Jean Gennin [1886 - 1962] ‘a magnificent musician - truly immortal’.

Jean Gennin [1886 - 1962] ‘a magnificent musician - truly immortal’.

Do you think of piccolo soloists as being a modern phenomenon? If so, you will be surprised to know that two of the earliest stars of radio broadcasting in Britain were a pair of piccolo players. But any surprise will quickly disappear when you listen to their recordings, available on YouTube and elsewhere, for the quality and vitality of their playing is immediately evident and engaging.

The British Broadcasting Company [the BBC] had only been in existence for a little more than a year when, in February 1924, the brothers Jean and Pierre Gennin began to appear as flute or piccolo soloists in performances broadcast on the radio. At the time, Jean was in his mid 30’s, whilst his younger brother, Pierre, was only 29. Jean Gennin occasionally performed the works of other composers, for example the Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy by Doppler [with orchestral accompaniment [1], but the most frequent and popular works to be heard were his own compositions.
The Gennin brothers had been born and brought up in Liege, Belgium, where they also studied flute at the Conservatoire, but both of them spent their working lives, in Bournemouth, England. The story is that Jean, aged twenty, had gone to Bournemouth intending it only to be a short visit, a day trip. However, instead of returning to Liege, he immediately landed a job with the Bournemouth orchestra. This story was confirmed to me by one of Jean’s pupils, Alan Melly:
‘Jean Gennin, known to all as Jimmy, (although I only ever referred to him as Mr. Gennin) joined the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in 1906 in typically adventurous fashion when, landing at Bournemouth Pier on a boat trip, he encountered Dan Godfrey conducting a section of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra. With characteristic bravado, Jean asked to sit in. He was hired on the spot! ‘
In fact Gennin stayed in Bournemouth long enough to celebrate his Golden Jubilee with the orchestra. His relationship with it was highly successful. He was quickly promoted to Principal Flute and continued to play with the orchestra until just three years before his sudden death whilst on holiday in Bridport in 1962. In fact the flute section became something of a family affair when his younger brother, Pierre, also joined the orchestra five years later, in 1911. And,subsequently, their brother, Julien, also joined the BMO as a flautist for a short while.
Jean and his brother, Pierre, were the stars of the orchestra and, as Alan says, they enjoyed celebrity status in peaceful Bournemouth. Audiences eagerly awaited performances by them and one of their most popular items at Christmas was the yearly rendition of the trio by Berlioz in L'enfance du Christ'
They were consummate entertainers. Geoffrey Miller includes this delightful passage about them in his book 'The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra' 'Audiences on popular nights knew the Gennin's as comic characters as well as fine musicians: during a dozen bars' rest they would put up their left arms behind their heads and wage mock fencing matches with their instruments, always returning to the job in hand coolly and on the beat.’
As well as performing, Jean also took flute students. Alan Melly describes his own years of lessons with Gennin (1952 - 1956) as being ‘full of sheer enchantment. He was a magnificent musician - truly immortal.’
According to Alan, Gennin was ‘so proud of his star pupil, [Anthony] Moroney,’ [CBSO Principal flute]. And through Moroney and Melly, whose own flute pupils include Karen Jones, Gennin handed down a legacy from the great teaching of the past: Gustave Schmit had been Gennin’s teacher who, as he proudly told Alan, was taught by Taffanel. But he added the recollection that ‘in class lessons, Schmit was quite stern and had a stick which he would liberally apply for any errors’. Perhaps Gennin himself did not receive the stick very often, for clearly he was a highly talented student. Alan has music that proves Gennin was sufficiently advanced at the age of 17, to be studying the Solo de Concours, Fantasie et Rondo, written by Gustave Schmit.
Gennin himself employed a much kinder teaching style. Alan said ‘His lyrical, resonant tone was utterly enchanting and he played freely in every lesson. His method of teaching was not paperwork analysis, but merely playing and talking descriptively. It worked wonderfully well.’
But then Alan tells this amusing recollection: ‘On one occasion, after I had played a phrase, he said “No,no. Like zees” and demonstrated. I tried again, but “No,no. Like zees!” After my third attempt, he spread his arms in despair saying “It’s no good, Mellé, your are too Eengleesh!” That still haunts me.’
Clarinettist Raymond Carpenter, remembered Jean Gennin as being ‘a short, tubby man with a beaming face, who was generous in his praise to other members of orchestra.’
Alan also experienced Gennin’s generosity as in this wonderfully heart warming recollection:
‘Jean Gennin played on wooden Rudall Carte flutes and possessed five of them. I was struggling with a basic Regent flute, no case, and he very quickly said that I must have one from his collection. It had a thinned, silver lined head joint with a silver lip plate and played like a dream. ‘Just £45,’ he said, ‘so I paid him £5 monthly and was walking on air.’

