Close this search box.

The Living Heritage of Marcel Moyse

Joan Marie Baumann | January 2019

    Keep the sound alive!” cried my teacher Jean Doussard as I played from Marcel Moyse’s treatise Tone Development Through Interpretation. The kind, stately French orchestra director seemed to transform before my eyes into a much younger man as he leapt nimbly to his feet, describing the shape of the phrase with his precise gestures in the air, his expressive face animated, inspired.

    “Keep the sound! A sound should never be sad; each sound must live!” I was struck by the astonishing resemblance between his manner and gestures and those of my former teacher Michel Debost. The greatest similarity, however, was their enormous enthusiasm for communicating the essence of the music to their students. They seemed to function on a much higher energy level as soon as they began to teach.
    In the video on Marcel Moyse prepared by his grandson Claude, Moyse was ensconced in his favorite armchair, pipe in hand, listening to a student play. All at once he sprang into action, waving his arms, then showing the student with sculpted gestures in the air how the phrase should be shaped, his face alight, saying, “Let the sound live. Give life to your tone!” The student played again, the sound now rich and vibrant.
    After completing my master’s degree with Walfrid Kujala at Northwestern University, my former teacher Erich Graf suggested that I go to Paris to study with Michel Debost. Debost was a kind, extremely well-organized, and caring teacher. A student of Gaston Crunelle while studying at the Paris Conservatory, Debost had studied with Moyse later on, and was fond of him. Whenever he was on tour in the United States he made the pilgrimage to Brattleboro, Vermont to see Moyse. Debost used many of Moyse’s etudes and exercises in his teaching, and had thoroughly integrated Moyse’s musical ideas into his own refined and highly personal teaching style.
    A cornerstone of Debost’s teaching of flute technique is the Exercise #4 Scale Studies in 17 Grands Exercices Journaliers de Mecanisme pour la Flute by Taffanel-Gaubert. All of his students are asked to learn them by memory, and then go twice through the cycle of 30 scales, with variations in dynamics, articulation, rhythm, and speed for each new scale. Each scale was played from tonic note to tonic note, omitting the modulating bridge linking major and minor keys. We dutifully learned them, with much encouragement and prodding on Debost’s part. One day Debost announced to us that this system was about to change. He had just returned from a U.S. concert tour where, true to form, he had managed to squeeze in the time to make the six-hour round trip drive to Brattleboro from New York City for a visit and a lesson with Moyse. With a sly grin Debost said to us, “Guess what he made me play? Scales.” We all roared with laughter, tickled by the thought of our demanding teacher playing scales at his lesson. Debost said he barely began the second scale when Moyse stopped him, furious. “It’s wrong. All wrong,” he proclaimed. “Your teacher was worthless. He could never teach anything right.” Debost chuckled as he explained that Crunelle and Moyse had never been overly fond of each other. Finally, after some gentle questioning, Moyse admitted perhaps Crunelle had been an acceptable teacher and maybe even a good one, but what really irked him was that he neglected to teach the Exercise #4 scale studies correctly: he left out the most important part – the modulating bridge. Moyse then taught Debost to practice that bridge slowly, with a full, rich tone and smooth changes between the notes, paying special attention to tuning and bringing out the harmonically important notes. Then Debost treated us to a first-rate demonstration.
    When Debost was appointed to the Paris Conservatory, he was forced to give up his private class, and recommended that I contact Georges Alirol, the Wunderkind second flute player in the Orchestre de Paris. Alirol had won the audition for the orchestra at the age of 17, while still a student of Rampal’s at the Paris Conservatory.
    My interest in the teachings of Marcel Moyse began with Alirol’s first comment. “My only criticism is that you are releasing your lip and therefore the fine edge of your tone in the fast passages.” He suggested that I practice the exercise “Suppleness in the Low Register” of Moyse’s De la Sonorite: Art et Technique and proceeded to demonstrate the correct execution of the exercise with intense concentration and precision. He explained that the purpose of the exercise was to develop a perfect balance between the airflow and the sound, and to acquire perfect control of dynamics without distorting the sound.
    His instructions were as follows: with no attack, begin the pianissimo sound with a whisper of air, but perfectly focused with the purest possible tone. Then, of utmost importance, begin the crescendo, maintaining the timbre, and playing through the center of the note, never allowing the sound to saturate with air. The crescendo must be perfectly measured so that it peaks fortissimo at the beginning of the third note. The hard part as one allows the sound to gradually diminish, was not losing the timbre or the energy of the note, never letting it sag or diminish too quickly as it fades back    to the focused pianissimo whisper. Moyse makes the encouraging and understanding comment: “Repeat each bar twice; in this way the performer can attempt to successfully correct the mistakes made at the first attempt,” followed by the heartening admonition: “One exercise a day is sufficient. Never do more than two.”
