Wednesday, July 15, 2009

“Mystical Radiance” – Duruflé and Gregorian Chant

Much has been written about the complex character of French organist, composer, and teacher Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986), who is typically described as dark, brooding, retiring, filled with self-doubt, and even unhappy. Yet much of Duruflé’s music, particularly his choral writing, shimmers with light and optimism, and moves us utterly with its transcendent piety. Duruflé, though outwardly reticent and often reclusive, was a man of buoyant Christian faith, a belief that supported and infused all his creative works.

Duruflé showed early musical talent, and at the age of ten (1912) entered the Choir School of nearby Rouen Cathedral (left, in the 1890s) where, as a member of the Cathedral choir, he participated in the daily chanted liturgies, absorbing the contours, modes, and atmosphere of Gregorian chant. “A great page opened before me,” Duruflé said years later, reflecting on the revelations and inspirations of his experiences in Rouen, particularly the Gregorian chants sung in the Solesmes style, which he described as “…this marvelous Gregorian chant with all its suppleness, its flight, its mystical radiance.”
Most of Duruflé’s compositions are connected to the church, being settings of sacred texts or organ works based on Gregorian chants, always his most important musical and spiritual inspiration. During Duruflé’s formative years, Gregorian chant and the choir school tradition were enjoying a resurrection in the French church, after having been cast aside, along with other elements of Catholic ecclesiastical tradition, during the secularization of French society that followed the French Revolution more than a century earlier. By the middle of the 19th century, interest in sacred music, particularly in the lost art of liturgical chants, had quickened. At the center of this revival were the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Solesmes, whose scholarly works on the history and performance of Gregorian chant inspired the re-establishment of choir schools across France. It was the monks of Solesmes who compiled the Liber Usualis, the 1900-page chant collection that was first published in 1896 and is still used by most monasteries, and many churches, to this day. The first page of the Requiem chant is shown here:
Duruflé’s use of chant in his compositions is original, distinctive, and inspired; he retains the grace, suppleness, and melodies of the original chants even as he draws from their tunes and contours the material from which he builds intricate polyphony and colorful, though subtle, modal harmonies. The best example of Duruflé’s chant-based choral music is his remarkable Requiem.


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