SML Strasser-Marigaux
Interview with Yves Rilba
July 8, 1982

Nora Post

The Marigaux oboe is named after one of the great oboe makers of the twentieth century, who teamed up in a troika with Monsieurs Strasser and Lemaire to form SML in 1934. Developed by Strasser as an oboe primarily for export, Marigaux was the French oboe for the non-French. In recent times, however, things have changed, and about 25% of current production is sold in France.

The Marigaux oboe presents a situation which is strikingly different from that of the other oboe makers I spoke to. In a word, the difference is size. In addition to its oboe making activities, SML manufactures 1,500 clarinets a year, and also acts as a wholesaler and importer for other musical instruments. We move right out of the small--often family owned--business into a busy company directed since 1974 by Yves Rilba who, incidentally, has never played the oboe.

I believe Rilba's directorship brings a healthy change of perspective to the business of making oboes. Sometimes it's difficult for players and makers to see the forest for the trees; there is something to be said for an astute person with an entirely different point of view. One small case in point; while at SML, Mr. Rilba showed me a new violetwood oboe whose sound I found to be marvelously elegant. Its reception among players would certainly suggest that the oboe is headed for a long stay on the best seller list. When asked who at his factory had the idea for this instrument, Rilba replied that it was his own idea. If one were to judge on the basis of the many interesting and shrewd ideas Yves Rilba has, it would be difficult to conclude anything but that more people with financial backgrounds should be in the oboe business.

NP: There are some very basic differences between Marigaux, or SML, and the other French oboe makers I've been talking to. In addition to the striking difference that you are the only man who ever wears a suit, there is the issue of size. How big is SML?

YR: Well, we are larger than Lorée or Rigoutat. But we do not just make oboes, oboes d'amore and English horns. We also manufacture saxophones, clarinets, etc. The entire company consists of almost seventy people. And on top of that, we have another department which acts as a wholesaler. As you probably remember, we import King brasses, Remo -- quite a bit of stuff. So we have two activities, but the main one, of course, is to manufacture oboes, clarinets, and so on, and secondly to be an importer and to sell to dealers.,/p>

NP: How did you come to this job?

YR: By an advertisement in a newspaper!

NP: I don't believe it.

YR: Yes, it's absolutely true. My education was in the international export field; I was working in an export firm dealing with Southeast Asia ten years ago -- 1972 -- and I put an ad in a paper. There was one answer--SML.

NP: Did you come in as the President, or did you begin with something else?

YR: I began as export sales manager. That was in June '72, and I became the President in June '74, two years later.

NP: Who actually owns SML?

YR: It's owned by a holding company -- several shareholders -- and I own a small part of it.

NP: Who hired you? In other words, who are you responsible to?

YR: Well, the first owner, Mr. Strasser, sold SML to the holding company. Then we set up a meeting of the board and, as I said, I was elected the President of SML. Simple.

NP: So it was a democracy?

YR: Yeah. Of course!

NP: But as President, you do own part of the company.

YR: I'm not quite a rich man, right? Unfortunately!

NP: Well, no oboe player ever got rich either. . . Many people don't understand what executives actually do, what museum curators do, for instance, or what the President of France does.

YR: Well, I should say the President is doing his best! Of course, here it's like any company -- one man is the head of manufacturing, one for finance, one for sales, etc. The President tries to coordinate all these activities. The most important part for me is in finance, public relations, trying to find new markets. In a large company, the President receives reports from the departments three times each week. But with a small company like SML it's quite different. I visit dealers, meet players, see bankers, etc.

NP: What, for instance, will you do this afternoon?

YR: As you know, the rate of exchange between the franc and the dollar has changed again. We also have a change in V.A.T.; we have to recalculate the price list.

NP: Can you tell me something about the history of SML?

YR: Of course. Three partners started the firm -- Mr. Strasser, Mr. Marigaux, and Mr. Lemaire, hence the name SML. They began in 1934; in another two years we'll be fifty years old. When Mr. Lemaire died many years ago, Mr. Strasser and Mr. Marigaux bought the shares. Mr. Marigaux died about eleven or twelve years ago -- just before I joined the company. Then Mr. Strasser was the only owner of the company, but he was about seventy years old. So he sold the company.

NP: In the early days, SML only made oboes?

YR: Yes, as far as I know. Mr. Marigaux was really the oboe maker. As I understand the development of the oboe in France, there were really only two fellows who were extremely good at making and improving oboes. These were Mr. Lorée and Mr. Marigaux. And I've seen some of Mr. Marigaux's old papers. For whatever reason, he was fascinated with the oboe. Right now our main interest at SML is to develop what we do best--our oboes. A small company can't really make flutes, saxophones, clarinets, and oboes. We must specialize.

