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[originally published in the Kansas City Star, 29 August 1897, page 11]






Born in Holland, He Has Been to Africa, Over Europe and America –

How He Was “Discovered” by Gilmore – His View of Sousa.


“I want to see a little more of the world. I would like to go to Australia, to India and to China and Japan, and I wish to visit Cape Town, South Africa, again, and then go to Holland and home. I would like to play the saxophone before people that never heard It. But I'm not young any more.” The speaker, Monsieur Lefebre, the celebrated saxophonist, who is an old visitor in Kansas City, leaned back in his chair and laughed, and that laugh gave the lie to old age, notwithstanding the fact that Monsieur Lefebre claimed 64.

“I was to make a trip around the world this season, but I've been disappointed. My pianist, I can’t go without the young man, has another offer which he cannot refuse and I must postpone my tour. And I had intended taking a Kansas City singer with me. Who is it? Well, that I’d best not tell you. We had considerable correspondence. But the trip’s off,” and Monsieur Lefebre waved both arms after the piquant French fashion and looked downcast for a moment. “But,” said he, as he pulled a little bundle of papers from an inner pocket of his coat. “I’ve traveled a little already. I was born in Holland; I have lived in South Africa; I have visited Germany, France—(he hesitated, to smile)—and the United States.


“Here’s an old friend,” said he, as he handed over a faded picture, a group of about eight men, young and old in garments after fashions of forty years ago. “That was taken in Cape Town, South Africa, about the year ’60. Pick me out if you can.”

Just as a guess the person spoken to placed his finger upon a young man perched on a chair in the rear of the group.

“That’s right,” laughed Mons. Lefebre. “You see, I’m not very tall.” It was principally by the youth’s stature that Mons. Lefebre had been identified. Lefebre is small of stature and slightly stooped. His hair—but here is a description as told by Lefebre himself: “I was playing at Mrs. Schermerhorn’s in New York city—you know Mrs. Schermerhorn? Yes, well it was one afternoon a lady she says! “What is the color of Mons. Lefebre’s hair?” and Mrs. Schermerhorn she tell me and I say! 'Well, madam, it is a com-bi-na-tion of red and white. Call it what you please.’” And Mons. Lefebre's hair is rapidly merging from a light red in tone into white. Being a Dutchman by birth and a speaker of several languages besides his own, he has a sort of Volapuk accent and quaint style, which is almost impossible of imitation. And for that reason what follows has necessarily gone through a slight rearrangement.


He has had an interesting career, has Mons. Lefebre. and he can speak of personal acquaintance with many of the world's most celebrated musical people. He was 19 years with Patrick Gilmore, his service being terminated only by the bandmaster's death. It was as one of Glimore’s soloists, along with Liberati, Raffayolo and others. that Lefebre first visited Kansas City. That was during the Gilmore festival at the Exposition building about ten years ago. “Gimore’s gone, a great man, and Raffayolo’s gone, sighed Mons. Lefebre. “In fact nearly all the old soloists are dead. Gilmore ‘discovered’ me in New York City soon after I came over and I was with him until he died. That was in September, 1893, the year of the World's fair. I remember it well.


“To show you how Glimore loved his men: While in St. Louis we had a big band, nearly 100, and a young man play second saxophone. He play well. too, and I spoke nicely of him. Well, this young man, who had no name yet as a musician, said to Mr. Gilmore one day ‘Mr. Gilmore, I’ll play saxophone for you in Mons. Lefebre’s place for half the money.’ Gilmore he say: ‘Young man, Mons. Lefebre speaks fine of you; you do well; you play a good saxophone, but young man. You are not acting honorable. You are trying to steal Mons. Lefebre’s position. Go,’ and he pointed to the door. Mr. Gilmore had said that as long as he lived Mons. Lefebre should play saxophone in his band.”

