Jacques Thibaud’s sensual sound and understated style marked him as a great chamber musician. Matthew Rye pays tribute to a subtle and dignified player

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Violinist Jacques Thibaud

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This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of The Strad

The French violinist Jacques Thibaud was a leading figure in European musical life for over half a century, and arguably the most important player of the Franco–Belgian school besides Ysaÿe and Grumiaux. Although he made regular concerto and recital appearances, he is perhaps best remembered for his chamber music collaborations with the pianist Alfred Cortot and cellist Pablo Casals in the 1930s. He was still performing in his 70s and was en route to concerts in French Indochina in 1953 when he was killed in an air crash in the southern French Alps.


1880 Born in Bordeaux, France

1896 Graduates with first prize from Paris Conservatoire

1903 Makes US debut

1943 Founds Long–Thibaud Competition with pianist Marguerite Long

1953 Dies in an air crash in the French Alps near Nice


Thibaud received most of his early training from his father in his home city of Bordeaux. At one of his early public performances he was heard by Ysaÿe who, along with the ubiquitous Martin Marsick, taught him at the Paris Conservatoire, which he entered at the age of 13 in 1893. Ysaÿe would later dedicate the second of his solo sonatas to his one-time protégé. Thibaud was awarded the conservatoire’s joint violin first prize in 1896, shared with the budding conductor Pierre Monteux. His career started humbly, playing in lowly cafés and nightclubs, but this experience soon bore fruit: while performing at the Café Rouge on the Left Bank, he was talent-spotted by the Parisian concert promoter Édouard Colonne, who found a place for Thibaud in his renowned orchestra. 

He became an instant success after deputising for the indisposed leader in the solos of Saint-Saëns’s Prelude to Le déluge and was appointed solo violinist of the orchestra for the 1898–99 season, making over 50 appearances. This exposure became the springboard that launched his international career: he was soon travelling widely in Europe and, as early as 1903, the US, where he gave his debut at Carnegie Hall. In these early years, he often performed with his equally talented brothers, cellist Francis and pianist Joseph. Later on he was particularly acclaimed in Britain,  and by the 1920s was regularly selling out the Royal Albert Hall in concerts with Casals and Cortot.

According to an early review, Thibaud ‘wins the esteem of his listeners more by gentleness than force’


The main feature of Thibaud’s technique was that it seemed so secure and unshowy as not to be obvious to the listener. He ‘wins the esteem of his listeners more by gentleness than force’, according to an early review. This is also undoubtedly what made him such a fi ne chamber musician. The differentiation in rate and depth of his vibrato set him apart from many French contemporaries who went for a more mechanical regularity, and he was able to put this technique to use as a tool of phrasing as much as colour. His trills, by contrast, could be crisply exact; and he had the dexterity to bring off some brilliant, airy staccato. But perhaps the most pervasive characteristic of his style was his often swooning portamento – very much of its time.


Thibaud’s sound, more than any wizardry of technique, was the making of him. The sheer sensuality of his tone, especially on the upper strings, seduced audiences from the start. But critics who heard Thibaud in the flesh complained that his recordings never captured the nuances of his tone, perhaps because he didn’t present himself to the microphone in the best way or because the technology of the time (the 1920s and 30s) could not yet encompass the full range of frequency required. We must therefore rely on reportage rather than our own ears to gauge the qualities of his sound. One writer, published in 1933, likened Thibaud’s tone to ‘good port on the palate’ in the way its subtleties and richness should be savoured. He certainly had a wide range of colour at his command, which could be both liquid and plaintive, allied with a refinement and purity that suited the Classical as well as the French repertoire he enjoyed playing.


Thibaud never, even as a young player, appears to have gone through a phase of virtuosity for its own sake. Early reports tell of a maturity to his playing far beyond his years, and this maturity extended to his concerto repertoire choices: Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Mendelssohn, Bruch. Thibaud had a keen sense of artistic integrity: on one occasion he cancelled an appearance rather than be obliged to play a Mozart concerto sandwiched between parts of another composer’s work. He had a dignified and easy stage presence unencumbered by excessive movement, which made him a rewarding player to watch as well as listen to.


It cannot be denied that Thibaud had one of the most restricted repertoires of all the great players: selected works from the classics, such as Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, the core Franco–Belgian material and a fair number of sentimental fripperies. And there’s little evidence of him playing anything much more modern than Debussy, even though he lived through some of the most musically fascinating decades in Parisian history. Moreover, his portamento style of playing varied little from one period of music to another. His education also suffered from the tendency of his teachers to work on interpretation and tonal quality rather than on technique, and it was only in his later years that he put effort into technical exercises during his daily practice.


Thibaud owned a veritable family of fine violins throughout his career, including the 1716 ‘Colossus’ Stradivari, stolen from its most recent owner in 1998, and the 1709 ‘Baillot’ Stradivari which was presumed destroyed in the air crash that killed him. The ‘Baillot’, accompanied by a Tourte bow, was his wedding present from his father-in-law. He also owned the 1714 ‘Bérou’ Stradivari and a 1723 Carlo Bergonzi, as well as a 1788 Pique that had previously been owned by Ysaÿe.


If Thibaud specialised in anything it was unsurprisingly the Franco–Belgian repertoire of Lalo, Saint-Saëns, Chausson, Franck, Fauré and Debussy, which suited the suavity of his playing. His 1929 recording of the Franck Sonata with Cortot is deservedly regarded as a classic. Similarly his trio recordings with Casals and Cortot of the B flat major works by Schubert (1926) and Beethoven (1928) have rarely, if ever, been out of the catalogue since they were made. The three didn’t play as a permanent ensemble but would give just a handful of concerts a year following a holiday-like rehearsal period, ensuring their musicality and rapport was always fresh and unsullied by routine. 

Although solo appearances played an important role in Thibaud’s career, less of this repertoire ended up on disc. What remains – chiefly encores and showpieces with piano – is usefully collected on an Appian double-disc set, which also includes a live Swiss Radio recording of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, a rare example of Thibaud captured with an orchestra. He also recorded the Brahms ‘Double’ with Casals and, although no recording comes readily to hand, the Beethoven ‘Triple’ was also in the repertoire of the trio.


Beethoven Piano Trio in B flat major op.97 ‘Archduke’; Schubert Piano Trio in B flat major D898 (with Casals and Cortot) EMI GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 5 66986 2

Franck/Fauré/Debussy Violin Sonatas (with Cortot) EMI RÉFÉRENCES 7 63032 2

Brahms ‘Double’ Concerto (with Casals and Szell) NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110930

Complete solo recordings 1926-36 (plus Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole from 1941) APPIAN RECORDINGS APR 6003 (TWO DISCS)

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