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Marlboro Man: The co-founder of Vermont's famous music school looks back on war, wives and the composing life 

click to enlarge JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

On the walls of Louis Moyse's hilltop house in Montpelier, dozens of wooden flutes vie for space with framed photographs of family members, friends and the world's great composers. Back in his native Paris, he was acquainted with some of those classical music legends: Maurice Ravel had a "rather cold" demeanor, Moyse recalls. Igor Stravinsky was "incredibly intelligent but his body language seemed like a monkey, an acrobat."

As he approaches 90, Moyse himself is an eminence grise whose career as an acclaimed flutist and pianist spanned continents throughout much of the 20th century. Despite an impressive resume, he's not the type to toot his own horn. "Louis doesn't like to have a big fuss made over him," suggests Janet, his wife of 28 years. "He's not shy, but he remains humble."

His legacy speaks for him. He is the son of Marcel Moyse, a revered flute virtuoso. As part of the celebrated Moyse Trio with his father and first wife, Blanche Honegger Moyse, Louis co-founded Marlboro's prestigious School of Music, annual summer festival, and music center in the early 1950s. He was a longtime editor and arranger for the G. Schirmer music publishing company. While he no longer performs, Moyse continues to conduct. He also teaches master classes and private lessons for students seeking woodwind wisdom who flock to his home from around the globe.

But one arena of notoriety has eluded him: Although a prolific writer, his 100-plus compositions have gone largely unheralded. For example, The Ballad of Vermont — a major Moyse work requiring four narrators, an 80-member chorus and an orchestra of at least that size — enjoyed only one performance in the state 30 years ago. "Composing is rather a hobby for me," he says with characteristic modesty.

Nonetheless, it's a "hobby" that has clearly been a lifelong passion. The pre-pubescent Louis penned his first composition, a "Flight of the Bumblebee"-like piece for his father to use as an encore. At about 15, he turned out "Seven Caprices" for flute and piano. His "Suite in C" for two flutes and viola, which the trio would later perform and record, was also written in his youth.

To acknowledge the white-haired maestro's enormous contribution to the canon, two Vermont performers recorded a CD that was released last month. Works for Flute & Piano of Louis Moyse, on the CRI label, features flutist Karen Kevra of Montpelier and pianist Paul Orgel of Shel-burne on piano.

Always impressed by the "vocal conception of his flute playing," Kevra observes in her CD liner notes that this "singing style" is at the core of Moyse's written music. "There is a pervasive element of song in every composition," she adds.

In August, a few days after his 90th birthday, Moyse will be given the National Flute Association's lifetime achievement award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. Kevra is slated to play his "Second Sonata," and the maestro plans to conduct eight flutes, four piccolos and a piano in a medley from his instrumental arrangement of Georges Bizet's opera, Carmen.

"Louis is really very distinguished," says Orgel, a St. Michael's College instructor who believes classical music and those who create it have become marginalized in this country. "It disturbs me that Americans generally think of this art form as being a thing of the past. We need to find living composers who still dare to compose."

The New York-based CRI, adds Orgel, "has a high-minded purpose that's not very commercial: to document the best modern composers and form an archive."

A man with little commercialism in his heart, Moyse is a significant figure in the Green Mountain State's cultural history. His harmonious existence in the capital city, with Janet, a 75-pound Great Pyrenees dog named Shimmy and all those "souvenir" flutes offers only subtle hints of a life story fit for a breathtaking biography.

Pregnant at age 16 — "a shameful thing at that time" — Moyse's paternal grandmother traveled 80 miles from her hometown of Besanon to the village of Saint-Amour, where she died in anonymity while giving birth to Marcel in 1889. He was adopted but, seven years later, his biological grandparents finally claimed him.

Celine Gautreau, the mother of Louis, also started out as a near-orphan. "She was the product of a one-night stand with a Japanese sailor," he says. "She had to raise her half-sisters and half-brothers because their mother was an alcoholic."

