Interview with
Philippe and Claude Rigoutat

July 5, 1982 Joinville-le-Pont


Philippe RigoutatClaude Rigoutat

Rigoutat is French for the French. And while they may even admit that they do quite a brisk export business, Rigoutat exudes the "We've got it all/This is civilization" attitude which has characterized French thinking since Louis XIV, if not since the time of Charlemagne. But be that as it may. The Rigoutat factory is located in Joinville-le-Pont, a pretty residential suburb located twenty minutes outside Paris. Madame Claude Rigoutat takes care of the office, and her twenty-three year old son Philip directs the factory in the absence of his father, Mr. Roland Rigoutat, who has recently been ill.

The Rigoutat oboe began with Philip's grandfather, Charles, and remains the only oboe maker with a direct father to son lineage. The smallest of the major French oboe firms, Rigoutat employs twenty-two workers. Rigoutat oboes are unique in that all stages of production happen in the same place. Marigaux, Howarth, and Loree each have separate factory facilities outside London or Paris. Not so with Rigoutat. The wood is being aged, the tone holes are being drilled, the keys are being mounted--all in two rooms.

Three-year wait notwithstanding, numerous players swear by Rigoutat, such luminaries as Heinz Holliger and Maurice Bourgue included among them. Reflecting upon this, one cannot help but wonder if there isn't an outside chance that Louis XIV was right after all.

NP: When and where did Rigoutat begin?

PR: It began in 1922 in Paris, with my grandfather, Charles Rigoutat. Before that, he worked for LeBlanc, Buffet and Loree. He began at 6 Rue Polonceau, in the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris. In 1968 my father moved the factory here to Joinville because he needed more room. We have twenty-two workers now, though more than half work at home. Three are in the south of France, two or three near Paris, etc. These men either make the keys or do the finishing.

NP: How many people worked for your grandfather in the early days of Rigoutat oboes? PR: Just my father.

NP: Do you think your goals are different than those of your father and grandfather?

PR: No. Though I have benefited from the work and experiments of each of them.

NP: Would you ever want to see Rigoutat larger than it is now?

PR: No. We are twenty-two now, and that's enough, a good size.

NP: Do you have any official title or position here?

PR: Who, me? No! The title is made by the customer--when they are here, we have titles. But my father, he's the boss! He's a master, a maître, [1] as we say here in France.

NP: What do you do here on an average day?

PR: That's a good question! My father can make everything himself, but now people can't learn all these things. So I keep the factory running, I solve problems. I also sit like a workman.

NP: But when we walked though the back, everyone stopped you with questions. How can you possibly make an oboe?

PR: Well, it's easy to work when the factory is closed! We also have certain parts of the manufacturing of Rigoutat which only my father and I know how to do. So we must do these things -- only he and I really know everything involved in the Rigoutat oboe. It would take about ten days to do these steps for fifty oboes, but with all the interruptions, the workers, etc., it's difficult to say how long it really takes.

NP: When did you begin to make oboes?

PR: Five years ago, in 1977.

NP: And how old are you now?

PR: I'm twenty-three. I played the oboe for seven years, too. I started at about eleven. Then I went to a technical/ machine school for three years, and started working here when I was eighteen.

NP: Do you ever find not being a professional oboist to be a problem?

PR: No. None of the workmen here play the oboe. You don't have to know how to play the oboe to be able to do this work. This is production work, not the work of an artist. Musicians usually give us the interesting ideas, not the workmen.

NP: Let's talk for a moment about distribution. Do you sell to dealers?

PR: Yes. We sell about 50% directly to customers, and 50% to dealers. We charge the dealers about 25% less than a private customer. And we give the professional players 10% off. We sell to almost every country in the world. Parts of Africa and the Arab world, mainland China and India -- these are the only countries we don't sell to. We have dealers in Holland, Argentina, U.S., etc. But we have no written agreement with any of our dealers.

NP: Which country is your best customer?

PR: France.

CR: You see, the oboe is a French specialty for the players and, I think, for the makers, too. So France is the best for this.

PR: Also, the advice we get is largely from French players. So we are really making a French oboe for a French musician.

NP: What percentage of French professional oboists play Rigoutat?

