstein would always insist on engaging the Société des Concerts for his Paris concerts.”
Each had his anecdotes: Casier, of being recruited in his 20s in conjunction with the second Aix-en-Provence festival, to which Lamorlette could not go, after having appeared in the first festival as a member of the Cadets du Conservatoire; Thévet of a concert at the Palais de Chaillot where a horn player, arriving late from a previous engagement, was motioned onstage by Münch during the first measures of Beethovens Ninth, only to drop his horn as he climbed the risers. Mostly they remembered how busy they were beyond the Sunday concerts and their theater engagements, with the recordings, films, chamber groups, teaching, and the hundreds of concerts for young people in Paris and the provinces. Especially during the periods of intense recording, it was exhausting. It was not uncommon, they said, to have recording sessions in the morning, after lunch, and in the late afternoon, just finishing in time to be in pit at the Opéra that night.
In retrospect they had a strong sense of how thoroughly the world of orchestral music changed after the war, when rapid travel by air and rail challenged and then defeated the notion of a repertoire company with its own conductor and stable of soloists. Audiences followed suit, expecting new conductors and soloists in each season. They focused for a few moments on the problems of new music: that the house was empty when they built, as they preferred to do, full concerts of new music. Instead, to meet the conditions of their modest subvention, they had to slip new works in the middle of concerts of familiar fare. Both were quite proud of their role in having created particular twentieth-century masterworks. Though they were on their best behavior, I had the impression that they considered the dissolution a natural step in the march of history: they seemed more pleased to have been a part of the society than saddened by its end.