Gautreau became a singer and ballet dancer, which is how she met the dashing Marcel Moyse in 1911. He was playing flute for Don Quixote, an opera presented at a Parisian theater; she was in the chorus, being courted by both the composer and the star appearing in the title role. "She chose my father," Louis Moyse points out. "They married in March of 1912, and I came five months later while they were in the Netherlands."

Twelve years after that, a baby sister followed. Marguerite Moyse now lives in Shelburne with her husband Bjoern Andresson, a former New York Philharmonic violinist.

At 6, Louis took piano lessons. At 16, he taught himself flute. By then Marcel was a world-famous soloist and premier instructor at the Paris Conserv-atory. When the younger Moyse was accepted at the school for his skill on both instruments, he was forced to concentrate on just one.

"I chose flute because I could make a living right away with it," he says of his survival strategy during the Depression years. "Paris had five or six movie theaters that needed orchestras for silent films. We had no money then. We were almost starving. My father had not been em-ployed steadily during World War I. So, at 20, it was good for me to have a job every night of the week, all year round."

To accompany the antics of Charlie Chaplin or Lillian Gish, movie orchestras would use selections from a longer piece by, say, Felix Mendelssohn. The conductor had to keep the musical sequences synchronized with the action on screen. "For five minutes, it's sad," Moyse explains. "Then, for three minutes, everybody laughs."

When the "talkies" arrived, he made a smooth segue to studio-produced soundtracks. Moyse's flute can be heard on classics of European cinema featuring the likes of Charles Boyer, Jean Gabin and Claudette Colbert.

Blanche Honegger, a Swiss violinist, came to Paris in 1932 to live at the Moyse townhouse in Montmartre while perfecting her musicianship under Marcel's tutelage. The trio was formed with Blanche on violin and viola, Marcel on flute and Louis on flute and piano. "We toured Europe and won an international prize in 1936," he says. "The great composers wrote for us."

It was also the heyday of the American expatriate in Paris, where the Jazz Age flourished. Even though Louis Moyse was never particularly drawn to the syncopated, rhythmic, propulsive and often improvisational music, he once jammed on some piano duets with Duke Ellington.

In 1938 Marcel had an opportunity to visit the birthplace of jazz. He was invited to America to replace an ailing flutist at Tanglewood. He came with the trio, which performed a concert on NBC Radio in New York City. When the threesome sailed back home, Louis was already planning a return to the U.S.; he had been invited to join the Boston Philharmonic.

"Two days before I was supposed to take a boat to America in 1939, the border closed," he says, referring to the start of World War II. "I was drafted into the army and served on the Maginot Line for one year."

He saw no action at the extensive system of fortifications along France's eastern frontier, yet never once played his flute. Then 26, Louis married the slightly older Blanche and they had twin boys, Claude and Michel, in 1940.

With the Moyse Trio on hiatus, the entire clan relocated to the family's getaway cottage in Saint-Amour — a Roman fortress town in the Burgundy region near the Jura Mountains — because it remained a "free zone" for the first two years of the German occupation. "There was no food in Paris," Louis remembers. "We had trouble buying milk for the children. Initially, we were safer in Saint-Amour." Ironically, the town that translates as "Saint Love" had claimed his grandmother 50 years before.

Things deteriorated when the Nazis took over all of France in 1941. The men in the village were ordered to watch the trains to prevent sabotage by the Resistance. Like every other defiant Saint-Amour citizen, however, the Moyses were actually working for the anti-fascist opposition. "We sent up flares to warn the Resistance fighters about the Germans and to warn the train engineers about the explosions," he says. "At any time, we expected to be killed or deported."

They all came through it unscathed, but, when Marcel returned to Paris after the war, he refused to go back to his old job at the Conservatory. He was outraged at having to share the position with the teacher who had been hired to replace him six years earlier. "His ego was too big," Janet Moyse explains. "He was very charismatic, but full of himself."

