Maurice Duruflé: A Man Out of Step with His Times

Although he was born in 1902 and died in 1986, Maurice Duruflé is not a typical 20th-century musician. Compared with other great composers of his day — Bernstein, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten — he seems strangely out of touch with his times, both in his music and his personality. Duruflé has been described by students, colleagues, and biographers as a reclusive and private person who seemed unusually unsure and timid given his fame. He lived in Paris during one its most chaotic and creative periods, and yet he had no interest in sharing in the salons of the literary and musical elite. Eschewing change, he was a conservative in a radical world. In 1969, for example, on hearing a jazz mass in one of the chapels at Saint Étienne, he expressed his outrage in a loud voice over what he considered to be a scandalous travesty!

Within the very tight personal and musical orbit in which he worked, Duruflé was a phenomenon. He composed a surprisingly small amount of music, working slowly and diligently with a focus on detail that required years of revision before a piece entered the public repertoire. He was recognized as the greatest organist of his day because he was a brilliant virtuoso player and because of his articles about and contributions to organ design. He was an outstanding teacher at the Paris Conservatory, with an unparalleled understanding of harmony and Gregorian chant, an ancient form that he helped restore to popularity. And of course his Requiem and a few organ works are unquestionable masterpieces, brilliantly cut and crafted gems that reach the heart with their purity and grace.

Despite his withdrawn and difficult personality, Duruflé was deeply loved by his wife and a few close friends. He is not the first composer who appeared to inhabit a world set apart from others, but in order to understand the man and his music, we need to consider what might have made this talented and creative person so estranged and alienated.

Duruflé was born and raised in Lou-viers, near Rouen, and he always felt himself to be of the provinces and not part of the Parisian hub where he lived most of his adult life. His father, a successful architect, had a passion for music, and to his delight, his young son would play from memory on his harmonium the chants and choral music he heard in mass. Like so many composers, young Maurice was a prodigy. He was given solfège and piano lessons from the age of five, and his mother, a pianist, would include him in recitals with her own students. But, as with so many families of prodigies, there inevitably comes the question: How do we educate our special child? The Duruflés made their choice by sending 10-year-old Maurice to be a boarding chorister at the school serving Rouen Cathedral, thereby providing him with the critical grounding in his development as an organist and as a master of Gregorian chant. All this, however, was achieved at substantial emotional cost.

(A personal aside at this point may be helpful. We recently sang at England’s Canterbury Cathedral as part of the Berkshire Choral Festival summer program. One of our teachers was a young and gifted musician just finishing his Ph.D. in music at Cambridge University. He spent an hour telling us about his childhood experiences as a boy chorister at a boarding school serving a cathedral in southern England whose medieval teaching methods were almost identical to those of the Rouen Cathedral school. He talked about the extreme emotional cost of this kind of early education and summarized those seven years of his life as a “virtual prison.” All that the first-year students were allowed to do was to stand at attention in perfect silence for hours at a time, turning the pages of the music scores for the older singing students. As this young man spoke about that period in his life, his usual good cheer changed into depression and his face became dark and distorted — a modern-day Dorian Gray!) Duruflé also described his early schooling experience, which lasted into his adolescence, as one of imprisonment. He went from a warmly supportive home into the rigorous discipline of the choir school. The boys’ daily activities — lasting 14 to 18 hours — were prayer, meals in silence, supervised recreation, piano and solfège classes, choral rehearsals for services, singing at services, nonmusical classes, and more choral rehearsals. Any number of restrictions peppered their activities. Maurice found his only joy in the choir and soloists rehearsals, where he sang works by Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Fauré, and other masters. It should not come as a surprise, then, that in all Duruflé’s life work as a church organist, he never trained a choir!

After Duruflé left Rouen, he returned home to become organist at Notre Dame de Louviers. His father arranged for him to travel to Paris twice a week for lessons with Tournemire, known for his chant-based improvisations at the organ. But Tournemire, whom Maurice loved and worshipped, was not fond of his student and pushed him out of his private lessons and into the Paris Conservatory. (We could speculate that this rejection reopened the childhood wound caused when his parents sent him away to be a student chorister at Rouen Cathedral.) Fortunately, at the conservatory he met his next teacher, Vierne, who at age 11 had had a similar experience of being separated from his family and sent to study with strangers. The two men remained friends for life.

As Duruflé turned 27, he began studying orchestral conducting. His subsequent career at the conservatory was stellar. He performed as organ soloist in orchestral and choral concerts and on recordings. He orchestrated and transcribed the works of other composers, served on committees, and judged exams and competitions. He won awards, prizes, and distinctions for piano, organ, improvisation, composition, harmony, and fugue and was named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest and most prestigious award. Yet even while the world of music held him in high esteem, he remained reclusive and withdrawn.

In 1953, at the age of 51, Duruflé married Marie-Madeleine, a student 19 years his junior. She brought to the relationship a joy in life he had sorely lacked. She helped him socially, artistically, and professionally. Their own careers joined as they played concerts together all over France, Europe, and the United States. She, too, composed and taught, but was best known for her virtuosity at the organ. (Duruflé claimed she was better than he was, and some listeners agreed.) She encouraged him to share his compositions with the public, and after his death she took it upon herself to promote his work internationally.

Maurice’s and Marie-Madeleine’s lives bridged the two world wars that devastated much of Europe. Even though he did not serve in the military, he must have been deeply affected by the physical and social carnage. In 1945, five months after Paris was liberated, Duruflé’s father died. This gave impulse to the composition of his greatest work, the Requiem, which was also his first work after the war. Published in 1948, it was dedicated to the memory of his father. The music is inspired by the Gregorian chants that Duruflé had helped to revive. All nine movements are based on the Missa de Difunctis (Mass of the Dead), which evokes memories of the disciplines learned by the choirboy prodigy. Though traditional in form and tone, the Requiem is also rich in nontraditional harmonies and colorful orchestration. The lucent beauty of this work surely reflects an emotional duet between the love in his marriage and his feelings of loss for his beloved parent.

In 1975 the Duruflés were involved in a terrible car accident, a head-on collision with an out-of-control car, and were severely injured. Maurice almost lost both his legs, and from then on until his death in 1986 he lived with pain so excruciating he would wake up at night screaming. Even before the accident, his health had not been good. He had constant back ailments, surgery on his foot, dizzy spells, and urinary infections often ascribed to hypochondria. It was most fortunate that he had chosen well when marrying Marie-Madeleine, for despite his childless marriage, constant ill health, and difficult personality, this gifted and fragile man was well loved and cared for the rest of his life.

— Arthur Colman and Pilar Montero

Reference: Maurice Duruflé, 1902-1986: The Last Impressionist. Edited by Ronald Elbrecht Kent. Scarecrow Press, England, 2002.