Most of us have been subject to final exams; most of those exams are quickly (and, sometimes, gladly) forgotten. Then again, most final exams aren’t by Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Camille Saint-Saëns, Olivier Messaien, Marius Constant (best known here for composing the theme to “The Twilight Zone”), or the nouvelle vague’s favorite film composer, Georges Delerue — or even a forgotten doyen like Émile Paladilhe or André Messager (whose 1899 “Solo de Concours” will be performed on Sunday by clarinetist Jon Manasse and pianist Jon Nakamatsu at a gala benefiting the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival). But most of us did not attend the Conservatoire de Paris, or take their compositionally fruitful final exams, the annual concours.
The concours were a signature of the Conservatoire from its 1795 start, and always included a mandatory solo piece that every student would play. (Hector Berlioz wrote a fable in which, after 30 concours renditions of a Mendelssohn piano concerto, the piano began to play the piece on its own.) Those who won the highest award, the premier prix, were immediately done with their studies and pronounced graduates, whatever their age or experience. Most of the competitions were open to the public; prizewinners could not only gain the Conservatoire’s seal of approval (and, sometimes, a cash award or a new instrument), but some measure of fame.
During the Conservatoire’s first few decades, each instrument’s professors would write solo test pieces, but, toward the end of the 19th century, other composers were asked for works, a practice eventually formalized. They were précises of instrumental possibilities, designed to demonstrate a range of expertise — tone, technique, expression — in a compact span.
The works were largely (perhaps, inevitably) conservative, and many fell into immediate obscurity, but many endured. Paladilhe’s oboe-and-piano “Solo” remained in the repertoire; sonatas for bassoon by Saint-Saëns and Alexandre Tansman became recital staples. The 1910 clarinet exam produced Debussy’s “Premiere Rhapsodie.” The flute concours yielded a particularly rich crop, from Fauré’s “Fantasie” to Cecile Chaminade’s “Concertino” to Henri Dutilleux’s “Sonatine” (which, to the composer’s passing chagrin, became something of a flute-recital standard) to Messaien’s “Le Merle Noir.”
Even as the pace of commissions slowed (and the examination process expanded), contemporary composers — Betsy Jolas, Gilbert Amy, Heinz Holliger — continued to update the library. Via the repertoire, players everywhere have continued, and will continue, to compete in the concours, if only in spirit.
The Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival presents “A Cape Gala,” featuring music of Messager, Schumann, Boccherini, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms, Sunday at 6 p.m. at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, South Yarmouth (tickets $175-$225; 508-247-9400, www.capecodchambermusic.org).