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Blanche Moyse, musical pioneer and peerless conductor of Bach choral works, dies at 101

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 7:14 PM

Blanche Moyse, a renowned violinist during her youth in Europe, who became one of the world's foremost interpreters of the choral music of Johann Sebastian Bach during a second career as a conductor and teacher in Vermont, died Feb. 10 at her home in West Brattleboro, Vt. She was 101. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Mrs. Moyse (pronounced moy-EESE) began her career as a violinist in the 1920s and performed across the European continent as a soloist and chamber musician. After World War II, she settled in Vermont and, with several other musicians, founded the Marlboro Music School and Festival, which has become a celebrated center of chamber music.

Later, after an arm injury ended her career as a violinist in 1966, Mrs. Moyse turned to conducting, with a concentration on the hundreds of choral works composed by Bach in the 18th century. She worked with a chorus of amateur singers in a Vermont town of 8,000, building a reputation for performances of unrivaled subtlety, emotion and integrity.

"Blanche Moyse may be classical music's best-kept secret," critic Benjamin Ivry wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in 2002.

When she brought her 38-voice choral group to New York in 1984 to perform Bach's St. Matthew Passion, critics were astonished.

"No one alive could have conducted a more selfless or assured performance," Greg Sandow wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Her unpaid choristers from Vermont outshone the professional orchestra accompanying them and achieved "something most professional singers will do at most once or twice in an entire career," Sandow wrote. "They sang directly from their hearts, without hesitation or forethought."

Mrs. Moyse spent months rehearsing her singers, instilling a passion for Bach that she had nurtured since childhood. Describing the effect of Bach's music in a 1993 interview with NPR, she said, "It goes to the real deepest depth of the human heart, and of the human emotion - sadness, outrage, everything is in it."

Music lovers from around the world made their way to Vermont to hear Mrs. Moyse's chorale at Marlboro and at the Brattleboro Music Center, which she founded in 1952.

"I've sung Bach all over the world, often with people who are considered the best," soprano Arleen Auger told the Journal in 1984, "and in my opinion no one is performing Bach any better than Blanche Moyse is doing it in Brattleboro."

Violette Blanche Honegger was born Sept. 23, 1909, in Geneva and began studying violin as a child. She became a protegee of German violinist Adolf Busch and also studied with renowned harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and guitarist Andres Segovia. She was only 16 when she graduated from the Geneva Conservatory of Music.

While still in her teens, she was a featured soloist with major European orchestras and later formed a violin-piano-flute trio with her husband, Louis Moyse, and father-in-law Marcel Moyse.

After World War II, they moved to Argentina, but a music school planned by Segovia fell through. In 1949, the Moyse family settled in Vermont, where Busch and pianist Rudolf Serkin were living.

Together, the musicians started a summer chamber music festival and school in Marlboro, Vt., that Time magazine once called the finest in the world. Mrs. Moyse also organized the music program at the newly founded Marlboro College, where she was department chairman for 25 years.

In 1952, she launched the nearby Brattleboro Music Center, which now has 400 students and offers a variety of professional and community music programs.

She and her husband were divorced in the early 1970s.

Survivors include four children, Michel Moyse of Brattleboro, Claude Moyse of Altamont, N.Y., Isabelle Moyse Craig of South Orange, N.J., and Dominique Moyse Steinberg of New York City and Brattleboro; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Moyse began to take her music beyond the borders of Vermont in 1969, when she founded the New England Bach Festival, which presented concerts throughout the region. The festival ended with her final performance as a conductor in 2004, when she was 95.

Throughout her life, Mrs. Moyse found the music of Bach an endless source of beauty and strength.

"Bach is one of the musicians that will appeal to everyone," she said in 1989. "There's also a lot of love in that music. Rhythm, life and love are what people need most."

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