A Tribute To Blanche Moyse

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Blanche Moyse, a prime mover in the Vermont music community, died Thursday at her home in West Brattleboro at the age of 101. VPR’s Steve Delaney has this remembrance of her musical legacy.

(Delaney)  In the twilight of Old Europe, a few years before World War I, Blanche Honegger was born in Switzerland, and took up the violin at age 8.    

In the morning of New Europe, a few years after World War II, Blanche Honegger Moyse moved to Vermont.

In between she developed a passion for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, especially his choral music, that would transform the arts in southern Vermont.

Longtime  Marlboro College music teacher Luis Batlle thought of Blanche Moyse as a magician with a chorus.

(Batlle)  "The implication is she was able to get good performances out of people who were not professionals. She put together all these people and made the thing work."

VPR’s classical music host Walter Parker aired Blanche Moyse’s music, and her thoughts about that music, for decades.

(Parker) "I think Blanche would like to be remembered as one very dedicated to the music and to the community.   

One of her great legacies will be the Brattleboro Music Center, and its ongoing educational and performance activities.

The gifts that Blanche and the others, the seeds they planted in southeastern Vermont, are still bearing great fruit."

(Delaney) In one of his many interviews with Moyse, Walter pressed for the reasons behind her near-obsession with the work of one composer.

(Parker) "How did Bach become such a big part of your life?"

(Moyse) "Well, this is a question of course that I’m always asked. My first teacher of music loved Bach, and had all the Bach cantatas, and he made me play them, and even try to write one according to the same harmonic progression that there was in one cantata, but he made me practice these cantatas, learn from them, and I inherited of his passion."

"It’s so rich a body of work that it’s not hard to imagine someone devoting themselves to it, although to the extent that she did is, extraordinary I think, for her to have devoted so much of her life to the study of music by Bach."

(Luis Batlle) "She told me that she was a child, she listened to Bach, it was a lifelong marriage, Bach and Blanche and that’s the most beautiful thing that can happen to anyone.

(Delaney) The Brattleboro Music Festival and its extensions were modeled on a small community in Switzerland, where the intense musical immersion began with childhood and spiraled up to a professional level.

(Moyse) "This was an ideal to me, this idea to have this music so intensively, from the beginning, from the first age, to really highly professional and it took us a long time to deserve the words highly professional, but finally, we got there.

(Delaney)  Reviewing a New York City performance of the technically difficult St. Matthew Passion in 1984, the critic Greg Sandow wrote that Blanche Moyse got a richer performance out of the chorale of amateurs she brought with her than she got from the New York musicians who formed the orchestra.

She was, according to Sandow, delighted that he noticed, and hinted that if she’d had more time with the orchestra; its members would have performed above their professionally acceptable level of play.    

She was, he noted, never quite satisfied, thinking always that it was possible to do Bach better.

(Walter Parker)   "I think people who met Blanche for the first time, especially in her later years, would see a sweet little old lady, and might be mistaken in not realizing what a powerful intellect and what a firm will was there. But those who sang with her, in her chorus, and who performed under her direction, would never make that mistake."

Rehearsal: Two, three, one and… (they sing)… "Let’s do it again. (09:30.58)

(Delaney) Larrimore Crocket spent thirty years singing under the direction of Blanche Moyse, and he remembers those rehearsals. Especially this one, an effort to polish the triumphant "Et resurrexit" from Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

(Crocket)  "You’d go on just a few measures and she would stop. What she would do is she would give us verbal images of how it sounded to her, and some of them were very funny, oh she would say the basses have a disease, you know, being flat, you know, somebody wasn’t singing it right, and that was a rehearsal, you know, it was just a constant dialogue between our singing her giving us feedback, and usually with these amazing images that she was able to create on the spur of the moment." 

And that would change the sound of the music, and that process finally resulted in what she wanted to hear. What she wanted to hear was the "Et resurrexit" as performed in this recording of Blanche Moyse and her chorale, issued by the Brattleboro Music Festival."

(Delaney)  During that rehearsal session for this performance, she told her singers, "I should not say I am proud of you, but I am."

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Delaney.


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