Duruflé Requiem and The French Century
Boulanger, Franck, Gounod, Langlais, and Poulenc
The first half of our concert is a collection of French pieces from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century.
We begin with a short work by Charles Gounod (1818-1893), best known as an opera composer – most notably for Faust. In 1871 France was engaged in a bitter war with the Prussian forces. Gounod was in England at the time, and was commissioned to compose a piece for the Universal Exposition in London. The result was Gallia, which he called a “motet lamentation.” Based on the biblical Lamenations of Jeremiah, the text depicts a nation under siege, which in 1871 was France. The word Gallia was an old Roman name for France. The finale of Gallia, “Jerusalem,” is a famous and beautiful movement for soprano solo and chorus. In it, Gounod implores his nation to return to God for redemption. One hears a mixture of influences here – operatic, religious and even patriotic.
Dextera Domine of César Franck (1822-1890) was also composed in 1871. It was one of three offertories composed for the church of Sainte Clothilde in Paris, where he was organist for many years. Franck is generally considered the most important French composer of the second half of the 19th century. And several of his symphonic, instrumental - and specifically his organ works - are bona fide masterpieces. Dextera Domine is the best of his simpler choral works. The beautiful melody of the piece depicts a more pious emotion than the Gounod work. We are using Leo Sowerby’s edition which adds an alto part to the soprano-tenor-bass original. Franck’s original version was composed in a practical vein: there were no altos in the choir at Sainte Clothilde. However, the alto adds a warm color and the organ stops you will hear are exactly as Franck indicated. On The Manton Memorial Organ, built by Pascal Quoirin of France, these timbres are marvelous.
Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) composed his Four Motets in 1960 (the latest work in our program). Each was based on a fragment of a Gregorian chant theme; and the Gregorian style was so imbued in his musical being that one cannot tell where the chant tune itself stops and Duruflé’s own melodic creation begins. Tu es Petrus (Thou art Peter) is the shortest of the motets at just under a minute. Its festive mood befits its liturgical use: ordinations of priests and any Papal ceremony.
Like Franck, Jean Langlais (1907-1991) was also organist at Sainte Clothilde in Paris. He succeeded Franck’s famous student Charles Tournemire. Langlais was blind, but had a major career as organist and composer. His compositions for organ and those for chorus have great color and élan. Composed in 1952, the Missa in simplicitate, or Mass in Simplicity, was so named as it was composed for a solo voice and organ, or chorus in unison and organ. The choral version allows the organist to use the specific, colorful French organ stops Langlais called for, balanced with the vocal line. The Sanctus and Benedictus are mystical and highly evocative.
With Poulenc’s Litanies of the Black Virgin of Notre Dame de Rocamadour we come to the great masterpiece of our concert’s first half. In 1936 Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was devastated by the sudden and tragic death of his close friend, the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, who was killed in an automobile accident. Poulenc was so overwhelmed that that he sought solace in the ancient church of Notre Dame of Rocamadour in Southern France, a famous destination of pilgrims for centuries which contained a statue of the Virgin Mary in black wood. Poulenc was raised in a religious family, but ignored it in his young adulthood. As he later wrote of this time of his life:
A few days earlier I'd just heard of the tragic death of my colleague ... As I meditated on the fragility of our human frame, I was drawn once more to the life of the spirit. Rocamadour had the effect of restoring me to the faith of my childhood. This sanctuary, undoubtedly the oldest in France ... had everything to captivate me ... The same evening of this visit to Rocamadour, I began my Litanies à la Vierge noire for female voices and organ. In that work I tried to get across the atmosphere of "peasant devotion" that had struck me so forcibly in that lofty chapel.
We close the first half of our concert with three works by a seldom-performed composer, Lili Boulanger (1893-1918). Born to a musical family which included her older sister, Nadia (perhaps the most famous music teacher of the 20th century), Lili began composing at an early age. In 1913 she won the coveted Prix de Rome for composition. This undisputed talent might well have developed into a truly great composer if it were not for her untimely death at the age of 24. Nevertheless the pieces she did compose reveal an amazing spirit and individuality. The Hymn to the Sun is an expansive, grandiose ode to the sun as it casts it rays upon the earth. The concluding Psalm 24 is a brilliant, almost raucous setting of the text, featuring the blazing French trompettes of the organ. In between, we have her Pie Jesu for soprano, organ and harp, a beautiful work, mystical and exotic. Its more impassioned middle section reflects an almost Wagnerian longing. But the work ends peacefully and calm, with a resolution that one most certainly does not experience in Duruflé’s magnificent setting of the same words, heard after intermission in his Requiem.