NP: Of course, if the size of the company were five hundred, it might be different. Would you ever want to be that big?

YR: Oh, I think I'd enjoy it!

NP: I'm laughing because Lorée and Rigoutat think so differently. But tell me something, was SML always located right here?

YR: Yes, I think so, as you can see from the office; it probably dates back to the very beginning! However, we also have a factory outside Paris. It's quite a large facility, in La Couture. We have a piece of land of almost 1,800 square meters. The factory is about six hundred square meters. We have twenty to twenty-five people here in Paris, thirty people in La Couture, and the rest work at home. We have a woman, Madame Herivaux, in charge of the factory, who is wonderful. She began with another company, Malerne--she was the niece of Mr. Malerne -- and has been in the business for twenty-five years. In 1975 SML bought Malerne, and we moved to the Malerne factory that year, since they had a better facility than we did.

NP: Where was the Malerne factory?

YR: In La Couture--the next street! Our foreman retired in 1977, so she became our new foreman. She improved the quality, the quantity, the production; she improved everything. She's just great -- absolutely unbelievable. We named a new clarinet model after her to thank her.

NP: Is it a good clarinet?

YR: Of course it is!

NP: Since you aren't a musician, I feel compelled to ask what you find the pros and cons of not being an oboist to be.

YR: Well, I definitely think it's preferable not to be a player. First, you'd have to be very very good, and there are not so many of those. You must also be very modest; otherwise you will make an oboe for yourself, but maybe it will please only you. So I personally believe it's best to make an oboe, then call in the best players and ask for their opinions.

NP: Let's talk about manufacturing for a moment. Does all of this occur at the factory in La Couture?

YR: Yes. Everything. We are in La Couture for several reasons. First of all you need the right people, and virtually all the people who work in woodwinds in France live in that area. You simply cannot find anyone anywhere else. Only the final control and testing happens here in Paris. We check all the pads, springs, we make sure the keys work properly. Then when we have about ten oboes, Mr. Mayousse, our tuner, comes and we adjust the instruments note by note.

NP: Let's talk about money. Do you always sell an instrument for the same price?

YR: No. We have one price for a dealer, and another for a private customer. That's normal because a dealer has to make a profit. But 95% of our production is sold to importers or dealers. Rarely do we sell directly to the customer. In some countries we go through an importer, in other countries we sell directly to the dealers. Within Europe, only in Italy and England do we have importers. Selling directly to the dealers helps keep the price down. If you go through both importer and dealer, you have two profit margins--the margin of the importer and the profit of the dealer-- so it's more expensive. Since we are also wholesalers for King Musical Instruments, we need the cooperation of the dealers. You must have their trust to do this, so for that reason we do not sell directly in France. But if our tuner, Mr. Mayousse, wanted an oboe, we wouldn't send him to a dealer. The same with the Orchestre National de France, or Lothar Koch of the Berlin Philharmonic; they come here. But these are special circumstances, and our dealers understand this. If someone came here to pick out an oboe, for instance, they would pay the dealer, not us. That way everybody's happy.

NP: But don't you feel there's a disadvantage in not seeing the players, in listening to their ideas?

YR: No, because after someone buys an oboe, they come to us for adjustments. So we do see most of them. And, of course, the players prefer bringing the oboe to us for these things.

NP: Which countries are your best customers?

YR: Germany is excellent. Japan is good, Spain is going well. Scandinavia and Italy are going quite well, too. Taiwan and Hong Kong, too. We export to fifty or fifty- two countries. Some countries are very difficult--some South American countries, for instance, have an import duty of 150% on an oboe. They cannot export foreign currency. So it's nearly impossible. But from time to time, players find a way to pay us and we sell a few instruments.

NP: Iceland has a 100% tax, too. Do you sell there?

YR: Yes, we have one customer in Iceland, but this is not our main market!

NP: Of course, you're not doing badly when you think there are only forty people on the island. . . But tell me, why is Germany your best customer? Why isn't it France?

YR: Because the policy of SML long before I joined it was export, export, export. So, while we were quite well known in France, we were best known in other countries. Now that we export to about fifty countries, we say, "It's time to take care of France," and about 25% of our production is sold in France. The oboe section of the Orchestra National de France, for example, has just switched to Marigaux. They are coming here this afternoon, and you will meet them all.

NP: Was Marigaux essentially an export firm in the days of Mr. Strasser and Mr. Marigaux?

