Maurice Duruflé

Born: 11 January 1902, in Louviers
Died: 16 June 1986, in Louveciennes

{Biography} {Requiem} {A Personal Note}


Duruflé was an organist as well as a composer, and his biography and his music are bound up with that identity, an especially important one given the significance of organists in French sacred music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Between the ages of 10 and 16 he was a student at the choir school of Rouen Cathedral.  Here he studied with organist Jules Haelling, who had been a pupil of Alexandre Guilmant (1837–1911), professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire and co-founder (with Vincent d’Indy and Charles Bordes) of the Schola Cantorum.  Duruflé also served as Haelling’s substitute, an early recognition of his ability. 

At Rouen, Duruflé was heard by composer and musicologist Maurice Emmanuel (1862–1938), leading to a trip to Paris to meet Charles Tournemaire (1870–1939), influential organist at Ste Clotilde and a composer as well.  In 1920 Duruflé became deputy to Tournemaire at Ste Clotilde and entered the Paris Conservatoire, eventually winning the premier prix in five classes, including organ (where he studied with Eugène Gigout) and composition (where Paul Dukas [1865–1935], of Sorcerer’s Apprentice fame, was his teacher).  He also studied with Louis Vierne (1870–1937), who held the most prestigious organ post in Paris, that of Notre Dame cathedral.  In 1927 Duruflé became his deputy there. 

Although Vierne hoped that Duruflé would succeed him at Notre Dame, the younger composer was appointed organist at St Etienne-du-Mont in 1930 and held that position until his death.  A brilliant recitalist, he toured internationally and premiered important works such as Poulenc’s Organ Concerto.  He briefly took over from Marcel Dupré as Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatoire in 1942, and was Professor of Harmony there from 1943 to 1970 (Marie-Claire Alain was one of his pupils).  An automobile accident in 1975 drastically curtailed his activity thereafter.


Severely self-critical, Duruflé composed very little.  His best-known organ works are his Prélude, adagio et choral varié sur le “Veni Creator” (op. 4) and his Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain, Op. 7, composed in memory of organist and contemporary Jehan Alain (1911–1940), killed in World War II.  The four motets of Op. 10 are also well-known, especially the lovely Ubi caritas (though Tota pulchra es, Tu es Petrus, and Tantum ergo are very nice as well).  But unquestionably he is most famous for his masterpiece, the Requiem (Op. 9). 

The Requiem draws heavily on plainchant, as do the motets and other Duruflé works.  But to understand what chant meant to Duruflé and his contemporaries, we need a short detour through French history. 

The French Revolution of 1789, and the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, brought an abrupt halt to a monarchy that could be traced back to Charlemagne in the eighth century.  But the monarchy was not the only target of the Revolution: aristocrats were fair game, as was anyone connected with the church.  In France, of course, this meant the Catholic Church.  If you’d like a musical demonstration of this, see Poulenc’s powerful Dialogue of the Carmelites, which concludes (spoiler alert) with the guillotining of all the Carmelite nuns. 

The First Republic brought on by the Revolution was followed by Napoleon and the First Empire, where the church fared only somewhat better.  Thanks to Napoleon, for example, even today a church marriage is not valid in France (or Belgium, for that matter); only a civic marriage is legal.  Napoleon wanted power in one institution only.

After Napoleon a limited monarchy was restored; this ended with the advent of the Second Republic in 1848 (a year of revolution across much of Europe), followed four years later by the Second Empire.  The disastrous defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 led to the Third Republic, which lasted until the Nazi occupation of France.  Thus, the nineteenth century saw France swing back and forth between conservative and progressive governments, with the significance of the church waxing and waning accordingly. 

During the restoration of the monarchy, one of the monasteries revived was that of the Benedictine community of Solesmes (pronounced so-LEM).  The abbot, Dom Prosper Guéranger, wanted to revive more than just the monastery, though.  His goal was to restore plainchant to its Gregorian roots.  The monks of Solesmes thus became leaders in a long-lasting international movement to bring chant back to its medieval form and medieval style of performance—or, to be blunt, what they thought that performing style might have been, since more than 1000 years had passed since plainchant was first written down and it had hardly remained static in the intervening period.

The restoration movement was controversial and it was not until the early 20th century that the Vatican gave its imprimatur to the work of Solesmes.  But its influence in France continued to grow, as did interest in all aspects of early music.  The Schola Cantorum, for example, was founded in 1894 specifically to support musical reform in the liturgy in the guise of chant and Palestrina-style polyphony; specialized chant journals appeared, and so on.  By the time Duruflé was in choir school and learning to play the organ, then, his teachers were well-versed in “new” (old) plainchant and the modal foundations of these melodies.  And this is the foundation for Duruflé’s style as well.

The Requiem, from 1947, began as a series of organ works based on chant, a genre common enough for organists at the time.  As a church organist, after all, Duruflé would have performed at many, many Requiem masses, and pieces drawing on the plainchant for these masses would have been very useful.  Then, when Duruflé’s publisher, the famous French firm of Durand, commissioned a choral work, the composer used the organ works as the foundation for the mass (which includes a part for organ even in its orchestral version). 

