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A Garland for Blanche's 100th

Blanche Moyse (from her biography at

Blanche Moyse is a quiet hero of the American music world. She was a co-founder of the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. She established the New England Bach Festival, which offered tremendous performances of Bach's masterpieces for 35 years. She created a vibrant musical community of both amateurs and professionals in rural Vermont. Today, she is turning 100. She should be celebrated more.

Born Blanche Honegger in Switzerland, Moyse studied violin with Adolf Busch, married the pianist Louis Moyse, played in the Moyse Trio with her husband and father-in-law, the flautist Marcel Moyse, and emigrated to the Americas at the end of World War II, where Busch invited them up to Vermont. In addition to helping launch the festival, Moyse chaired the music department at Marlboro College and founded the Brattleboro Music Center, a community-based music school that brings together professionals and students in a range of participatory programs and is still going strong. She also had four children. An injury to her bow arm in 1966 cut short her violin career, whereupon she turned to conducting, focusing on the works of Bach, and established the New England Bach Festival in 1969.

It's all very well to catalogue the facts of Moyse's life; but the best introduction to what she did were her Bach performances. Her choruses were made up of amateur singers; her orchestras, a pick-up band of professionals and semi-professionals; her soloists ran the gamut from young unknowns to Benita Valente and Arleen Auger. There was a touch of the homemade about the whole thing. Perhaps that was why it was able to take on a radiance, or grace, you seldom encounter in professional music: every word, every nuance came to quiet life.
(read more after the jump)

She did do a few performances in New York (and the New York Times raved about her Carnegie Hall debut in 1987). But what remains alive in my memory is the St. John Passion my husband and I heard in Vermont before we were married: the most searing, honest performance of that work I have ever encountered. A lot is written about classical music and transcendence: with hours and hours of rehearsal, a profound love and understanding of the music and text, and a complete absence of show or effect, Moyse actually made that happen, so that singers, audience, and orchestra were bound together in something greater than themselves.

(I see that there is one download available of a Moyse Bach recording; I haven't heard it yet so can't say how well it represents her, but I am happy to see it exists.)

By Anne Midgette  |  September 23, 2009; 11:26 AM ET
Categories:  festivals , national , news  
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It's nice to see a truly transcendent musician get a nod. Her sense of discipline should be a model for American orchestras; she had no tolerance for extraneous string noises, covering intonation problems with wide vibrato, careless phrasing, or balance/dynamics issues. She was also almost the only one I ever saw who could get Marcel to smile -- after the divorce he stayed closer to her than to Louis, his son. Had she been born 50-60 years later, she would have been a major conductor.

Posted by: groundhogdayguy | September 23, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

I found one of my most treasured recordings at a flea market many years ago...a performance of the Bach Cantata number 30, Freue dich, erlöste Schar, conducted by Blanche Moyse and featuring the young Benita Valente. It was recorded in the early '70s at the Brattleboro Bach Festival. The orchestral playing is nothing special, and there are many better choral groups, but what impresses is the humanity of the performance. Based on this performance alone, Blanche Moyse would have to be considered one of the great Bach conductors.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | September 24, 2009 9:01 AM | Report abuse

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