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The Teaching of Marcel Moyse

Julia Bogorad-Kogan | September 2020

A classic article from December 1991

   Four lines into his first rehear­sal of Cecile Chaminade’s Concertina with flutist Marcel Moyse, conductor Arturo Toscanini put down his baton. Later he ex­plained: "I was surprised. This man knows music."
   Marcel Moyse knew music and taught it to others, and through his students, as well as recently discovered videotapes, those who never knew him can gain some of his knowl­edge. A new generation of musicians should learn about this figure whose musicianship reflected the traditions of several centuries.
   Toward the end of his life, Moyse lamented "Music is dead." The im­mutable rules of music he had learned were rarely observed late in the 20th century. He felt that music and lan­guage have many things in common: "the interrogation point, interdiction, preposition, and conjunction." His musical laws had much in common with the inflections of speech. For ex­ample, the weak ending occurs in mu­sic as it does in every language.

   Moyse sang, demonstrating from his own 24 Petites Etudes No. 1. One would never stress the last syllable in any language. Singing "Oh, yes I love you" in English one would never ac­cent the you, unless, as Moyse pointed out, there was some question whom you loved.
   For Moyse other points of grammar in music included the appoggiatura and syncopation. He pointed out how the original meanings of the words il­lustrate their musical purpose. "Ap­poggiatura means to lean, to press,"1 he said as he bore down on an embar­rassed young student’s shoulder. "Why did the composer write the ap­poggiatura (a nonharmonic tone on a strong beat)? Because he loved the principal note."
   He went on to say that syncopation comes from Latin for a missed heart­beat, a heart attack, or fainting spell,2 evoking an image of falling backward in a dead faint. According to Moyse, it should be preceded by a silence, have an initial impetus, then come away. "Of course, you should not vi­brate on the syncopation. Can you imagine a man falling back in a faint going eh-eh-eh-eh?" Often, the syn­copated note is followed by shorter notes that are part of the falling-away gesture:

   Without accenting these little notes, make them part of the fall, as if the syncopated note is the head of a com­et and the little notes that follow are particles in the comet’s tail.


   Moyse’s rules of syntax are back in vogue under a new guise: original per­formance practice. His sculpting of appoggiaturas and weak endings would even please such present-day baroque experts as Christopher Hagwood or Trevor Pinnock. This is surprising, considering that Moyse was a relic in our time, a living remnant of the 19th-century tradition. He knew many masters who were students in the late 1800s, including Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Toscanini, Walter, and Caruso. During the 19th century the art of improvisation was more prevalent in classical music than it is today. Such composers as Beethoven and Liszt were renowned for their im­provisational creativity in concert, which some reported was greater than their written music. Improvising was equally prevalent in the flute world. Moyse reminisced about his teacher, Philippe Gaubert, who created end­less melodic cascades with beautiful modulations. Such performers were extremely well versed in the theory of tonal music. Because they could im­provise like their baroque and classical ancestors of just a century earlier, they knew what was structural or ornamental in earlier literature. In baroque music the performer added these ornaments, naturally bringing out the structural notes and connect­ing them freely with light ornamental passing notes like cobwebs draped over pillars. In classical and romantic music, composers wrote out these or­namental notes within the same tonal tradition, and performers could recog­nize them as ornamental. The appog­giaturas and other nonharmonic tones were shocking as they formed disso­nant intervals with the bass.
   Today many performers are not well versed in harmonic structure and have become accustomed to playing atonal passages, so dissonances are no longer shocking. As a result, the tendency is to play everything the same, without inflection or recogni­tion of syntax. Moyse, a composer as well as an educated 19th-century mu­sician, provides a link to Western mu­sic’s tonal heritage. Through his un­derstanding of tonal structure, he reduced a phrase to skeletal form; often he sang this passage in solfege, defying his students to identify it.

   Rarely could anyone recognize it as the skeletal form of a passage from the last movement of Mozart’s Concerto in D major, K. 314. Then Moyse added the appoggiaturas, trills, and ad­ditional chord notes that make the passage recognizable. "You see, the music is like a squelette (skeleton)." Pointing to his own anatomy, he would sing the passage:

   He explained that composers used or­naments to bring out the strong parts of a phrase. Just as the shoulder is stronger than the elbow, the down­beat of the second measure is stronger than the second beat of the first mea­sure and thus has not only an appog­giatura but also a trill.
   These rules of syntax do not mean there is only one way to play a phrase; but as in spoken language, certain ways of inflecting a phrase are unac­ceptable. No one quotes Shake­speare’s Hamlet as "To be or not to be, that is the question." The range of normal inflection nevertheless offers myriad possibilities for fine shadings and subtleties to vary the sentence’s meaning. Each of the following is an acceptable inflection:

  • To be or not to be, that is the question.
  • To be or not to be, that is the question.
  • To be or not to be, that is the question.

   The same is true in music; accenting certain notes within a phrase is simply wrong, but correct syntax allows many possibilities for individual ex­pression.

   Moyse based much of his art on im­itating great singing voices. As a 19-year-old flutist in the Paris Opera Orchestra, he was struck by how singers Titarufo, Caruso, Tettrazini, Barientos, and the young Marcoux could color phrases. In 1912 Moyse toured America for the first time with the great singer Nellie Melba. "I tried to analyze how she had learned this kind of coloratura; the term also means color. This flexibili­ty and inflection of the tone in­spired me to write some exercises to practice my sonority."
   Moyse compiled the arias he heard in­to an anthology he called Tone Development Through Interpretation and used them to develop color in his playing. He explained,

In music there is not only one flute tone. Vannie Marcoux said we should have a color for every sentence. When he sang Don Quix­ote he found an expression of resig­nation, color so impressive I tried to imitate it. When he wanted to ex­press joy, the voice became bright, brilliant, conquering. On the flute I play some passages with expression, some smiling with pleasure; for me this is music. If some people like mu­sic to show that the fingers can jump on one another without regard for expression, that is their business, not mine.

   Today few students know how to use Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation, his 24 Petites Etudes, and other books. He used a 19th-century style of rubato which is seldom heard today. In lessons Moyse talked, sang, and gestured to shape a phrase and not allow the wrong part of the phrase to stick out "like a per­son with his elbows sticking out." A new generation of flutists can profit from learning Moyse’s musical ap­proach.

Pictured above: Julia Bogorad with Marcel Moyse following a performance at the Marlboro Festival in 1978. Carol Wincenc is pictured on the left.

The Marcel Moyse videotapes were made at his seminar in West Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1975. They include coaching sessions with Julia Bogorad, Carol Wincenc, Max Schonfield, Alex Ogle, and others, plus and interview with Moyse.

1Appoggiatura (It., from apoggiare, to lean upon, rest): "a grace note or pass­ing tone prefixed to an essential note of a melody." The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (Ox­ford University Press, 1971), p. 102.
2Syncope (from 13th century Old French sycopin): failure of the heart’s action, resulting in loss of con­sciousness and sometimes death. Syn­copation is the action of beginning a note on a normally unaccented part of the bar, and sustaining it into the normally accented part, so as to pro­duce the effect of shifting back or an­ticipating the accent." Ibid, p. 3210.