Although Duruflé denied it, his Requiem certainly seems as if it were modeled on Fauré’s famous counterpart.  Both eschew the “Dies irae”; both include a “Pie Jesu” (for soloist), “Libera me,” and “In paradisum”; both use a baritone soloist for the “Offertory” and “Libera me.”  Fauré uses a soprano for his “Pie Jesu” while Duruflé calls for a mezzo, and Duruflé inserts a “Lux aeterna”; otherwise the two are extremely similar in layout.  Duruflé, of course, writing seventy years after Fauré, uses chant throughout. 

The work has nine movements:

  1. Introit
  2. Kyrie
  3. Domine Jesu Christe (Offertory)
  4. Sanctus
  5. Pie Jesu
  6. Agnus Dei
  7. Lux aeterna (Communion)
  8. Libera me (Responsory)
  9. In paradisum (Antiphon)

If you have read the Verdi Requiem entry in The Choral Singer’s Companion, you know that the “Libera me” is part of the Absolution said over the coffin after the Requiem mass proper (a short history of the Requiem mass in general is found in the Mozart Requiem entry; a short history of the mass overall is found under Bach).  “In paradisum” is also not part of the mass, but is sung either as part of the Absolution or as the processional to the gravesite.  The text for the “Pie Jesu” is from the conclusion of the sequence “Dies irae,” but when set separately it serves as an elevation motet. 

Duruflé’s Requiem is suffused with its plainchant models, all drawn from the Liber usualis.  This book had been published by the monks of Solesmes in 1896 and was known in France as the Paroissien romain, the “Roman Parish Book.”  The Solesmes monks had been busy publishing modern versions of medieval chant books such as the Graduale, Antiphonale, and so on.  The Liber usualis (“book fit for use”; the “ordinary book”), though, does not have a specific medieval counterpart, but is rather a modern compilation of both texts and plainchant for the most common feasts of the liturgical year, intended for use in secular churches.  Secular church—doesn’t that sound like a contradiction in terms?  The expression is used to differentiate churches for “normal” people from monastic churches, which are for those who have taken monastic vows. 

The relevant chants for the mass are laced throughout the various movements, sometimes in the voices, sometimes in the instruments, sometimes clearly stated, sometimes embellished (the latter being standard practice for organists, for whom improvisation on a sacred melody was a standard professional expectation in their positions).  To cite just one straightforward example, the plainchant Introit for the Requiem mass (“Requiem aeternam”) begins with the pitches F F G (Re-) F (qui-) F (em) F G A (Ae-) A G G F G (ter-) G F (nam).  Now check out the Tenor and Bass octave melodic line that begins our work.  Well, look at that! 

Duruflé uses other devices to keep us in the mood of plainchant, and not just the frequent use of modal harmony.  Very often only a single voice part is singing, and plainchant was of course monophonic, a single vocal line.  This emphasis on the melodic line is sometimes underscored by sustained instrumental accompaniment (when the baritone solo enters after rehearsal 40, for example). Duruflé sometimes makes melodic lines sound even more chant-like.  At rehearsal 78 and 80, for example, we sing the Communion verse exclusively in syllabic text-setting on repeated notes.  The actual chant, though likewise syllabic with repeated notes, has at least some melodic interest through rising and falling pitches. Duruflé, though, has made our line even more “chant-like” than the original. 

Also evocative of chant is the free-flowing rhythm throughout (chant was likely performed in equal note values for much of the Middle Ages), captured by constant metrical shifts; see the “Lux aeterna” here.  Strangely, our wordless accompaniment for the soprano line here, and for that matter our “ah” singing in the Introit, always remind me of the “Lullaby” in Vaughan Williams’s Hodie.  I wonder whether he knew Duruflé’s work?  It is certainly one of the choral masterpieces of the twentieth century.

A Personal Note

I’ve sung the Duruflé once before, in a special Memoral Day service at the end of my junior year in college (organ accompaniment, no orchestra).  This concert was at the end of a rather busy time, as I sang in multiple choirs.  In March we had sung the Beethoven Ninth with the Pittsburgh Symphony, first in Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh and then in Carnegie Hall.  That was followed in April by Schubert’s Mass in G as part of the dedication ceremony of the new organ in Eisenhower Chapel.  A little later the same month we did Bach Cantata 4 and other pieces for the Penn State Singers’ spring concert, and then came a performance in May, again with the Pittsburgh Symphony, of the Brahms Requiem.  And then finally the Duruflé.  So whenever I think of this piece, I think of spring—the same kind of late gloomy spring that we have in Rochester, with the sadness that the end of the school year always brings for me.  The gentle melancholy and beauty of the work fit so well with the beauty of delayed spring chafing against the farewells to friends and classmates that are so soon to follow.  As it happened, my junior year was a miserable year in most ways, so I can look back in retrospect and see that the Duruflé was a Requiem as well for that unhappy time.  I’d never heard of the composer and I certainly didn’t know that magic sound world of plainchant and modality; entering into it was a gift and a lifeline.

April 2017