YR: Oh, yes. Mr. Marigaux was the oboe maker, and Mr. Strasser was the businessman. Strasser was Swiss, spoke fluent French, German, and English, so, perhaps for those reasons, he thought in terms of export.

NP: Of course, I haven't asked you one very important question. How many oboes do you make in a year?

YR: I have a target of one thousand oboes a year. I will send you a bottle of champagne when we make a thousand oboes a year! We are currently somewhere past nine hundred, including oboes d'amore and English horns. We are very close to Lorée in that respect. We make about one thousand clarinets a year and, up till now, we have made four hundred saxophones a year. But we are going to stop manufacturing saxophones. So we make twenty-five hundred instruments each year. I want to specialize the company in making only the very best oboes and clarinets. Given our size, we can never compete with companies like Yamaha, for instance, so the best opportunity for us is in specialized professional instruments.

NP: How about pitch? What pitch do you make your oboes?

YR: 442. 440 for the U.S., a little higher for Germany. The average, though, is 442.

NP: Do you really make changes in the instruments to accommodate the different pitches?

YR: Oh yes. Especially for the States.

NP: How about different mechanical systems for the oboe?

YR: The most common production is, of course, the French Conservatoire system, with or without side F. We also make some with side C#, some with side F and side C#. For Germany we make many automatic octave systems, with or without ring. We make a Stotijn model for Holland -- an automatic system with one or two different keys (which I don't remember at all!). We also make Prestini models, automatic or not. Then we have a French system plus thumbplate for England. And the same for English horns. Of course, life would be simpler if people only asked for one model, but I think we enjoy the challenge of all these different systems. When people ask for a special system, we do it. It's interesting for us. Sometimes we are asked to make what I call a "white elephant." Mr. Holliger -- you know him, of course -- asked us to make a musette with automatic octave and we did it. It was a big job in terms of manufacturing. And he wanted two bells -- one like an oboe, and one like an English horn. So it took a lot of time and study, but we did it. We also make a bass oboe.

NP: Do you see any trends in terms of what instruments oboists are playing these days?

YR: Yes. More and more people play the French Conservatoire system. Secondly the plateau automatic octave system. Those are the two oboes whose production is the greatest, and we export them all over the world. At least 65% of our production is the French Conservatoire model. Another 20% is the automatic octave. Of course, the Prestini system is nearly a French system--as is thumbplate--with just a few changes.

NP: What is the wait for a Marigaux oboe?

YR: It depends on the model. About six months for an oboe, and eight or nine months for an English horn.

NP: And what if I said, "I'd like one white elephant, please"?

YR: Well, we always say that we will start the white elephant tomorrow. And tomorrow and tomorrow . . . Though for a bass oboe, the wait is a little over a year. But I think if you decide you want an instrument, you want it in a reasonable time. Of course, we can't guarantee the price when the waiting time is longer than a year, so l think it's very important, especially for the professional player, to keep the wait as short as possible.

NP: Of course, whatever the wait -- one year in the case of Lorée, three years in the case of Rigoutat -- everyone makes the point that there are exceptions. Nearly everyone will try to get an oboe to you immediately if, for instance, your oboe has been stolen. But how much does the wait depend on who you are?

YR: Well, we try to be fair. And I think we are. On the other hand, if an extremely prestigious player calls us, we will try to do something for that player.

NP: Let's talk about materials for a moment.

YR: No problem at all. Our grenadilla wood comes from the Eastern part of Africa, through the dealer Nagel in Hamburg, Germany. Our silver and nickel silver come from France. We do all the silver plating ourselves. But most of the cost of an oboe is labor. That's about 75% of the cost. Wood, silver, and other raw materials make up about 25% of the cost. It's mainly labor, labor, labor.

NP: Any luck with different materials -- plastic, other kinds of wood?

YR: Well, we've just made an oboe in violetwood, and I think it's very beautiful. Three years ago I bought about fifteen sets of this Brazilian wood as an experiment. We are delighted with the sound, which is very elegant. It's very good looking and so far hasn't cracked. I will show it to you. . .

NP: Tell me something, of all the steps and stages you go through making an oboe, what's the most difficult or the most important in making an oboe play well?

YR: Well, you just can't say one is the most important. If you miss any one, the instrument is finished, is kaput. We buy the wood, make it round, drill I it through the center and keep it from three to five years. Then the outside is turned. . .

NP: Excuse me for interrupting, but who is doing this--is it all different people?

YR: Oh, yes, everyone is specialized. In production, everyone has one job to do. If you paid someone to go from one step to the next, you would have no production.

