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Thomas Trotter is a prize-winning concert organist and one of the UK’s most admired performing musicians, reflected in Her Majesty The Queen awarding him The Queen’s Medal for Music on St Cecilia’s Day 2020.
Thirty-five years later, Duruflé would be astonished, and probably somewhat embarrassed, to discover that his quiet life and his modest output have inspired several substantial books and countless theses, dissertations and articles, and that he is now regarded in many quarters as one of the great French composers of the twentieth century. His two organ teachers, Vierne and Tournemire, were not only celebrated organists but also committed (if under-rated) mainstream composers. Creative work dominated their lives; as soon as one work was finished, they would start planning the next. But Duruflé claimed not to believe in ‘inspiration’, and he was never motivated by this kind of inescapable inner compulsion. ‘Musical creation’, he said, ‘is for me the fruit of a persevering and laborious effort. I can only write music down with difficulty, and I am constantly revising what I have already written. I am attracted most of all by the organ and the orchestra … The literature of the piano contains so many masterpieces that I feel incapable of adding to them. The string quartet fills me with apprehension for the same reason, and I am terrified by the very thought of writing a song …’
Duruflé was twenty-four when he first entered a composition class at the Paris Conservatoire; ‘I was not just a débutant,’ he said, ‘but an ignorant. I had never been tempted by the idea of composition.’ The natural result of this inexperience would usually be a succession of tentative student works (like the derivative and rather uninteresting early compositions of Vierne and Tournemire). But herein lies the great mystery of the art of Duruflé. Like the goddess Minerva springing from the head of Jupiter, his Muse was born fully armed. Within a few months he was producing music of startling maturity: stylistically assured, beautifully proportioned and ‘orchestrated’, full of imaginative textures and subtle harmonic colour. And once he had found his unique personal voice, he remained true to it throughout his life. The music on this recording spans a period of almost forty years, but it displays a remarkable stylistic consistency; every bar is unmistakably Duruflé.
Born in Normandy in 1902, Duruflé was the oldest of an outstanding generation of organist-composers who established their careers in Paris during the 1930s, including Messiaen (b1908) and young Jehan Alain (b1911), whose tragic death in the War would later inspire one of Duruflé’s finest works. When he was ten his parents sent him to the choir school of Rouen Cathedral, and it was during his seven years here—amid the grandiose music, the beautiful flowers and the sumptuous robes of the great Feast Days—that he found his vocation as a church musician. And it was here that he fell in love with Gregorian chant and the timeless world of the medieval modes, in which he found ‘a variety of colours and expression which is infinitely seductive’; ‘truly,’ said his widow many years later, ‘he had a Gregorian soul.’
Already an accomplished organist at the age of sixteen, Duruflé began travelling to Paris for private lessons with Charles Tournemire and Louis Vierne. Entering the Conservatoire in 1920, he was a student here until 1932, winning numerous financial awards, and coveted premiers prix in five disciplines: organ (1922), harmony (1924), piano accompaniment (1926), fugue, and composition (both in 1928). It was during his years at the Conservatoire that he composed six of his eleven significant works (including Op 1, a piano work that he refused to publish): the Scherzo, the chamber trio (Op 3), the Veni Creator and Suite for organ, and the gorgeous Trois Danses for orchestra. Meanwhile he was busy establishing a concert career and juggling various duties at different churches: titulaire at the church in his hometown of Louviers, deputy to Tournemire at Sainte-Clotilde in Paris throughout most of the 1920s, and then to Vierne at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. In 1929 the new Association of Les Amis de l’Orgue founded an annual competition for performance/improvisation and for composition, in alternate years. Duruflé won the performance prize in 1929 and the composition prize in 1930, a remarkable and never-repeated double which greatly enhanced his prestige. He was also, in 1929, appointed organist at the historic church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.
Duruflé held this post for the rest of his life, and his name is indelibly associated with the church, like Vierne with Notre-Dame or Tournemire with Sainte-Clotilde. It also led him to an extraordinary home a few steps away, where he lived for over fifty years: a tiny rooftop eyrie with spectacular views of the city, and space for a three-manual organ, a grand piano, and very little else. But the appointment was not all it seemed. The organ in 1929 was in a poor state of repair (an affreux coucou, as Vierne called it), and in course of restoration by an incompetent organ-builder. After years of negotiation a new scheme was drawn up, and the inadequate instrument was dismantled in 1938. Nearly twenty years passed before the new organ was completed; during this time Duruflé had nothing to play except a little choir organ at the other end of the church. And when it was finished, it was a disappointment: un orgue qui ne chante pas, he said, an organ which doesn’t sing. Further work in 1975 effected a wonderful transformation, but by this time Duruflé was too ill to take full advantage of it.