    The follow up exercise was to apply this to the eighth note study “Attack and Slurring of Notes,” working for immediately focused rich bell-like tones. Once this was mastered the next step was to apply it to short phrases in Exercise #4 of Etudes et Exercises Techniques also by Moyse, where a perfect attack and sustained timbre were coupled with tricky fingerings played as rapidly as possible.
    The following year, Alirol’s and my schedules no longer coinciding, I decided to work on my own. A friend suggested that I contact his father, Jean Doussard, a conductor who had studied with Moyse as a young man. He offered to arrange a first meeting so that he could introduce me to his father, and some weeks later I found myself in Jean Doussard’s Paris apartment. We spent several hours going over the exact manner of playing the etudes and their variations in 24 Petites Etudes Melodiques. I was fascinated by the pinpoint precision that each exercise afforded for solving specific problems of articulation, control of dynamics, sonority, rhythm, interval changes, and phrasing.
    Jean Doussard enjoyed a special relationship with Moyse. Entering the Paris Conservatory at the age of 16, the young student from Angers was all alone in Paris. Realizing this Moyse quickly took him under his wing. Doussard maintains that Moyse was responsible for his development as a flutist. “When I came to Moyse,” he once told me, “I had no sound. I had talent, some good musical ideas, but no technique, no sound.” Doussard was fascinated by the world of music which Moyse helped him discover. He immersed himself in his studies, often attending all the other students’ lessons as well as his own. Moyse was impressed with his enthusiasm and began to invite him to his home for lessons in addition to the three lessons per week at the Conservatory. Doussard was soon taking five or six lessons a week with him, a situation which continued for his five years of study with Moyse. He recalls that sometimes Moyse would invite him for lunch, followed by a lesson, then duets or a game of checkers, dinner, more duets, and a lively exchange of anecdotes lasting until well past midnight.
    As a teacher Moyse gained a reputation as outspoken and sometimes irascible. Doussard found this out first hand when, in his final year at the Conservatory, he decided to become a conductor rather than a professional flutist. One day he worked up enough courage, took a deep breath, and announced his decision to his mentor. Moyse was furious. First he tried to talk him out of it. Then, seeing that Doussard was not to be swayed, he turned his back on him and refused to speak with him. This continued for nearly one month, during which time Doussard continued to take his three lessons a week at the Conservatory, while Moyse addressed him with monosyllables, grunts, and scowls. “Then he began to come around,” says Doussard. “One day he began to teach me tone and phrasing studies on symphonic themes. He said, Toscanini would take this passage at such and such a tempo, Stokowski or Walter at another,’ and tell me how composers such as Debussy, Prokofiev or Stravinsky would have interpreted their works. Moyse had played under some of the greatest conductors of the epoch, and his comments were priceless. I learned an enormous amount about conducting from him in that final year.”
    Doussard considers Moyse his principal inspiration as a conductor. “Of course, I had other teachers for conducting, some of whom were very fine,” he recalls, “but I always fall back on Moyse’s teachings for interpretation. He taught me how to find and bring out what is most important in a work or in a phrase; he taught me how to bring the music to life. In the end what I know about music came from him.”
    Moyse enjoyed a long and impressive career as a performer and recording artist. Nonetheless, he once told Doussard that he considered teaching his most important calling. A student of Paul Taffanel, Adolphe Henne-bains, and Philippe Gaubert, three of the greatest flutists of their time, Moyse served as perhaps the most important link in the chain of great masters of the legendary French school of flute playing. He revered his teachers, feeling a great responsibility to pass on their legacy to others.
    Not only did Moyse master the style and techniques of the French school, he also made great strides in their advance. He had a unique gift for analyzing sounds, seeming capable of getting right inside a sound to unlock its secrets and capture its essence in order to reproduce it on the flute. As his career blossomed he came into contact with some of the greatest musicians of his day, and observed them first hand. Especially attracted by the artistry of singers and string players, he strove to integrate the rich fluidity and colors of the human voice and the vigor and diversity of the violinist’s bowings into his own playing. Doussard says that Moyse would often liken flute technique to violin technique. The breath was the arm drawing the bow, the tongue was the bow itself; the flutist must be as versatile in executing articulations with his tongue as the violinist is with his bow; he must be able to reproduce anything a violinist can do.
    Famous for his crystal-clear articulations, Moyse taught myriad strokes, including what is sometimes referred to as bow-and-arrow tonguing: the tongue is placed at the juncture of the lip opening and the tops of the two front teeth, then quickly withdrawn to initiate the sound. Another idea was that the lip position need not change to switch octaves. Debost had often spoken of this, saying, “The flute is the easiest instrument in the world to play. All you have to do is blow and move your fingers.” At the time that comment was as clear to me as a Zen riddle, similar to Rampal’s assertion that to inhale correctly he opens his mouth and lets in the air.” Both of these enigmatic statements became comprehensible to me as Doussard instructed me in the use of Moyse’s tone and interval exercises. Soon playing became easy, exactly as Debost had said: you just blow and move your fingers. J.S. Bach had a similar saying; when asked how he could play so perfectly such complex works on the organ, he replied, “I don’t know what seems so difficult about it to you. It’s simple. All you have to do is to put your fingers on the right keys.”