The Gennin brothers’ time with the Bournemouth Orchestra included the war years and, in a tribute to their homeland, they performed the Poeme Symphonique by Peter Benoit. A photograph shows Jean and the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra with Sir Adrian Boult performing just three hours after an air raid on Bournemouth in May 1943. The concert, to be broadcast by the BBC, was intended to celebrate the orchestra’s 50th anniversary. No doubt aware of the potential propaganda value to the enemy should the broadcast be cancelled, the Orchestra played the whole programme including Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations in tribute to those that had died that day.[2]
Gennin also told Alan about another similar occasion, ‘a planned concert at the Bournemouth Pavilion had aroused consternation after a broadcast by the infamous wartime propagandist Lord HawHaw, who said that the Germans had heard about the upcoming concert and that the Luftwaffe were planning to drop in for a listen and join the party.’ Lord Hawhaw added "We know what you've got in Meyrick Park" [2]
Alan repeated Gennin's recollection of the concert, mimicking his French accent ‘With the orchestra ready on stage, there were just “ait people in the audience…ait!” [I realised that was ‘eight’] and then the siren started “I have never seen people move so fast as they disappeared off stage.”
In December 1935 Jean Henri Gennin became a naturalised British citizen. In 1913 he had married his landlady, Ada Powell, and had a daughter by her. Together with Pierre they lived in a house in Bournemouth which Howard Dalton, to whom I am indebted for some of the details of this piece, was astonished and thrilled to find stood on the same spot as his own house now. After Ada died in 1948, Jean married Phyllis Blake in the following year. Alan recalls that Jean Gennin ‘had vision in only one eye, but he drove an old Morris Minor. One day he told the story, with his wife Phyllis agreeing, that on trips to concerts in other towns he, driving, would light his pipe and Phyllis would hold the wheel. Years later, Rodney Senior, BSO principal trumpet, would tell me of his terror as he sat in the back seat of the car watching this scenario.’
In 1914, one year after Jean’s first marriage, Pierre, was married also to an English woman, Yvonne David. But, sadly, they only had seven years together before she died in 1922. Thereafter Pierre stayed with the Bournemouth orchestra as the second flute and piccolo soloist for another eight years, making nearly nineteen years in total, before he retired on May 3rd, 1930 to return to Belgium. It is said that he joined the French Underground Resistance and died in Paris during WW2, shot by the Nazis. Alan told me that Jean mentioned Pierre only once, saying 'My brother died some years ago. Very sad.' then his eyes filled with tears.
Spelling of the surname has been sometimes inaccurate, with even the BBC radio listings creating errors such as 'James Gennin' and 'Terri Gennin' [3] but it should be noted that although confusion made between Pierre Gennin and the earlier, better known Paul Agricole Genin, the surnames are spelt differently, and there is no connection between them. They are two entirely separate individuals.

One of Jean Gennin's best known works is 'The Fluttering Birds', although sometimes it has been ascribed to the wrong composer with his surname spelt incorrectly. The Merry Brothers, Pizzicato Pierrette and Le Language du Rossignol (note the wrong spelling in the recording available on Amazon) were written by Jean Gennin for himself to perform and then revised to include a second solo part, so that he and Pierre could perform them together.  The sheet music was never published until by editions were made by Trübcher Publishing, although they were recorded by Columbia records. The Merry Brothers were recorded in December 1928 and received this review: ‘Jean and Pierre Gennin with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, under Sir Dan Godfrey, surpass anything they have yet done in a duet for two piccolos. The recording can still be heard and is remarkably vivid, and it is easily possible to imagine all the way through that the artistes are actually in the room. There is a notable absence of shrillness, and the record is worthy of a place in any collection.[5] I recommend listening to it, as the playing of the Gennin brothers leaps out at you with total joie de vivre, humour, musicianship and skill. 

With special thanks to Alan Melly, Howard Dalton and the Bournemouth Library.

[1] Western Morning News - weds 6 January 1926
[2] Bournemouth Echo
[3] [Nottingham Evening Post - 02/02/1924
[4] ©Trubcher Publishing 2015
[5] Exeter and Plymouth Gazette - Tuesday 30 July 1929