With Europe in shambles and Cold War tensions building, the Moyses family — which by then included a daughter, Isabelle, for Louis and Blanche — decided to try their luck in South America. After settling in Buenos Aires, they soon discovered that French people were tacitly unwelcome under the pro-Nazi Argentine government of Juan Peron.

Blanche's mother contacted some musician friends in Vermont — Rudolf Serkin and brothers Adolf and Hermann Busch — who recommended Brattleboro as a safe haven. A new college in the area, Marlboro, needed teachers.

"The school only had about 50 students then," Louis Moyse says. "They all wanted to play piano, which I taught. Blanche gave private lessons. In 1950, we started the Brattleboro Music Center to play concerts for the community."

The Moyses needed something to do in the summer, so they devised a festival component for the Marlboro School of Music in 1952. "Friends came in from all over to help. Blanche began conducting," says Louis, adding that she also bore their second daughter, Dominique, in 1950.

Things were going well until Marcel was diagnosed with asthma and, although he would live for nearly three more decades, his last concert took place at the festival in 1958. A few years later, Blanche and Louis recruited a Swiss pianist in an effort to revive the trio. "Then, my ex-wife developed a problem with her arm and the trio collapsed again," Moyse says.

Their marriage also crumbled. In 1965 Louis met Janet, who lived across the street and worked as a volunteer bookkeeper for the Brattleboro Music Center. "We were platonic friends but, after a while, Louis knew he was in love with me," she says. "That began six years of torment. I had been one of Blanche's best friends. His daughters decided to have nothing to do with him. I had four

young children of my own, but they all accepted him."

It was a scandal that rocked the small community, as many friends and relatives felt compelled to choose sides. Louis was 61 and Janet not yet 40 when they tied the knot in 1974. The couple considers that union as the beginning of his "Third Age," a time in which they spent years living in Canada and then Massachusetts.

After a teaching stint at Boston University in the early 1980s, Moyse was a septuagenarian when he decided to give up performing, although he periodically relented for special occasions during their frequent travels to Europe and Japan. "Louis wanted to stop at his peak," Janet says.

They moved to New York State, making Westport their home for 15 years, but decided in 1997 that Montpelier would be a more vibrant location. "It was," muses Louis, "just like going back home."

Karen Kevra is credited with helping lure the Moyses back to Vermont, after she had spent about a year trekking to Westport for pedagogical purposes. In her CD liner notes, she praises Louis — still her teacher and mentor — as "the most venerated living flute guru."

The guru's thick accent has sometimes presented a linguistic challenge, however. "To the uninitiated English-speaking student," Kevra writes, "first lessons are a bit like an encounter with Inspector Clousseau."

In his twilight years, Louis Moyse is still full of joie de vivre. When not bopping off for a master class — this week, the Moyses will be in Texas — he might be found drawing with pen and ink. It's a pastime that took hold half a century ago during faculty meetings at Marlboro College. "I was so bored," he recalls. "When I put my pen on paper, I never know what will be coming."

One of his watercolors, depicting a 13th-century building in Saint-Amour, adorns the inside back cover of the Kevra-Orgel CD. Janet paints tranquil landscapes, but his style tends to be precise, intricate, abstract and decidedly whimsical. Moyse's almost surreal visual-art sensibility contrasts sharply with his formal approach to music — what a critic once dubbed "the sober French school."

In a mischievous mood, he mocks the musique concrete of composers such as the late Edgard Varese, a fellow francophone and contemporary of Marcel Moyse. "With too much avant-garde, you become the wind-and-burp company," Louis Moyse says of the non-melodic montages of natural or electronic sounds that Varese and other illustrious futurists produced. "It's fine if you don't call it music. You can't have anything without structure."

The structure of Moyse's work indicates "the ability to write convincing four-voice fugues, to successfully control traditional sonata forms and to score with total sureness for any instrument," according to Paul Orgel. "His originality reflects the diverse experiences of a long life lived in music."

Works for Flute & Piano of Louis Moyse, by Karen Kevra and Paul Orgel, is available through the CRI label's Web site:

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