Blanche Moyse
Blanche Moyse

BRATTLEBORO -- A decade ago, as she reflected on her 90 years on this earth with writer Ann McCutchan, Blanche Honneger Moyse had this to say about the adulation that often came her way:

"If people love what I do, it makes me feel good, because I want them to receive the gift of music, which is a big thing. If they love me for that, I always tell them, ‘It's not me, it's Bach.'"

Well, Mme. Moyse, there are a lot of people lining up now to say, "It is you, too."

On Wednesday, Sept, 23, Blanche Moyse -- musician, maestra, mentor, mother and matriarch of the Brattleboro Music Center, and indeed of much of our area's cultural life -- will turn 100, and that's cause for celebration.

"It's pretty amazing, isn't it?" said her son Michel Moyse, an artist and filmmaker who lives and works in the Brattleboro area. "If any lady could live that long, it would be her. She has so much stamina and energy and spirit."

Honoring not her longevity, but her legacy, the BMC has planned eight months of concerts, special programs and initiatives to celebrate an extraordinary woman whose life touched so many. It's a birthday bash with 100 candles on the cake, but more importantly, a million notes in dozens of concerts between now and May, and millions more notes still to be played and sung.

"We're celebrating a really, really profoundly great musician, and, I think, a great person," said Susan Dedell, who is artistic director of the BMC's Blanche Moyse Centennial celebration. "Music is in her life in a way that it isn't for a lot of people. She's aware that music is expressive of deeply profound connections on a spiritual level."

The celebration begins this weekend with a concert Sunday at 8 p.m., at the Old Tavern at Grafton. This Monday, Sept. 21, the BMC honors her legacy in education with an evening forum on how to practice titled "Practice in Action," at 6:30 p.m. And on Friday, Sept, 25, the Genzinger String Quartet, featuring three former members of Moyse's New England Bach Festival Orchestra, will perform in Centre Congregational Church in Brattleboro at 7:30 p.m. For details, visit www.bmcvt.org or call 802-257-4523.

Born in Switzerland on Sept. 23, 1909, Blanche Moyse was identified early on as having a true gift for music; she began studying violin at age 8 and soon after became a student of the great German violinist Adolf Busch. At 16, she won a top prize at the Geneva Conservatory and made her debut with L'Orchestre Suisse Romande, performing the Beethoven Violin Concert to great acclaim. Prior to World War II, she married concert pianist Louise Moyse, and the two joined flautist -- and her father-in-law -- Marcel Moyse in the Moyse Trio, acclaimed as one of most "perfect" ensembles of the day.

At the end of World War II, the Moyse Trio left France for South America, but a new music school there failed, and the Moyses were invited by Adolf and Hermann Busch and Rudolf Serkin to Vermont. On Nov. 7, 1949, the Moyses arrived in Brattleboro.

Blanche Moyse founded the music department at the fledgling Marlboro College, and with the Busches and Serkins launched the Marlboro Music Festival. Within a couple of years, she founded the Brattleboro Music Center, too. These were not just projects but representative of an aspect of her vision -- she saw Brattleboro the way it wasn't and sought to bring it about.

"She had a sense of vision about how a community can live its life. ... It's very possible, even in a small rural community to have a rich and even compelling musical life," said Zon Eastes, former faculty member and director of the BMC, who also played cello in some of Moyse's ensembles. "Her capacity for joy is impressive."

Impressive also, is the life force she brought to music. Musicians who worked with her quickly came to grips with how hard she worked and how much commitment she expected. Her vision encompassed amateurs and professionals all making music, but they all had to be fully committed to it.

Richard Riley, now director of the BMC, was a wide-eyed young man when he came to Marlboro College in 1973 and joined Moyse's chorale and studied harmony with her privately.

"What one remembers is of her is the integrity that she exuded in her presence and in the presence of music. Even to rather green college students, that was a force to be reckoned with," Riley recalled.

Beth Ann Betz joined the Marlboro College chorus in the early 1970s, too, and also found it breathtaking.

"That was total joy. It was inspiring and very exciting to me: here in this little town of Brattleboro, there is this dynamo of a woman doing Bach at such a level of excellence. It was an exquisite experience. It was also very scary. I felt my responsibility to really do the job," said Betz, whose foray into singing with Moyse turned into time as president of her chorale, coordinator of the New England Bach Festival and close friendship. "She was so committed to the music. What stands out is how much she cared about every single note. She would talk about every single note. We could spend 10 for 15 minutes on one phrase that could be five notes or four notes."

It could be vexing and left some feeling that her expectations were unreasonable. But the results speak for themselves. She coaxed sublimity from amateurs, and for professionals, she was a reminder that a life in music was not about just playing gigs.

She launched the Blanche Moyse Chorale of dedicated amateurs in the area in 1978, worked them hard and took them to Carnegie Hall. She founded the New England Bach Festival in 1969 and gathered around her a world-class group of musicians making stunning music during the peak of foliage season. That festival went on for 35 years.

