Who is Maurice Duruflé?

Maurice Duruflé

Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986) was a French composer and organist. He received his early musical education (1912–18) at a choir school in Rouen, where he deputised at the cathedral for his teacher Jules Haelling, a pupil of Guilmant. The choral plainsong tradition which thrived there became a profound influence. Maurice Emmanuel heard him play and arranged for him to go to Paris and meet Tournemire who prepared him for entry to the Conservatoire. Duruflé became his deputy at St Clotilde in 1920 but turned to Vierne as a teacher. The entirely contrasting musical temperaments and inspirations of these two composers can be traced in Duruflé’s compositions. (He was later to transcribe a number of their recorded improvisations.) From Tournemire he inherited the mystical world of plainsong and the rich ambiguities of modal harmony. From Vierne came a more rigorous sense of structure and proportion and an awareness of the breadth of the organ’s capabilities.

In 1920 he entered the Conservatoire and achieved outstanding success, winning premier prix in five classes: organ with Gigout (1922), harmony with Jean Gallon (1924), fugue with Caussade (1924), accompaniment with Estyle (1926) and composition with Dukas (1928). In 1927 he became deputy to Vierne at Notre-Dame; Vierne spoke highly of his talents and reputedly expressed the hope that he would succeed him there. But it was to the post of organist at St Etienne-du-Mont that Duruflé was appointed in 1930 and he was to remain there for the rest of his life. In 1942 he deputised for Dupré as professor of the organ class at the Paris Conservatoire and from 1943 to 1970 he held the post of professor of harmony there, counting among his pupils Cochereau, Guillou and Marie-Claire Alain. As an organist he toured Europe, the USA and the USSR.

Introspective and enormously self-critical, Duruflé was not a prolific composer. His output nonetheless manifests an evenness of quality and a distinctive voice in the 20th-century French repertory. Plainsong is the life-blood of most of his works but its use proves liberating rather than restrictive, inspiring modal harmonies, polyphonic structures and, often, changes of mood ranging from the ethereal to the powerfully foreboding.

His first published work, the Scherzo (1924) is dedicated to Tournemire. Like many of Duruflé’s works, it underwent several revisions, including a colourful orchestration in 1940. Prélude, adagio et choral varié sur le ‘Veni Creator’ is dedicated to Vierne and won a prize from the Amis de l’Orgue in 1930. Rather in the manner of an organ improvisation, the Veni Creator plainsong theme is not revealed fully until the end of the Adagio. The highly varied Suite opens with a mystical, brooding Prelude and ends with a dazzling Toccata, one of his most memorable pieces of organ writing. As a secular orchestral work, Trois danses is an all too rare example of his exotic, masterly use of instrumental colours, a legacy of his studies with Dukas. Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain is based not on plainsong but on a pitch cell which enciphers the letters of Alain’s name: the lucid, defiant fugue is an enduring memorial to a promising contemporary, killed in action in World War II.

The Requiem, composed in 1947, has rightfully earned its place as a masterpiece of the genre alongside that of Fauré. The rhythm and flow of plainsong is present under the surface of the music and is supplemented in the full orchestral version by colourful instrumentation which is never employed for mere theatrical effect. The vision of hope accompanies a sense of spiritual struggle: the firm counterpoint of the Kyrie gives way to an anguished Domine Jesu Christe and the poignant Pie Jesu evokes not doubt, but the composer’s empathy with suffering humanity. The Mass ‘Cum jubilo’ is a work of greater restraint, more overtly based on Gregorian chant, which again becomes an effective vehicle for the composer’s spiritual vision.

Nicholas Kaye. “Duruflé, Maurice.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press

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