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Methods and Customs of the Paris Conservatoire

Written Expressly for “The Etude” by the Eminent Composer MORITZ MOSZKOWSKI

[The following is a continuation of M. Moszkowski’s article in the January Etude but may be read with interest as a separate article. No living composer for the piano is more famous than Moszkowski. In honoring The Etude with the first article he has written in many years we feel that our readers should join with us in making our appreciation more practical by informing as many musical-lovers as possible of this excellent description of the usages at one of the oldest institutions of musical learning in the world.—Editor’s Note.]



The instruction includes theory, all musical instruments, acting and singing. It is, as has always been the case, entirely free of charge and is open to students of all nationalities, but with the stipulation that no one class shall contain more than two foreigners. The course of study may not extend over a period of more than five years, for since the number of pupils is limited, provision must be made for the admission of newcomers. The conditions of entrance vary according to the different branches, and since it would lead me too far to consider the subject in detail I shall confine myself to the piano and violin. The age fixed for admission into classes in these two departments is from nine to eighteen. The applicants are required to bring three pieces chosen by themselves, which they are expected to perform as tests; besides these, a musical manuscript is placed before them to play at sight. The entrance examinations take place in November and are conducted by a jury of about twelve artists, and these decide the fate of the candidates. This body of judges is headed by the director of the Conservatory, but his colleagues have no connection with the institution. This condition, made but a few years ago, is for the purpose of shutting out, so far as may be, the possibility of partiality. Since I have been a member of this jury for a long time, and for the most part have had the duty of hearing the trial performances of young women pianists, I can testify with a good conscience that the tasks of both the examined and the examiners are extremely exacting. The first are required to possess no small degree of virtuosity, and must therefore be prepared with a selection of pieces and ballades by Chopin, études by Liszt, difficult sonatas by Beethoven, extended fugues by Bach, etc., etc.; while the latter must possess strong powers of memory to keep in mind the merits and defects of each individual performance, as well as no less strength of nervous resistance to be able to withstand such a long-drawn-out musical enjoyment. The contingent of ladies playing the piano is always the largest; in the last few years we have always had in the neighborhood of 250 pianists to examine, which has taken three days from early in the morning until evening.


On the last evening, when, after the consultation of the jury, the names of the successful candidates are announced, a tremendous excitement pervades the court of the Conservatory—and not only there, but in the neighboring streets as well, for the fathers and mothers, the uncles, aunts and friends of so many young girls naturally form a numerous throng; unfortunately, too, in the great majority a disappointed throng, for the admissions are but a drop in the bucket compared to the whole number of applications. Since there are but three piano classes for women, and each class may consist of but twelve pupils, there is room for only thirty-six in all. Of these an average of ten leave each year, therefore no more than this number can be admitted. If one will but consider that of the 240 who fail at least 200 weep, and their respective fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts scold, it will be readily understood why the members of the jury always seek to beat a hasty retreat from the precincts of the Conservatory.



Even those who gain the coveted privilege have no guarantee that they will be allowed to finish their studies. Every year, in the month of July, open examinations are held in which prizes are distributed to those who have distinguished themselves the most highly. There are four grades of distinction: first and second prizes, first and second accessits, the latter being in the nature of an honorable mention. Students who have competed for two years in succession without winning one of these must leave the institution. In these tests all play the same composition, which is chosen each year by a committee, whose choice naturally falls on works calculated to exercise the player’s art in as many directions as possible. As in the fall examinations, the judges, aside from the director, are composed of artists not belonging to the Conservatory, but the numerous public which is always present manifests its greater or less approval, and if at the end of the séance the awards announced by the director are not in accord with popular opinion there is no hesitation in the expression of disapprobation. Indeed, last summer the opposition to the verdict was so strong that it assumed the character of a small riot. Montesquieu says: On ne pent pas contenter tout le monde et son père (one cannot satisfy everyone and his father); and here we may make a slight variation and say “pères (fathers).”

The Conservatory prizes are not only a powerful aid to the laureates in their future careers; in many cases they are of immediate and material service. There are, for instance, a great many foundations derived from private means which assure certain sums of money to those who distinguish themselves in any branch. Then the Government makes a yearly allotment of twelve stipends of from 1,200 to 1,800 francs and twelve of 600 francs to the operatic and dramatic classes. Each year the piano manufacturing firms of Erard and Pleyel give two grand pianos to the best pianists in the women’s classes, while the most talented pupils in the singing classes are assured of engagements either at the Grand Opéra or at the Opéra Comique.

The demands made upon the young organists who compete for a prize are very exacting. They must be able not only to play the most difficult works unexceptionably so far as execution and interpretation are concerned, but to prove their ability to improvise both in fugal and in free form on a given theme.


The great prize for composition, called the prix de Rome (Roman prize), is conferred officially by the Académic des beaux arts(Academy of the Fine Arts); its only real connection with the Conservatory is that the latter assumes the obligation of superintending all the formalities attending the award. The jury which grants this prize is not composed only of musicians, but of painters, sculptors, architects and engravers as well, each of the professions which they represent being also eligible to a similar prize. Berlioz in his day strongly opposed such an arrangement. It seems, however, that when it was first established this was done to prevent the too strong influence of routine and convention among those of the same profession from acting to the prejudice of young and enterprising talent, which is naturally disposed to innovation and hence always regarded with more or less suspicion by those old in their art. Can we not remember how it was with Richard Wagner, who in numberless cases, while understood by such of the laity as were gifted with an instinctive appreciation of art, was considered by many really eminent musicians as one bent upon destroying all that was true and beautiful in music? It is perhaps well, then, not to ridicule this apparently unreasonable composition of the jury.

In order to compete for the Roman prize candidates must first undergo a preliminary examination, which consists in writing a chorus in at least four voices and a fugue in four parts. For this they are allowed six days, and during this time they are absolutely cut off from all communication with others—this to prevent the possibility of their profiting by outside assistance. Those whose efforts satisfy the judges are then allowed to enter the competition. Their task consists in composing a cantata for two or three voices with orchestral accompaniment under the same conditions of complete retirement. The text is given to them by the committee and the time allowed extended to thirty days. Several prizes may be decreed by the jury, but only one first grand prix de Rome is granted, and its fortunate winner is entitled to a pension of 3,500 francs from the State and one of 3,000 francs from private funds for a period of four years. In return he must bind himself to travel in Italy, Germany and Austria while continuing his studies, and during this time to send several works in large form to the Académie des beaux arts. The first three years are spent in Rome, and there the prize laureate is housed in the Villa di Medici, which is owned by the French Government for this purpose; when in Paris he has the right of free admission to the Opéra and the Opéra Comique.

It will be seen from the foregoing brief account that the French Government gives much assistance to youthful musical talent by providing it with free instruction and financial aid during study. When, however, the fully fledged artist is fairly on his feet his struggles begin. The French are not a wandering people, and the Parisians, in particular, feel like exiles when banished from their dearly loved city, even when living in their own provinces. All, therefore, press toward the Ville Lumière (City of Light).


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