Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Book in Hand: Maurice Duruflé: The Man and His Music [re-post]

As soon as I learned that [a choral event in which I was to sing] was to be devoted entirely to the works of French composer Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986), I made a mental note: “Get a good biography of Duruflé.”

If you read this blog regularly, you know that my concert preparations include research and reading, in addition to musical study and practice. If I am also engaged to write the program notes, as I am to do for the Duruflé program, then I must learn enough to write fluently and authoritatively on the composer, his music, and his world.

Perhaps because my choral experience has been (until recently) mostly in early music, I didn’t know much about Duruflé or about the circumstances of his life, so I had a lot of ground to cover, and I needed a good, authoritative, comprehensive source. Sure, there’s plenty of material on the Internet, but much of it is recycled and not all of it is authoritative. I needed a scholarly biography.

After a little research, I found Maurice Duruflé: The Man and His Music by James E. Frazier (University of Rochester Press, ©2007). Mr. Frazier is organist and director of music at the Episcopal Church of Saint John the Evangelist in St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned degrees from the Hartt School of Music (University of Hartford), Yale University Divinity School, and Yale Institute of Sacred Music, all here in Connecticut, so I felt a sort of connection to him even before I began reading the book.

Here’s the summary of the book, from the publisher’s website:

Maurice Duruflé: The Man and His Music is a new biography of the great French organist and composer (1902-86), and the most comprehensive in any language. James E. Frazier traces Duruflé's musical training, his studies with Tournemire and Vierne, and his career as an organist, church musician, composer, recitalist, Conservatoire professor, and orchestral musician. Frazier also examines the career and contributions of Duruflé's wife, the formidable organist Marie-Madeleine Duruflé-Chevalier. Duruflé brought the church's unique language of plainsong into a compelling liaison with the secular harmonies of the modern French school (as typified by Debussy, Ravel, and Dukas) in works for his own instrument and in his widely loved masterpiece, the Requiem Op. 9 for soloists, chorus, organ, and orchestra. Drawing on the accounts of those who knew Duruflé personally as well as on Frazier's own detailed research, Maurice Duruflé offers a broad sketch of this modest and elusive man, widely recognized today for having created some of the greatest works in the organ repertory – and the masterful Requiem.

As I conducted research [in 2009] for program notes [for this event], I found myself referring to Frazier’s book again and again, finding it to be the best, and most balanced, of the many sources I had at hand and online. I appreciate his careful research and the plentiful notes, appendices, and citations. His balanced tone, respectful but objective, lends a quiet authority to his analysis of Duruflé's life and work.

As a program annotator, I am determined to resist drawing information from the tired, recycled program notes that are so readily available online. Too many annotators seem almost reflexive in their harvesting and regurgitation of material from other program annotators, without engaging in independent research to verify or refute the “facts” and analysis in the program essays from which they're cribbing. For example, it seems that almost every program note about Duruflé tells us that his music emulates that of his compatriot Gabriel Fauré; indeed, the assertion is so ubiquitous that it seems almost unassailable. But it is true? Frazier addresses this issue in an entire chapter devoted to a broad-perspective exploration of Duruflé’s musical inspirations and influences. His analysis of important primary documents indicates that Duruflé felt much more of an affinity with, and influence from, Maurice Ravel than from Fauré, and did not consider the latter composer to be a strong influence (p. 100).

I suppose it is the privilege of the authoritative biographer not only to document a life, but to analyze it, and to pass some judgment on the work and influence of his subject. Among the several “big” ideas that Frazier presents about Duruflé, one in particular – that the composer was profoundly sympathetic to, and influenced by, the “arabesque” element of late gothic and early Renaissance architecture, and that it may be discerned in much of his music – startled and delighted me. I had to read that section three or four times simply because it was so amazing. How could this “remarkable fact,” as Frazier describes it, have gone unnoticed for so long? In this chapter, Frazier kindly included illustrations of several buildings that Duruflé frequented that display this arabesque element, we may see for ourselves. I'll be listening differently from now on!

The design and layout of the book was generally pleasing, and the plentiful illustrations were a pleasure and an important aid to my understanding the architecture and scale of the various towns and buildings mentioned in the text. I would have like to see more photos of the composer at earlier ages, but perhaps there was difficulty obtaining permissions. The editing was sufficient to ensure a smooth read, but the layout of the 22-page index, where the hundreds of entries are arranged in paragraphs rather than lists, was ill-advised. The idea of topical, rather than chronological, chapters was brilliant, though; this feature makes the book very easy to use for focused research and helped make up for the challenges of using the index.

Now, if the editors had only chosen footnotes instead of endnotes, I'd be perfectly content. Since about half of the endnotes contained substantial information (as opposed to simple citations), I had to maintain two bookmarks so I could flip back and forth to find the extra information the the author (or his editor) had decided to relegate to the notes. But even the flip-flop strategy didn’t work. The endnote section, which is 57 pages long, is divided into sections headed only by chapter numbers, without descriptive chapter titles or referent page numbers to help the reader find the desired endnote. There are so many notes (and that's a good thing) that it was too tiresome to try flip-flip-flip. I finally gave up trying to read the endnotes, and I’m sure I missed some good information.

[material relating to the now-long-past concert has been deleted from this post]

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