I barely knew the name “Maurice Duruflé” when in my first year in the Choral Conducting program at Yale, it fell to me and my fellow singers to learn “the Duruflé Requiem”. A classmate was preparing it for performance at the annual All Souls’ Eucharist of The Episcopal Church at Yale, and we fellow conducting students were in the choir.
I don’t remember much about the rehearsals, or my response to the music, except that it was positive. The sonic image seared in my memory, however, is of the sole
mn entrance procession that first Sunday evening in November 1995. We musicians sang and played the Introit in the broad, rounded chancel in Battell Chapel, while the clergy, acolytes and thurifer processed down the aisle silently… except for the quiet metallic clank of the chain against the thurible, wafting its perfume into the vast Victorian space of the chapel. Every time I listen to the Introit, my memory adds the clink of chain against brass, as if its part had been written in the conductor’s score by Duruflé himself.
Moe vivid than my memory of preparation and performance are the people and things that mingled in my mind with Duruflé’s Requiem. When I listen to it, I think of Doug, the conductor, who would become and remains one of my dearest friends, and of all my other beloved friends, places and experiences from those fun and deeply formative years at Yale.
Maurice Duruflé was active as a musician and composer at just the right time to nurture this piece into existence. He was a devout Roman Catholic whose theological and æsthetic predilections coincided perfectly with a brief revival of medieval musical practice in the church in France before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council began to take effect in the 1960s. The Benedictines at Solesmes were extremely influential in a revival of the Church’s ancient repertoire of plainsong (AKA, Gregorian chant) in the early 20th century, and the modal harmonies suggested by those old melodies aligned with and inspired a rich language that became one (conservative) thread in the tapestry of French music. Duruflé, who had been a choirboy in the cathedral at Rouen, was steeped in church music. While a student at the Conservatoire, he studied
under Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor, both monumental figures in the history of French symphonic organ repertoire and church music in Paris, and eventually with Paul Dukas, his most influential mentor in composition. All of these influences coalesce in his music.
Like Dukas, Duruflé was extremely self-critical of his own compositions, extensively revised his work, and published very little: only 14 works in a long life (By comparison, Bach wrote well over a thousand, Mozart many hundreds.). Attracted to the plainsong melodies from the Roman Mass for the Dead, he began writing an organ suite based on them prior to 1941. When, in that year, he received a commission for a major work, he decided to expand the organ suite into the piece we hear today. The Requiem was completed in September 1947, and dedicated to the memory of his father, who had died in 1945.
Duruflé’s Requiem bears some similarity in structure and tenor to that of Gabriel Fauré, which we sang here a year ago. It, too, omits or plays down some of the more wrathful themes of the Mass for the Dead, and emphasizes comfort and hope. Like Fauré, Duruflé omits the Dies iræ, the movement for which Verdi famously wrote truly terrifying music, and includes the burial hymn “In paradisum”, depicting angels leading the soul of the deceased to heaven.
Where Duruflé’s music moves beyond Fauré’s is in its rich and nuanced melodies, harmonies and moods. Duruflé did not explicitly associate his Requiem with France’s sufferings in World War II, but one may hear within it the sorrow, fear and pathos resulting from years of occupation and oppression. Duruflé was also a different person from Fauré. You might remember that Fauré claimed to have written his Requiem “for the pleasure of it”. Duruflé—much more sober, pious, insecure—might simply have evoked himself in music, as surely Fauré had.
Duruflé’s music is like that of the French symphonists, with complex accompaniments and polyphony, reflecting his musical pedigree. Fauré’s music is much more of the salon. There are darkness and depth in the Duruflé Requiem, both less evident in Fauré’s. Duruflé’s moments of beauty and peace are similarly multifaceted. The concluding ”In paradisum” is ravishing because of a stunning combination of near static peace and complex harmony, suspended from an ancient melody of the Church. Fauré may have been the first to be called a “voluptuous Gregorianist”, but of the two, Duruflé is the much more worthy recipient of the “Gregorianist” mantle. If Fauré’s ”In paradisum” depicts heaven as a garden with dewdrops falling like crystals off sun-dappled leaves, Duruflé’s imagines a much less familiar paradise, not quite discernible through a morning mist.
My other association, inexplicable yet profound, of this magnificent and truly life-changing work, is with the death of my maternal grandmother, whom we called Nana, and who died only a few weeks after I sang the Requiem at that 1995 All Souls’ Mass. Nana had almost surely never heard of Duruflé nor of this work, and yet, every time I listen to, sing, or play the “Agnus Dei”, which we will sing at the Offertory today, I remember her. Not as she was that cool November evening, reduced by advanced Alzheimer’s Disease to a confused, dehydrated, murmuring stranger, a human vessel emptied of her soul and her understanding, but as the vivacious, social Italian American fashionista, who called me, alternately, “Chris” (one of very few people who ever did) and “Christian Clough”. The woman whose home was almost as much mine as was our own house; and where so many Sunday dinners, weeknight suppers, carefree overnights, and joyful holidays birthed my own understanding of family and hospitality. In the interlude after the altos’ first prayer, when the bass line makes its slow, haunting descent, and the violins and violas sing their first pleading melody, I see Amelia Piccolino Dowdall, hear her voice, and smell the aromas of another delicious and nourishing meal, to which we will soon be warmly welcomed.
“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant to them eternal rest.”
This is the power and sacred gift of music: to awaken mind and heart and soul to the blessings of joy and sorrow that embrace us in this brief and beautiful life, and perhaps to move us to offer thanks to God for them.
Chicago, Illinois; 27 October 2015
I consulted the following biography:
Frazier, James E. Maurice Duruflé: The Man and His Music. Rochester: U of Rochester P, 2007
in preparing this reflection.