Marcel Moyse in Switzerland

Michel Debost | December 2011


   Years ago, I had the great fortune to play and tour with the Münchener Bach Orchester und Chor, where the principal flute players were Aurèle Nicolet, Pauli Meisen and sometimes myself. The conductor was Karl Richter. I thought his concept of Bach was convincing and powerfully expressive, but his style was of the Romantic era: a grandiose construction you entered like you were stepping into a cathedral. Richter had been a schoolboy at Saint Thomas in Leipzig, where Bach was once the Cantor, and he had suckled his music education from the milk of the great tradition. 
   While on tour with the Münchener Bach Orchester und Chor at the Ansbach Bach Festival, I had long talks with Aurèle Nicolet, a Swiss who had been Marcel Moyse’s student at the Paris Conservatoire for a short time after World War II. Aurèle told me that Moyse, whom I had never met because he had already left France when I was a beginning flutist, was giving a masterclass in Boswil, a small Swiss town near Zürich. He said that I definitely should go.
   I was, at the time (early 1960’s) first flute at the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire (which no longer had any connection with the Conservatoire). My predecessors in that position had been Paul Taffanel, Philippe Gaubert and Marcel Moyse. The Société was a very busy orchestra. My obligations made it impossible to be in Boswil for the start of Moyse’s course, so I wrote a letter to apologize that I would be a day late.
   As I drove to Switzerland, I practiced a few little phrases to the effect that I was very happy to meet him at last, all the more because I had the honor of being in the position that he had himself held in the past. I arrived in Boswil just in time for the afternoon break. I went directly to Moyse, who was smoking a huge pipe in the small church, and served him with my little ceremonial French compliment. He waved me to take a seat. I took a place at the back of the class, and listened.
   For two days, I listened to his patient lessons to players hardly worthy of them. I wondered whether I had made a mistake about the level of the course. I realized later that Moyse’s way was to be very patient and considerate with young flutists “in progress,” while being extremely demanding with good students, sometimes to the point of unfairness. William Bennett, James Galway, Bernard Goldberg, Paula Robison, and Robert Aitken can attest to some pretty strong lessons from him. Furthermore, due to mutual ill feelings between Moyse and the Parisian flute scene, I was the only French flutist at Boswil that year.
   I realized that Marcel Moyse had the gift and will to make you play the way he felt the music, even if the piece at hand was not your special cup of tea or if your natural inclination would make you lean toward a different interpretation. I have seen this in conductors I admire as well. In other words, their will power shaped your music almost in spite of yourself. With Moyse, I did not particularly like the pieces he taught, but that forced me to try harder and find things I had overlooked. You learn more by working on music that does not come naturally than by easy going indulgence.
   Finally, he snapped his fingers in my direction. Nicolet had recommended that I avoid Bach and Mozart, and choose instead one of the Morceaux de Concours du Conservatoire that Moyse liked so much, or a Flute Romantic. I elected Nocturne et Allegro Scherzando by Philippe Gaubert. 
   I do not remember much of my performance, except that I was nervous. When I finished, there was applause, a no-no in that class, as I would find out. Then he said: “Let’s start from the top.” I did not play a note that he did not criticize, or a phrase that he did not tear to pieces. Colors, rubato, poetic content, and vibrato were the issues. About technique, he said nothing. I felt I could not please him, but then I remembered that I came here to learn from a monument of the 19th century.
   Clearly, there was a lot of improvement to be made with the Gaubert. Yet my playing was not that bad. There had to be another reason. So, on I played, doing the best I knew how, until the end. No applause, this time.
   At the end of that session, Moyse asked me to have an apéritif with him in the vicar’s house where he and sweet Madame Céline Moyse stayed. He liked Pernod, a pretty strong licorice-tasting substitute for absinthe that was quite popular in France. “I gave you a hard time this afternoon, eh? Do you know why?” I said that I had come to meet and learn from him and that I had not even thought of resenting criticism.
   He continued, “I will tell you why. When you said at first that you were at the Société, I thought your purpose for your coming here was to show me how flute players did without me in Paris since I had left.”
   When Moyse left Paris, he had slammed the doors at about the time I was starting the flute. I had never heard him play except on an old 78 rpm of the Mozart G major Concerto that I had worn thin. I realized that Moyse was quite paranoid about his last years in France after the war, and that his resentment was as much his doing as that of my older Parisian colleagues.
   In spite of his bad feelings about Paris, that afternoon all he talked about was old stories from the Opéra, the Société and the Opéra-Comique. Paris, Paris, Paris. Most of the melodies in his interpretation book were from French operas and had French content, which he was happy to share with me because he knew I was familiar with the music and above all the words. We became thereafter very close; the ancient origins of my family were from the Bresse area, close to his native Jura, so that I understood those typical French provincial expressions that are difficult to put into English. 
   Because of schedule constraints, I did not have too many opportunities to have a lesson with him. Sometimes I saw him in Saint Amour, his beloved birthplace, as well as Boswil, Marlboro, and Brattleboro, but Paris he avoided, except once around 1975 when he accepted the Conservatoire’s and Alain Marion’s invitation to do a masterclass. I attended, of course, and hoped that when he started rambling, he would not try to settle old accounts that the students knew nothing or cared about. Fortunately everything went well, and it was a great event for the flute world.
   My lessons, however, continued on the same format: his interpretations avoided music of the 20th century and he rarely talked about technique. One day, I asked him, “You speak often about Taffanel, and how he made a beautiful issue out of the scales he had designed.” Marcel Moyse answered, “Taffanel was inimitable, and his scale playing was an inspiring musical moment in itself. He considered that technique was everybody’s private business, not his.”
   During a break in a tour, I had driven from New York City to Brattleboro to play for Moyse. I did not have much to play, so Moyse suggested we work on scales. And work we did. He asked for a key he liked, sol mineur (g minor). That was for me the best lesson. Tempo, color, legato, staccato, the augmented seconds, the leading notes, the modulating transition between scales, everything had a meaning, everything was music and logic.
   It was thanks to him that I devised the “Gamme Game” (Scale Game) to develop the concept that there is no viable music without a solid technique, and no accomplished playing without an artistic musical project.