    Doussard stressed that these exercises were to be used judiciously at first. He said that when Moyse taught tone and embouchure studies, he specifically requested that the student not practice them at home at first, but work on them only during the lesson under his supervision. He maintained that one could do more harm than good in attempting to obtain spectacular results without first understanding the underlying principles.
    A basic tenet of Moyse’s pedagogy was that technique should be taught through musical interpretation; that in trying to serve the musical demands of a piece, the solutions to technical difficulties would follow. This may seem rather vague at first glance, but Moyse’s precise and methodical approach was anything but vague. My first-hand experience was conclusive; certain passages which seemed unplayable to me became playable in minutes as Doussard showed me how to apply these simple principles.
    The great hallmark of Moyse’s teaching was the energy with which he communicated the music to his students. His comments were studded with allusions to life: “Give life to your tone. Let the phrase live. Allow the music to breathe.”
    One of his favorite sayings was, “There is the rhythm, and there is the life of the rhythm. The rhythm without life is nothing; it is dead. One must always find the rhythmic life of each phrase.”
    Moyse invested a large portion of his life in teaching others, and did his best to transmit all that he knew to his students, using every means at his disposal – from praise to insult. Not all teachers are as dedicated as he was, however. Consider the following example: A friend of mine had taken over the teaching practice of a retired flutist in a North European capital. Pleased with the advanced playing of his students, she was surprised that none of them could double tongue. Some time later she met their former teacher at a party. After exchanging amenities she reported on the progress of the students, suggesting that their double tonguing difficulties had been perhaps due to the native language. The elderly gentleman grabbed her arm and rushed to a quiet corner of the room, where he whispered, “Shhhh! Don’t even mention double tonguing. You mustn’t give away the secret.”
    A favorite story Moyse told when teaching breath control and breathing technique was that his teacher, Philippe Gaubert, had to breathe often. “He had a small lung,” Moyse said to Doussard, “and he breathed all the time; but nobody could ever tell.” He learned to take imperceptible, seamless breaths, and he was such a fine musician that he knew exactly where to breathe in a phrase so that it could be camouflaged. Gaubert’s handicap had become an asset, and he learned to compensate for it, becoming an even finer musician.
    In the same way, a milestone in Moyse’s life gave him the impetus to search further to develop himself as a flutist. At the age of 18 Moyse became ill with a severe lung disease. Some report pleurisy, others pneumonia. (Perhaps Moyse’s translation of the French word into English has caused a possible confusion?) All the accounts agree, though, that his doctors only gave him six months to live, and admonished him to stop playing the flute; even should he recover, they said that he would never play the flute again. Doussard told me on several occasions that Moyse had been stricken with tuberculosis. Moyse told him at great length of his struggle for life, and of the lonely year-and-a-half that he had spent convalescing in the mountains. He believed that his hardship had proved in the end to be a great gift, and as his strength returned, he vowed to play again despite the doctors’ warnings. The year-and-a-half of imposed isolation provided him with ample time for reflection and research. Weakened and completely out-of-shape, he spent most of his time trying to recover his former prowess. Doussard recalls Moyse saying that he felt as if he had reverted to being a rank beginner.
    He searched until he found one note with a good ‘ring’ to it: C2. Then he worked to match the B1 to the C2, then the A1, and so on, adding one note at a time until he had regained the entire three octaves. A meticulous worker, he had notated all of these exercises for reference.
    Fully recovered, he returned to Paris where news of his comeback spread. He was soon much in demand as a teacher, even assisting Philippe Gaubert in the Paris Conservatory classes. Due to his growing reputation he was approached by Leduc to publish his notebook. Thus the result of his methodical search became his famous Le Debutant Flutiste.
    Moyse left a rich legacy of etude and exercise books and treatises on interpretation and tone production. Many of these began in the same way as Le Debutant Flutiste: as his personalized tools to aid him in surmounting new obstacles.
    At the beginning of what promised to be a brilliant career, Moyse was told that he was soon going to die, and that he would never play the flute again. Then through his faith and determination these gifts returned. Perhaps his brush with death accounts for his great vitality and appreciation of the value of life. His students were infused with his vital energy and enthusiasm. They carry with them today not just their loving memories of a great teacher, but a living inner flame with which they may bring music to life for others, themselves becoming links in this great chain as they pass on the living heritage of Marcel Moyse.