CR: Of the best players, I'd say about 60% to 70%. The rest play Marigaux, Buffet and Selmer. No Loree. Of course, in the U.S. and in Germany, the sound is darker. So I think Loree makes oboes for a different type of orchestral sound, while Rigoutat makes oboes for the French orchestral sound. And I think it's difficult to be an oboe soloist in France with a Loree oboe. When you hear someone like


Maurice Bourgue, for instance (who plays Rigoutat), you know it's him. They are not in the orchestra, but out of the orchestra. With Loree, it's difficult to be out of the orchestra. You know, of course, that Mr. Holliger has six or seven Rigoutats.

PR: And he never sells his old oboes! He keeps all his old Rigoutats. I don't know why, really.

NP: Not like the rest of us, who are buying and selling quite often! If I bought five oboes, I'd certainly have to sell a few.

CR: Yes, in France, too. If a player buys one oboe, he sells another.

NP: Of course, there's one other problem. With more than one oboe, it's hard to keep both instruments playing well, what with adjustments, reeds, repairs, etc. If you prefer one, you don't play the other, and then when you need that oboe, it's out of adjustment.

PR: Yes, I agree. In France, players find it impossible to play one oboe on Monday, another on Tuesday. The oboes will be different, and the French are completely lost.

NP: Me, too. But let me ask you another question. Do most of your players come here to pick out an oboe?

PR: The Europeans, yes. Though in Eastern Europe and Russia, often the government buys the oboe, not the player.

NP: You know, when you mentioned that France is your best customer, I didn't ask you who your second best customer is. Which country is it?

PR: Holland.

CR: It used to be Robert Gilbert of Los Angeles, and Japan is good, but Holland is the second best customer right now.

NP: Are most of your oboes for Holland made with automatic octave key?

PR: 90% yes. Plus third octave, of course.

NP: How many oboes do you sell in a year?

PR: Between six and seven hundred, including English horns, oboes d'amore, and student oboes. The student oboes, RIEC, make up about 50% of our production, at 6,500 francs right now. The professional model is about 10,000 francs. When the music conservatories in France buy our student oboes, we give them a price of 4,000 francs. But this is a simpler system oboe. About 8% of our production is these oboes-- maybe fifty instruments each year. We make about twenty oboes d'amore a year, and about one hundred English horns.

NP: Any bass oboes?

PR: None. But we are planning on making one. It will be finished when we finish it! Somewhere roughly between two months and ten years. . .

NP: What pitch are your oboes?

PR: 442. But any two musicians don't play with exactly the same pitch, so it's difficult to say. Somewhere between 442 and 444.

NP: Do you make any oboes at 440?

PR: No.

NP: Interesting. In the U.S. we have to play at 440.

PR: And in Germany they have to play at 447. It's not possible to make all these oboes. So you take a staple at 48 to play at 440, a staple at 45 to play at 447.

NP: Or you go crazy! But tell me, you make automatic systems, thumbplates, Prestini systems, double F, double C#, right?

PR: Yes. Whatever you want. If you want it, we'll do it! Anything.

NP: Do most Italians play the Prestini system?

PR: Yes. Over 80% of them play it, since that's the instrument they learn on. We probably sell about fifty oboes to Italy in a year, and the dealers would like many more. For the English, we send oboes to Howarth with double F and third octave. If the customer wants a thumbplate, Howarth adds it. But when we sell directly to an English player who wants a thumbplate we make it ourselves.

NP: Do you sell a lot to England?

PR: Maybe one or two a month. We just can't make more with our current waiting list.

You know, in some ways it's easier for de Gourdon. Since we are in the country where we sell the most instruments, the players arrive here when they want to and, of course, we see them.

NP: Do you see any trends in oboe manufacturing?

PR: Well, I'll tell you. One real problem is the automatic system where there are so many holes drilled, posts, and so much metal on the top joint that it can crack easily. But I think players will go right on as they do now. You learn from your teacher, and you learn what the teacher plays. Of course, certain things in modern music cannot be played with the automatic system. We also make a semi-automatic system, where you have the choice of using the automatic system or non-automatic (i.e., second octave key). We are getting requests for that from Germans and Eastern Europeans who want to play modern music.

NP: I see. But let's go on: I had wanted to ask you about the cost of your materials.