NP: So it's an assembly line, that's really what it is--just like my car.

YR: Yeah. Just about.

NP: Except I don't have to put gas in an oboe.

YR: What kind of car do you have?

NP: Can I tell you the truth?

YR: Of course!

NP: Well, it's not a Marigaux! But let's talk about some other things . . . How many oboes do you make at once?

YR: When we start the wood turning and the boring, we do five hundred pieces at once, so you must be sure not to make a mistake. You must do a large quantity because sometimes it takes two or three days to prepare the machinery to do this job. After the turning we do the drilling for the tone holes and the posts. But if you ask someone to do this work eight hours a day, he will make a mistake. So, we do about twenty-four instruments at a time. Then we have one man who only puts the posts on oboes. After that, we have fifteen or sixteen men who do the keywork. And, of course, the final bore adjustment happens here in Paris when we test the oboe.

NP: How about your reamers? Who makes them?

YR: There is one man near La Couture who makes reamers for myself, for Lorée, for Rigoutat, for everyone. Of course, we have some special reamers which we make ourselves.

NP: Since much of the work on an oboe is done by machine, to what do you attribute the differences between instruments?

YR: First, I don't think there is a great difference between six Marigaux oboes. There will be some differences, of course, and these are, first of ail, because of the wood -- you will never have two pieces of wood which are exactly the same. The density, the weight will be different. Second, many jobs are still done by hand, and this can also make a difference.

NP: Much more of making an oboe is done by machine these days than, say, fifty years ago. How does this affect the quality of the instruments? Are they better or worse?

YR: I think the instruments are better. For example, if we make a wonderful oboe, we can duplicate it very accurately. Whereas fifty years ago, if someone made a marvelous oboe by hand, no one could say how the next oboe would be. And although some older players might disagree with me, I feel sure that Marigaux, Rigoutat and Lorée are all making better oboes than they did fifty years ago. Years ago you might find one fantastic oboe. Fine. But today, if we make one hundred oboes a month, they are one hundred good oboes. Our production is very consistent.

NP: Let me ask you a question about your workers. Who trains them?

YR: The older workers at the factory. When I took over the company, we discovered that the average age of the workers was about sixty. Since you must retire at sixty-five in France, this meant we would have closed in five years! So we all agreed that if we were to carry on, we had to teach young people. And we did. We are lucky that people stay with us. If they move on, it's very early. After two or three months they don't like the job or I don't like them. Otherwise they stay -- twenty, twenty-five, or thirty years. I really believe SML has the best workmanship available these days.

NP: How about student oboes? Do you make one?

YR: Yes, we do. It's called the Strasser oboe. The problem is that, since these oboes are made by the same workers, they cost me nearly what a Marigaux oboe costs. There is a huge market for a good, inexpensive student oboe, but here at SML we will never have that instrument. It's impossible because of our labor costs.

NP: As we move into the home stretch, there are only a few more questions I have for you. How do you feel about the American market for Marigaux oboes?

YR: Well, I'm interested in expanding the American market, but the problem would be that if there was a great demand for Marigaux oboes from the States, I don't think we could deliver enough instruments and still supply our other markets. But I want SML to be in the U.S. market, since it is the market of the world. Our English horn, of course, has always enjoyed an excellent reputation in the States, and right now, because of the exchange rates, it's not expensive to buy a French instrument.

NP: Just to finish up, tell me what is the worst aspect of your job?

YR: Well, the world economic picture worries everybody. We must spend more and more time in management, in finance -- balance sheets, etc. This takes up more and more of my time when I would rather be doing other things.

NP: Has the present French government affected you in any way?

YR: No, not really. You are in France -- you can see that we are still free! But the Socialists have arrived at the very worst time -- in France we call it a cadeau en poisonne. [1]

NP: At any rate, no one's going to nationalize the oboe business!

YR: No, I don't think so.

NP: And the other side of the coin: what you like best about your job?

YR: Well, I'll tell you. When I joined the company ten years ago, I knew nothing about music and musicians. Now I can hardly imagine another life. Musicians are different, and I enjoy them so much. And remember that because of our wholesale activities, we see everyone from rock drummers to the best oboe soloists in Europe. For me, that's just great.

U.S. Importer and Distributor:

King Musical Instruments, Inc.
33999 Curtis Boulevard
Eastlake, Ohio 44094
Mr. Howard Arrington, General Sales Manager

Marigaux oboes are also available through the 1,500 dealers for King Musical Instruments in the U.S.


[1] a poisoned gift. [return]

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