So it is perhaps not surprising that after the Suite of 1932 Duruflé lost interest in composing for the organ. Indeed, he did no new creative work at all for ten years, apart from preparing the Danses for their premiere, and reworking his Scherzo in a new and gloriously colourful version for full orchestra. But his concert career continued to flourish: ‘Maurice Duruflé is not only one of the best Parisian organists of the present day, he is also a complete musician, a sensitive and intelligent artist, of whom much may be expected.’ He broadcast regular recitals on the radio, played with the best Paris orchestras and premiered Poulenc’s organ concerto, while the premiere of the Trois Danses in 1936 was a triumphant success: ‘From this moment the music of Maurice Duruflé takes its place alongside the most celebrated composers of French music, and he is assured of a most brilliant future.’ In 1938 he made his London debut to great acclaim, prompting this astute comment from Archibald Farmer in the Musical Times: ‘If he had but a little of that flair for showmanship of which others seem to have so much, he would have travelled the world like them …’
In 1941 Duruflé presided at the rebirth of France’s largest concert organ—the old Cavaillé-Coll from the demolished Palais du Trocadéro (on which Franck had premiered his Trois Pièces and Widor three of his symphonies), modernised and ‘neo-classicised’ by Gonzalez, and installed on a massive mobile platform in the new art-deco Palais de Chaillot. It was surely this spectacular instrument that awakened his slumbering Muse, and inspired one more major organ work, the Prélude et Fugue which he premiered there the following year. Duruflé was notoriously reticent about his own music and secretive about his private life, but there followed a tumultuous period of crisis, creativity, and consolidation. Crisis: the failure of the mysterious first marriage of which he never spoke, which left him in a state of ‘appalling sadness and moral distress’. (The divorce was confirmed in 1947, and his first wife, a pianist, died in 2005, a few months short of her 100th birthday.) Creativity: the composition in 1946/7 of his greatest masterpiece, the Requiem based on the chants of the Gregorian Requiem Mass. And hope for the future: his appointment in 1943 as a Professor of Harmony at the Conservatoire, which brought him a job he had always dreamed of, and occupied much of his life until his retirement in 1970; and his meeting soon after the War with a phenomenally gifted student, Marie-Madeleine Chevalier, who became his assistant at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in 1947, and his wife in 1953.
During the next twenty years the two Duruflés formed a devoted and inseparable partnership both on and off stage, appearing together in joint recitals, touring in the USA, teaching, and enjoying the increasing popularity of the Requiem. In 1950 Duruflé composed an orchestral prelude to precede his scherzo, but after his second marriage he wrote very little: two postscripts to the Requiem—the Four Gregorian Motets (1960) and the Messe ‘Cum Jubilo’ (1966)—and two brief organ pieces. Increasingly depressed by the state of contemporary music, and by the Catholic Church’s abandonment of plainsong and the traditional Latin liturgy, he lost interest in composition. However, he did channel his creativity into other projects: notation of the recorded improvisations of Vierne and Tournemire, alternative accompaniments for his choral works, orchestrations and piano reductions … Sadly, tragedy struck in 1975, when the Duruflés were both seriously injured in a horrendous car crash. They were in hospital for nearly a year, and Duruflé’s career was effectively ended. His wife recovered well enough to resume her career, to care for him during his long final decline in the 1980s, and to continue to promote his music in performances of breathtaking virtuosity until her own death in 1999.
Writings about Duruflé all—quite rightly—emphasise the influence of the three teachers to whom he dedicated his first three organ works ‘in grateful homage’: Tournemire, Vierne, and Dukas, his Professor of Composition. But equally important was the harmony teacher, Jean Gallon, with whom he studied at the Conservatoire for two years. Gallon broadened conventional harmony teaching by encouraging ‘the flavour of modality so characteristic of modern French music’, and this was perfect for Duruflé, who was naturally drawn to this style of ‘white-note’ music via his love of Gregorian chant (just as English composers were drawn to it through their love of old folksongs). The concentrated essence of Duruflé’s art can be found in the single page of the Chant donné (Hommage à Jean Gallon), which he wrote in 1953 for an anthology of harmony exercises offered to Gallon on his retirement by his former pupils. For the twenty-year-old Duruflé, the study of harmony had opened a whole new world: not just simple block chords, but immaculate four-part realisations of a given melody or bass, in which each voice should have a life and interest of its own. It was here that he learnt (and afterwards taught) the delicate art of blending harmony and counterpoint, the vertical and the horizontal, which he would later display to such moving effect in works like the Kyrie of the Requiem, the Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, and the Adagio on the Veni Creator.
