Maurice Duruflé

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Maybe you’ve heard about FOMO—Fear of Missing Out. It’s a disease I know, having caught it once or twice over the years. I was the first kid on my block to own a Bob Dylan LP (Freewheelin’, 1963), also the first to possess Miles Davis’s now-semi-classic Someday My Prince Will Come. It was fun to be first.

Now it may be time to coin another useful acronym, JOMO. That would be Joy of Missing Out, which has multiple uses. When you feel the urge to pull those covers up, assume the fetal position, and keep TV, radio, smartphone, and social-media purveyors far, far away, JOMO affirms that. It’s okay to stay alive by ignoring all the Crazy for a while.

JOMO can also reference your joy upon discovering semi-old (or really old) stuff that everyone else already knows. Technically that’s JOFO, Joy of Finding Out. But it’s almost always preceded by JOMO or simply MO. An example: until I was ushered into a certain mastering suite a couple of months ago, I had no idea that Joni Mitchell had once done an album with strings and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock et al. in multichannel high-res sound. Once I heard a track or two, I was blown away. Also deeply embarrassed by my ignorance, but not forever. That’s how JOFO works. First your FOMO has to prove inadequate to its task, which (believe me) it will. Then, if you’re lucky, JOFO will lead you to an epiphany, which is this: your initial MO was a good thing. You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Back at the turn of the century, I wasn’t keeping up with Joni. In those days I listened to music mainly to find just the right 13th-century motet to study with my history students. That’s how I missed out on Both Sides Now. Fast forward: recently I was asked to write program notes for a performance of Maurice Duruflé’s great Requiem. I certainly knew of its existence. I had always meant to study it. Now I had no choice, so I got a score and James Frazier’s excellent Duruflé biography. I did the typical academic total-immersion thing. Here’s some of what I learned:

Celebrated French organist Maurice Duruflé (1902–86) was not a prolific composer. Intensely self-critical, he published only a handful of works during his lifetime, revising them repeatedly over the years. Even the 1947 Requiem, by far his most famous work, never fully met his own high standards. He wrote it during the Occupation years; historically it reflects the privation and sadness of that time. Stylistically, the Duruflé Requiem rests on dual foundations: Gregorian chant (plainsong), which has modal scales, graceful melodies, and liturgical roots; and on the other hand Ravel and Debussy, whose expanded harmonic language and sumptuously voiced textures make overt appeals to the senses. Between these poles, the composer found a middle path. His Impressionist textures actually encourage an aura of serenity, while the plainsong, enhanced by counterpoint and coloration, takes on a surprising sensuality. Who knew that could happen?

Central to Duruflé’s reconciliation of opposites was arabesque, the “capricious and sinuous line” Debussy found in plainsong, in Bach, even in Javanese gamelan. Every movement of this Requiem is based on its corresponding liturgical chant. (For what follows, you may find it handy to open a window with texts/translations.) Here’s how the opening “Requiem aeternam” sounds:

In Duruflé’s music, direct chant quotation is obvious from the beginning, which the chorus intones in the manner of a priestly celebrant. You’ll hear the choir men enter with the same tune as in the clip above. You’ll also hear the way Duruflé modifies or abandons that chant melody in the vocal lines, once the opening text is repeated. (A version of the chant continues in the orchestra.) In this way the composer achieves an expressive unfolding of the music while acknowledging its origins in church ritual.

In the “Kyrie,” Duruflé first treats chant phrases as in a Bach chorale prelude, offering imitative choral snippets before the orchestra repeats the melody in long notes. The succeeding, more freely treated “Christe” prepares the triumphant return of the “Kyrie” (marked sempre ff and emphasizing this chant’s long falling lines). Okay, let’s hear that chunk:

Unlike the pure, arabesque-y Gregorian chant it’s based on, this music goes somewhere. Not only that, it eventually gets there. That prompted Frazier to analyze it as “processional drive” with “a sense of destiny.” Throughout the Requiem, Duruflé uses the idea of procession to address human anguish, terror, and hope while suggesting ultimate arrival in a new dimension, one beyond human understanding.