“What became of Gilmore's fine library when he died?” was asked. “Victor Herbert got it,” replied Lefebre, “with the understanding that he should have the use of it just so long as he keep the name of Gilmore’s band. A fine musician Mr. Herbert, a fine musician.” “You have been a member of Sousa's band since Gilmore’s death have you not?” Yes, nine months, but I don't exactly like him. He doesn't allow his best soloist a chance. He never brings out a member of his band except young Pryor. You never heard Raffayolo plays solo, did you, after Sousa engaged him? No. Sousa’s the whole band.” And then Mons. Lefebre criticized certain points in Sousa's phrasing while conducting, illustrating what he meant by singing in peculiar monotone certain passages, the Benedictus from “The Huguenots” for instance or the aria, “O Mio Fernando,” which is so often misplayed because its real significance is not understood.

“How did you happen to take up the saxophone? But, better still, tell something about yourself. Lefebre pulled another faded picture from his, pocket and passed it over. “That’s my brother,” said he. “We both volunteered to the army, I got tired of soldier business and entered the band, and finally after nine years I didn’t care much for my country and quit the army. But I guess my brother—that's his picture—was about right. He’s a paymaster, retired now on a pension. He’s 66 years old, but two years ago he married a second time. He’s six sons, all in East India. They have sugar plantations. Now my brothers sits at home and smokes his pipe and the government pays for it, while I have to travel around yet. Yes, I guess he was right. Perhaps I'd better stuck to the solder business.”

But how did you happen to take up the saxophone? “It was this way: In 1854 there was a band contest In Paris and my band was there. And my bandmaster, Franz von Dunkler, hear a saxophone. He bought one and ask me to learn to play it, and I did. What did I play in the band before? Clarinet. I left Holland for South Africa in 1858. That was before the diamond discoveries. I started a music store in Cape Town and for five years gave concerts under the patronage of Mr. Woodhouse, one of the most famous governors South Africa ever had.

“Then I return to Holland to go into business with my brother, but afterwards I grow tired and go to England as a saxophone soloist. It was a novelty there and a great success. In ’71 I came to America with Parepa Rosa as a clarinet player. I travel seven months with Rosa, six months being for opera in English and one in Italian. In ’73 Gilmore discovered me in New York.” Lefebre then waxed warm in eulogies for Parepa Rosa. He used the most intensely complimentary expressions. “What do you think of Parepa Rosa as compared with some of the great singers of the last ten years? Was asked. “I think Parepa Rosa a greater musical artist than Patti ever was, but Patti’s voice (he threw up his hands and raised his eyes heavenward)—she had a better voice than Rosa, a beautiful voice, a beautiful lady, a voice like a Nightingale.”

Lefebre spied a picture of Theodore Thomas hanging on the wall. He shifted his seat suddenly and pointed his finger. “That man’s too orthodox to use a saxophone in his orchestra. Now what does he do when he plays something by Saint-Saëns or Massenet when there is a saxophone part? Why he gives it to a clarinet. Shocking! Massenet was the first composer to introduce the saxophone into his operas. At the Paris opera they have a saxophone. Sometimes the man play only once a month, but they must have him just the same. Yes. Thomas is too orthodox.

“But do you know that when I was In Germany in ’78,” continued Mons. Lefebre, “they didn't know what a saxophone was? And the saxophone was invented in 1844. Well, when I was in Leipsic in ’78 I play before the professors of the conservatory. They were astonished at beauty and quality of tone, and they say to me, “Where you study?'” “An’ I say. ‘In my room.’” “An’ then they say, ‘But who was your teacher: who did you study with?’ “An’ I reply, ‘In my room.’ Why then they say, ‘You better come and study here and get a school.’ I laugh and say, ‘I don't need a school.’


“An’ while I was there they urge me to go to Bayreuth to play before Wagner. You know Wagner, at that time, was inventing new instruments for use in his operas and he was in need of tones deep, rich and of fine carrying quality and they tell me that the saxophone was just what he want. But I refused to go and I return to America, following Gilmore.

A fine city is Kansas City. Will I come back again? Well, I don't know. Maybe.

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