PR: For us, materials are 18%. 82% is labor. We buy silver and nickel silver here in France. We buy our wood through a German dealer. We order about fifteen hundred pieces at once and we age it here for about four years. We make about fifty oboes at once.

NP: What part of making an oboe takes the most time to do?

PR: Making the keys. I should also explain that our workers are trained right here. They begin as apprentices. It takes about two years to train a finisher, and three years to train a man who makes keywork. They work with each other-- the experienced workers teach the younger ones. Of, say, seventeen apprentices, about sixteen will stay with us. Those who don't stay usually go into the repair business.

NP: We live in a throw-away society. It's tough --and getting tougher--to get your car or air conditioner fixed. Do you find you have problems maintaining the level of craftsmanship you want?

PR: Well, I can't really speak of the past, because I just don't know. What I can tell you is that people are very happy with our oboes right now. The tuning is much better than it was twenty years ago, as is the sound. Both players and makers have made progress together.

NP: We haven't talked about players: do you have a number of players who influence your ideas in manufacturing?

PR: If it's a good idea, yes. If it's a bad idea, no.

NP: And how do you tell the difference?

PR: You try it and you see.

NP: Well, that's expensive!

PR: Though sometimes musicians change their ideas faster than it's possible to change the oboe, or they get an idea and then change it in six months. It's very difficult to make one oboe for everybody. Some players can't play Rigoutat, or can't play Marigaux, or can't play Loree; you have people who can play one of these and none of the others!

NP: Do teachers here in France ever tell their students they must play on a certain oboe?

CR: No, not really. People might tell a student that their present instrument is not good, but that's about all. They don't say, "Rigoutat is better." Mr. Pierlot, for instance, sees all sorts of instruments in his class at the conservatory. He himself plays a Buffet oboe, but as long as the student is happy with an oboe, Mr. Pierlot doesn't say anything.

NP: When you do the final testing of an oboe, do you bring in anyone to do the tuning?

PR: Yes, Mr. Maisonneuve of the Paris Opera. He has tuned our oboes for over twenty years, and is here twice a month. We cannot always see the changes that happen in the thinking of the players, so it is good for us to have someone like Mr. Maisonneuve who, incidentally, took Pierlot's job in the Opera.

NP: Before we finish, I'd like to ask about your American market. How long has Robert Gilbert sold your oboes in the U.S.?

PR: Well, he knew my grandfather before I was born. So I guess it's about thirty years.

NP: Are you happy with your American market?

PR: Well, we just can't produce more! With a three-year waiting list, we are really quite happy. We won't make more, so if there was a great demand, the waiting list would just get longer.

I have one question for you. What do you think of the oboe you played here earlier today?

NP: Well, I can't really tell, because my reed is made for such a different oboe. The oboe plays like a new oboe--it isn't free enough for me. Right now I'm used to a very "played in" oboe, so I am afraid that I am not a very good judge. And I'd have to make a reed for a Rigoutat to be able to evaluate fairly. But I have played some Rigoutat oboes that were spectacular -- I'm thinking mostly of Holliger's oboes and English horns. They played themselves.

But let's go on. Of Loree, Marigaux and Rigoutat, I find it very interesting that you alone have maintained a direct father to son to son line.

CR: Yes. And there are other differences With Marigaux and Selmer, the boss is in the office, but with Loree and us the boss makes oboes.

PR: Mr. Rilba is the boss of Marigaux. If you go to see him, you don't give him your oboe. You see him, you say hello, and then you go to the factory with your oboe. Here you say hello to Mr. Rigoutat and you give him your oboe.

NP: Does that make a real difference?

CR: Oh yes. First of all, in the quality of the work. Secondly, in the attitude of the shop. My husband knows all the workers so well. With Loree, Alain's sister is in the office--as am I--and we can assume more responsibility than if we were not part of the family.

NP: So would you say that if the business is kept in the family, you stand a better chance of making a good oboe?

PR: Yes, providing, of course, that you are serious.

NP: Well, how did you manage to keep the business in the family for three generations? How did you do it?

PR: I don't know! But we are here.


[1] Roland Rigoutat is the only oboe maker today to have been awarded the title of maitre artisan or master craftsman, from the French government. Given through examination in other professions, there is no exam for oboe manufacture; Mr. Rigoutat's title is thus one of honor and recognition from France.