Thursday, July 23, 2009

In Defense of Duruflé

Much has been written about the complex character of French organist, composer, and teacher Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986), who is typically described as brooding, retiring, filled with doubt, and often unhappy. Yet much of Duruflé’s music, particularly his choral writing, shimmers with light and optimism, and moves us utterly with its transcendent piety.

What must we know about this man in order to reconcile these contradictory images? How are we to reconcile what most program annotators tell us about Duruflé with what we hear in his music?

Of course, we must be informed about many aspects of Duruflé’s life: his education and training; his teachers and their influences; the music of his contemporaries and colleagues; the remarkable innovations in pipe organ technology; his spirituality and his career as a church musician; his personal life and relationships; and even the fantastic Gothic architecture of the ecclesiastical buildings where his musical self developed and took flight.

Though all these influences, colors, and styles come together in Duruflé’s music, his creations are wholly original, never derivative or contrived. Program annotators typically refer to his music as conservative, restrained, or refined, but these imply limitations and diminutions which simply do not exist. Perhaps rarified or distilled might be better words to describe the ethereal transparency of Duruflé’s music. This is not to imply that it is “light” (as in “lite”) or insubstantial; on the contrary, these are superbly modeled works which display complete mastery of the composer’s craft. The “restraint” commonly cited might rather be understood to mean Duruflé’s conscious choice to use smaller forms over post-Romantic excesses (e.g., Richard Strauss or pre-serial Schönberg) and a deliberate decision to eschew the atonalities and newer structural methods of the serialists and other avant-garde composers. Duruflé was certainly not alone in his instinct toward the ancient; Stravinsky, Respighi, and other contemporaries also felt the call, and responded with masterpieces of their own.

Duruflé was an intensely private man, and even at the height of his career, when he might have easily attained even more fame, he was apparently content to teach and compose in Paris, and to serve the music ministry at St. Étienne-du-Mont. In our present day, when “celebrities” seem ever-present and ever-seeking of more “celebrity,” the idea that a “celebrity” like Duruflé (for such he was) would choose to live a private, quiet life is almost impossible to grasp. Thus it is that program annotators and others perpetuate their assessment that he was reclusive, cold, aloof, and even gloomy. But his friends, students, and close associates recall him warmly as a funny, generous, witty man who enjoyed a good joke and who cared deeply for those close to him. He was, by all accounts, a truly humble man who for all his self-criticism, recognized his accomplishments fully but felt no need to trumpet them publicly.

In any case, Duruflé’s music – graceful, uplifted and uplifting, and achingly beautiful – speaks for itself, and for him, and that’s all we need to know.

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