As his predecessor Fauré had done, Duruflé omits most of the “Dies irae.” Nevertheless his “Domine Jesu Christe” provides a measure of drama, beginning with the organ’s gloomy chant paraphrase and continuing with cries for deliverance from “the pains of hell” and “the bottomless pit.” Only with the entrance of St. Michael’s holy light does serene, simple chant return:

Duruflé then reawakens tension by introducing the “Hostias” with a chant-derived—but crucially altered—organ motive, its orientalist contour emphasizing those primeval “sacrifices and prayers” in the text. Here’s the original Gregorian chant:

Sacrifices and prayers of praise to Thee, O Lord, we offer. Do Thou receive them on behalf of those souls whom this day we commemorate.

And now the altered instrumental introduction, with its twisted melodic contour:

For the “Sanctus” Duruflé turns again to processional drive, this time engineering a monumental climax at “Hosanna in excelsis,” then a brief Benedictus. (You can listen to the whole movement at 14:58 in the YouTube video below.) His unusual but utterly graceful treatment of “sanc-tus” emphasizes the second syllable, precisely as in the Liber usualis.

After the “Sanctus,” Duruflé offers “Pie Jesu,” the final couplet of the “Dies irae.” Set for mezzo-soprano (as in Fauré) and solo cello, it becomes the emotional center of the work, its vocal line brought achingly alive by dissonances in the accompaniment.

A continuous flow of chant animates the “Lux aeterna” with grace and energy, setting the stage for “Libera me” and “In paradisum.” Once again the horrors of the End of Days appear. After a dark, wary introduction, Duruflé accelerates to the fiery climax, God’s judgment “per ignem.”

Yet soon enough, the sopranos reassuringly offer the “Requiem” plainsong, using melodic figures heard at the work’s very beginning. We have come full circle. That which follows is surely meant as music from another world. Now the choral sopranos intone “In paradisum” with the peaceful detachment known only to angels. Others join them. Much as it began, the movement ends with soft, unresolved chords that vanish into infinity.

Three performing versions exist: one with organ accompaniment, one with organ and chamber orchestra, and one with organ and a full orchestra. The organ is indispensable to any performance; Duruflé was a master organist who “registered” the orchestra in the same manner one might choose specific stops at the keyboard. Indeed, some of the instruments—especially the trumpets—sound rather like stops on the organ (which is not to say they sound wrong).


You can choose from many recordings of all three versions. I used the first-ever recording of the chamber-orchestra version, from conductor Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers (Hyperion CDA66191), which is quite good. Ann Murray was the mezzo-soprano soloist, and she does an outstanding job. In any recording, balances may be troublesome, partly because Duruflé emphasizes mid-bass sonorities via divisi violas and cellos and similar organ registration, and because in a typical recording venue, e.g., a large church interior, the choir may sing too gently to project over active instrumental figuration. Best and company manage this well. Their album also features an attractive filler, Duruflé’s Quatre Motets sur des Thèmes Gregoriens, which includes Ubi caritas, among the most beloved of all 20th-century choral works:

Recently I heard conductor Robin Ticciati’s large-orchestra reading with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Berlin Rundfunkchor, and soloist Magdalena Kožená (Linn CKD 623). It’s recommendable too; some people will prefer its unusual coupling with Debussy’s Nocturnes, since that provides an opportunity to compare Debussy’s language with Duruflé’s. Ticciati is alert to the nuance and drama in these scores, and his people deliver skilled, engaging performances.

Of organ-only accompaniments, my favorite remains that of organist Nancianne Parella, who had assisted fellow organist Marie-Madeleine Duruflé in 1971 performances of the Requiem when Madame Duruflé toured North America with her husband. Conductor Kent Tritle and the Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola shape a superbly expressive interpretation, to which soprano Kaaren Erickson contributed an exceptional “Pie Jesu.” I especially recommend this recording (MSR 1141) to those who prefer the sound of a full-throated American professional choir; really, it’s hard to beat.

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