At the same time Gallon also included the works of Debussy and Ravel in his harmony courses, and these were the two composers whose influence Duruflé was always quick to acknowledge. Tournemire was already showing him how respect for modality need not preclude a rich harmonic palette, and while Duruflé never went as far as his teacher, much of his music revels in the added sevenths, ninths and thirteenths that add such subtle and constantly shifting colours to the harmony. They are a feature of his first published work, the evocative Scherzo, which takes the form of a rondo with two episodes and a coda. For Mme Duruflé, its magical opening bars evoked ‘a peaceful sleep, suddenly disturbed by a flutter of fairy wings; they wake the slumberer and entertain with their dances, and disappear as abruptly as they arrived, allowing the sleeper to return to the land of dreams …’ In contrast to this frankly secular piece, Duruflé also wrote something else in 1926, a set of variations on a liturgical theme, which he played at his own recitals that year. The Composition Competition of Les Amis de l’Orgue in 1930 specified a work in three movements, so he wrote two new pieces to precede the variations, and won the prize with his Prélude, Adagio, et Choral varié on the Pentecost hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire). The themes of the first two movements are derived from various phrases of the hymn, but the tune is never heard in its original form. After some twelve minutes of quiet music, Duruflé suddenly whips up a rushing mighty wind at the end of the Adagio, and then the whole tune is finally revealed in radiant glory, followed by three short variations and a triumphant toccata-finale.
The following year Duruflé discovered that the rules of the competition did not preclude him from entering for a second time in 1932. In a letter to Tournemire in May 1932 he confessed that it was ‘material considerations’ that had led him to compose the three-movement Suite, in the hope of winning the prize again, but in the end he decided it would be too much of a risk. The Prélude is one of the most powerfully emotional works in the French repertoire; Duruflé never wrote anything as intense as this again, even in the most impassioned moments of his Requiem. The solemn theme is a sinister, slowly unfolding lament; building up inexorably in an ominous crescendo, it reaches a heart-rending climax and then subsides into a poignant recitative for the Clarinet and a hushed reprise of the opening bars. The elegant melody of the Sicilienne is heard three times in all, above an accompaniment that becomes more intricate with each repetition, with contrasting episodes in between. In these episodes Duruflé conjures up a ravishing array of evocative sonorities; the fragrant modality of the melody, the rippling flutes of the first episode, and the mysterious nocturnal murmurings of the second never fail to weave their own magic spell.
In the final movement of the Suite Duruflé raised the conventional French organ Toccata to a new level of compositional and technical complexity. Brilliant figuration and relentless rhythm are maintained from first bar to last, but there is lyricism too in the soaring cantabile second subject, contrasting with the angular energy of the principal pedal theme and the subsidiary material derived from it. After the turbulent recapitulation of the opening theme, the hesitant re-appearance of the second subject is abruptly swept aside as the music finally erupts into a savage whirlwind of sound. In later years Duruflé disowned the piece and refused to perform it, on the grounds that ‘the main theme is very bad!’ But no one else agreed, and it is now firmly established as one of the most rewarding works of its kind in the twentieth-century repertoire.
‘À la mémoire de Jehan Alain, mort pour la France’: Duruflé premiered his Prélude et Fugue in the Palais de Chaillot on Boxing Day 1942, constructing his memorial from a musical version of Alain’s name (ADAAF), which he devised by extending the letters of the alphabet to form a second series of notes corresponding to the conventional scale. The rapid triplet movement of the Prelude recalls the Veni Creator Prelude, but the textures here are much less complicated. The melody that sings out on top is a gently distorted version of the theme of Alain’s most famous organ work, Litanies, and the connection is confirmed in the Prelude’s moving epilogue, where the two tunes are heard side by side. The double Fugue begins with the exposition of a new lyrical theme derived from the Alain motif; the introduction of a more lively second subject brightens the mood, and the music gradually builds in a great crescendo to a heroic conclusion.
The little Méditation dates from around 1964, but it was not published until 2001. Duruflé used its haunting refrain again in the Agnus Dei of his Mass of 1966; in the organ piece it alternates with the improvisatory flights of a solo flute above luscious string chords. The other two short works from the 1960s were both written in response to specific commissions, and their harmonic language is much more restrained. The Prélude sur l’Introït de l’Épiphanie forms a postscript to Duruflé’s Four Gregorian Motets, and it was premiered at the same concert in Paris in May 1961; soft sparkling mixtures and a pungent solo trumpet celebrate the arrival on earth of the King of Heaven: ‘Behold, the Lord our Ruler comes …’ The Fugue sur le thème du Carillon des Heures de la Cathédrale de Soissons was commissioned by the Cathedral Organist, Canon Henri Doyen, in 1962, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of Louis Vierne. Devastated in 2017 by Storm Egon, which blew in the cathedral’s west window, the Gonzalez organ at Soissons (1956) was one of Duruflé’s favourite instruments, and he much preferred it to his own organ in Paris. This very free ‘Fugue’ (opening in two voices over a pedal-point) is almost exclusively modal. But Duruflé always had the gift of drawing the maximum impact from these self-imposed limitations, and the music packs a real emotional punch as it builds to a thrilling toccata-style climax.
David Gammie © 2021