Riley was a music reviewer and a rather seasoned one at that when he was asked to review a performance of the Bach Christmas Oratorio in Marlboro prior to the Chorale's 1987 appearance at Carnegie Hall.

"I was pretty savvy. I went to the concert, sat there in Persons Auditorium and I kid you not, within about 90 seconds, I had tears down my cheeks, I was just astonished," he recalled.

Beyond moving performances, Moyse's legacy includes education. The Music School at the Brattleboro Music Center now boasts a faculty of 30 and reaches more than 300 students. From her earliest days in Brattleboro, Moyse brought musicians to perform in schools. "Part of commitment," she told McCutchan in those 90th birthday interviews, "is to try to introduce music in the world through children, because that's where it starts."

"She did so much musically that's brilliant and innovative, but I think the thing that stands out to me is how many teachers she inspired," Dedell said,

It was through the education programs that Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, now president of Marlboro College, first came to know Moyse. McCulloch-Lovell was working for the Vermont Arts Council on education and outreach programs in the mid-1970s. She was trying to find success stories throughout the state to model other programs on. There was Moyse, already doing it in Brattleboro.

"I saw that magic. What impressed me the most is her total dedication, her total belief that music needed to be a part of everybody's life," McCulloch-Lovell said. "That really moved me. It increased my conviction that it was possible."

Moyse also taught the adults who sang in her choruses and played in her ensembles -- and not just lessons about music. Or more to the point, the lessons she taught about music had deeper meaning.

"In our scores, we wrote down her teachings that are larger than life not just larger than life, but about life," said Betz. "For example, what she said about making a mistake: ‘You've done it; it's passed. You can't look back, you've got to look forward.' For me that is just such an incredible allegory for being in the moment."

To her children, Moyse taught much more. Although life as a touring musician and then the displacement and upheaval during World War II, meant there were often maids and caretakers helping with her children, things settled down after the move to Vermont for the Moyses and their children -- Michel, Claude, Isabelle and Dominique.

"There was tremendous affection in the family and passion for the arts. I was immersed in them from the beginning. She encouraged me to find something I could dedicate myself to wholeheartedly. I value that," said Michel Moyse, emotion welling up. "I think it's a tremendous gift she gave me."

For a time, Michel studied the violin with her -- "I think she gave up and said ‘He's hopeless,'" Michel said with a warm smile. He also studied flute and played it well enough to consider a professional career. But he was never pressured into music and eventually found his own way as an artist and filmmaker.

"She was very supportive of my artwork," said Michel Moyse.

Those closest to her also know the things in her life that caused her sorrow. The ways she overcame things like her divorce, the deaths of people close to her and an arm injury that forced to retire from performing on violin, are part of her greatness. Michel Moyse said there is no question that the arm injury "was a real blow. I think the hardship was more in letting go of the violin than in becoming a choral director."

But she showed us all you can do more than one great thing in life -- she became a choral director without equal. And her sorrows sharpened her gift of friendship.

"She was the dearest friend you could have. Totally loyal, totally generous, totally loving, very intuitive. She knew things about you that you didn't know about yourself," Betz said. "And she is very funny. When she laughs, her eyes brighten up and she sparkles. She has a huge sense of humor."

For those of us who don't know her well, the centennial celebration offers a chance to appreciate the gift of her 100 years.

Consider Brattleboro without her.

"I think she helped to form the nature of our area as an essentially arts-aware community," Betz said. "I know she inspired a great deal of energy. I know that in my bones."

"It's probably a little presumptuous of me or anyone associated with the BMC to say that it was the musicians she brought here who begat this whole cultural flowering but I'll say it anyway," said Riley. "Brattleboro was a different place in 1952, and Blanche's conception of what it needed was very purposeful. Now we have one of the most extraordinary cultural environments in the country."

McCulloch-Lovell added, "Not only has she been a Brattleboro and a state treasure, she should have gotten more national acclaim. I always felt she deserved a national medal."

In real ways, her celebration is our celebration, and the party begins this weekend. Concerts and other special tributes to Moyse continue through May. And maybe there are other, more personal, ways to celebrate Moyse's life.

"The best way to celebrate? Sit right down and give yourself time to really listen to a beautiful piece of music and see where it takes you," Betz said.

It's uncertain how many of these centennial events Blanche Moyse herself will attend. She is comfortable, but her resources of energy are not what they used to be. Her celebrations are likely to be more private.

Still, Michel said, the entire Moyse family feels gratitude for all those through the years who helped make the accomplishments attributed to her possible. There is a lot to be proud of.

"There is one incident," Michel Moyse began. "She was looking out the window, and she turned back to me and said ‘I see people in front of me, and they're waiting for me to open a door.' ‘What door?' I said. ‘The door to the joy of making music. That's what I did. I facilitated that.'"

Jon Potter can be reached at jpotter@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 149.