In 1991, as Daniel Moe prepared to retire after 20 years teaching and leading Oberlin’s choral ensembles, he spoke with Oberlin’s faculty and staff newspaper, the Observer. “Making music is one of life’s great affirmations. A giant yes,” he said.
Fifteen years later, as he was stepping down as music director of the Key Chorale in Sarasota, Florida, Moe echoed that sentiment. “To me, music is an unambiguous affirmation of life and beauty,” he told Sarasota’s Herald Tribune.
The internationally known choral conductor and composer died Thursday, May 24, 2012, in Sarasota. He was 85.
Daniel T. Moe was born November 2, 1926, in Minot, North Dakota. Growing up in Fargo, the Lutheran minister’s son played clarinet and saxophone and took part in his church’s choirs and his school’s band, orchestra, chorus, jazz band, and glee club. “Anything I could do with music, I did,” he told the Observer.
After serving in the Naval Air Corps as an aviation cadet and a member of the Naval Air Corps Band, Moe enrolled at Concordia College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1949. Although he was not a music major, upon graduation he received an award given annually to "the person who they think is going to make the biggest contribution to music," his wife, Ann Stephenson-Moe, told the Sarasota Herald Tribune.
Moe had entered Concordia expecting to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a minister. During his time there, he turned toward music. Looking back, Moe said in 2007: “I had wanted to do something for humanity, to do something useful, and the obvious choice was the ministry. But I thought, ‘If I could have my own chorus, if I could work with young people and make beautiful music, I’d be in heaven.’”
Moe would spend the next 50-plus years doing just that. He earned a master’s degree at the University of Washington, directed choral activities at the University of Denver, and earned a PhD at the University of Iowa, where he was director of choral music for 11 years before Oberlin wooed him away.
As Oberlin’s Observer reported, Moe had just been appointed a full professor at Iowa and had settled into a new home and a new office when “he received a phone call from then dean of the conservatory Emil Danenberg that initiated his move to Oberlin. Moe came because he saw Oberlin as having ‘one of the three great choral traditions that transcended anything else in the country.’”
Arriving in fall 1972, Moe was responsible for all Oberlin choral ensembles, including the historic Musical Union, the nation’s second-oldest continuing choral tradition, and the Oberlin College Choir, a select ensemble of college and conservatory students. At Oberlin, he continued his tradition of touring annually, which he began in 1954 as director of choral activities at the University of Denver. After 1984, he toured every other year.
The experience of touring with Moe was transformative for many of his students, whether they performed in churches and small halls, or such world-renowned stages as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.
“I’ve never experienced such a wonderful feeling of unity and capacity for expression as I did on stage with the choir and Mr. Moe,” wrote one student after the 1990 winter-term tour. “We started with an excellent dedicated choir and honed a concert through seven performances to a real brilliance,” wrote another. “I’ve never had such a marvelous opportunity (and I probably will never again).”
In 1992, the Lincoln Center invited Moe and the Oberlin College Choir to perform at Alice Tully Hall as part of its Mozart bicentennial concert series. The event became part of Moe’s last tour as an Oberlin professor, undertaken during winter term of that year. “… As close to bliss as one gets in this world,” is how music critic Andrew Porter described the performance in the February 3, 1992, issue of the New Yorker.
In the 1991 Observer article, choir member Bill Barrett ’94 talked about singing for Moe. He created “a family atmosphere [among his singers], taking time early in the semester to know students individually as well as to ensure they get to know each other.” He would unite his ensembles with his remarks throughout the rehearsal process and preconcert pep talks, said Barrett, so that “by the time of a performance, we’d come to a common understanding of the piece.”
Moe’s preconcert pep talks to his singers became legendary. He set the tone with his very first—given to the Oberlin College Choir just before its December 1972 Finney Chapel concert—in which he quoted Susan Sontag: “We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.”
Moe went on to tell his singers: “This, then, is one of the functions of music and the arts: heightening our capacity to act, to respond, to love—to move out into the world as willing servants of the family of man.”
Moe told the Observer that early on he wanted to be a conductor and a composer, and did not want to neglect one for the other. He neglected neither, publishing more than 40 compositions, including several hymns, during his life. In 1987, James McCray analyzed 11 of Moe’s compositions for the February issue of American Organist. He characterized Moe’s work as a “rich and highly useful body of literature. His music is tuneful, expressive, interesting, and always pragmatic.”
Moe also wrote two textbooks—Problems in Conducting (1968, Augsburg) and Basic Choral Concepts (1971, Augsburg)—and he was a frequent contributor to such journals as Journal of Church Music and The Choral Journal.
The 1991 Oberlin College Observer article about Moe’s career and retirement ended with this quote from him:
“What a marvelous gift, to look back and to be able to say that what I’ve done with my life is absolutely and exactly what I wanted to do.”
Daniel Moe is survived by his wife, Ann Stephenson-Moe; five sons, Erik, Nelson, Marty, Stefan, and Christoph; brothers Richard and John; sister Mary Ellen Waters; and seven grandchildren.
A memorial service took place Monday, May 28, 2012, at Sarasota’s Church of the Redeemer, where Moe had been composer in residence. The service included performances of his "Christmas Lullabye," Psalm Concertato parts 1 and 2; his settings of "The Greatest of These is Love" and "How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place"; and Duruflé's Requiem.
Two events formed the base of my intellectual and musical performance life. First, being a submariner and second, singing in the University of Denver choir. I was also fortunate while conducting the choir at Wahlert High School in Dubuque Iowa to perform on a joint concert with the Univerity of Iowa Choir the last year before he left for Oberlin. His influence is evident and lives on through a number of generations. University BME 1958
It was a pleasure to sing in a choral ensemble at the University of Denver in 1953 under Daniel Moe's direction.
It was my pleasure and honor to be part of Dr. Moe’s Tappan Singers. He was a real person who genuinely cared for the members of his choral groups. He was a genius who could knit voices seamlessly together in a wonderful tapestry. He will always occupy my fondest memories of Oberlin.
I would like to secure permission to use Dr. Moe's composition, Stranger, Share Our Fire. Thank you. Gloria L. Corbin
I was fortunate to sing with Dan many years ago at Central Presbyterian Church in Denver Co. We were a choir of 60+ and it was during this period Dan wrote, Hosanah, Son of David. I believe he dedicated it to our choir and we sang it on Psalm Sunday. The entire choir was. Connected to him and rejoiced in his talent and caring relationship with each of us. I was even fortunate to baby-sit for him. He was truly one of a kind weekly shared devotionals from a book his mother had given to him titled, Day by Day We Magnify Thee. I still use it. God Bless Him.
I start rehearsal of the Britten War Requiem under the direction of William Wienert(a Obie as well) as part of the Eastman Rochester Chorus. I last sang this piece with Dr Moe at Oberlin during his last semester teaching. It seems a fitting memorial to sing it again this spring. Thank you for sharing your passion for singing and choral music with us all. It lives on for the next generation!
Another special concert of Dr. Moe's music will be presented in Sarasota at Church of the Palms on Bee Ridge Ave. on Sunday, November 4th at 2:30 PM by the Key Chorale of Sarasota.
It is hard to put in words what the experience of singing in the Oberlin College Choir did for me. It was a glimpse of perfection in a world where we rarely if ever get the opportunity to approach perfection. For three years we learned together, traveled together, and most of all sang together with Mr. Moe, while all along along he tweaked and tuned us ever more finely into a highly polished whole. Being part of Daniel Moe's choir was a true privilege.