It was Easter Sunday, 1912, and young Maurice Duruflé and his father were traveling from their home town of Louviers to the great city of Rouen. It was the most exciting trip the ten year old boy had ever taken. One can almost imagine his eyes bulging as they arrived in that great metropolis and came upon the huge and ancient Gothic cathedral. What a day he must have had, getting the grand tour, including a visit to the boychoir school and a talk with its director.
But his excitement at all this was completely dashed at the end of the day when his father informed him that he wouldn’t be returning home, but, starting that very night, living there for the next several years! In Duruflé’s own words, “I needn’t say what was my reaction. That night in the dormitory I sobbed on my bed.”
Fortunately, the kind choirmaster of the Cathedral heard the boy crying, and raised his spirits by telling him of all the exciting things in store for him how he would get to study music all the time, be a part of all the great High Masses and ceremonies of the Cathedral, and one day play the organ. Duruflé said of this turning point in his life, “A great page opened in front of me.”
And what a page it was! His life for the next six years was centered on one of the glories of France, the Cathedral ofRouen. Built in the 1200s, the magnificent cathedral had attracted countless visitors down through the centuries. One famous visitor, Claude Monet, was painting his famous Rouen Cathedral paintings just eighteen years before Duruflé arrived.
Although life at the choir school was strict (up at 6:00 every morning, no heat in the dormitories, prayers at 6:30, studies and rehearsals all day) young Maurice was thrilled by all the musical activity and he was quite overwhelmed by the great liturgies of the Cathedral. His years there were to have an extraordinary influence on him, arguably the single strongest artistic influence of his life. For the world of the Gregorian chant - its melodies, modal harmonies, the rise and fall and supple contours of the lines, and the spiritual and mystical aesthetic - this special world remained at the core of his artistic soul for his entire career.
Every morning of the week the choirboys would study and rehearse the chants for the upcoming Sunday. There were evening rehearsals as well, when the boys would be joined by tenors and basses. On Sundays they sang at the High Mass in the morning and Vespers in the afternoon. At the end of the Vesper service was the liturgy of the Benediction of the Most Holy Sacrament, for which the Rouen townspeople packed their ancient cathedral week after week. Duruflé described the grand procession as follows: it was led by two Swiss men in specially-designed uniforms, followed by the boychoir, then fifty seminarians, dozens of canons and clergy of the cathedral, all dressed in white and grey ermine, and finally by a large velvet canopy under which processed the Archbishop carrying the Holy Sacrament. Directly in front of the canopy were eight thurifers - men carrying pots of incense which they waved regularly, creating great clouds of smoke. This was the kind of ceremony he lived with every week during this part of his life. And it is important to remember that the central musical component of this and all other liturgies was Gregorian chant. This influence was to become a part of his very being.
In 1918 World War I was over and it was time for Duruflé to move on. That meant Paris and its famed conservatory. So Duruflé, now sixteen years old, moved to Paris to study with the great Tournemire who would prepare him for his entrance examination.
Charles Tournemire and Louis Vierne were the two most important French organist-composers of the day. Both born the same year (1870), they were classmates in César Franck’s organ class. Duruflé was to study with both of them. First it was the impulsive, temperamental, brilliant Tournemire, organist at Saint Clothilde, where Franck had played. Particularly celebrated as an improviser, Tournemire would fill each week’s Mass with inspired improvisations that heightened the liturgical drama. Most of the improvisations were based on the Gregorian chants of the day. The impulsive emotion, the color, the mysticism and drama of the liturgy were the cornerstones of his art.
After a year of lessons, Tournemire felt Duruflé was ready for the conservatory and told him to go spread his wings and fly on his own.
Duruflé, ever humble and self-effacing, wanted more preparation, whereupon he began his studies with Louis Vierne. A total contrast to Tournemire, Vierne was a charming, cultivated man. And, instead of improvising personal, mystical statements at a parish church, Vierne presided over the Grand Organ of Notre Dame Cathedral, the most important post in France, where state occasions were commonplace. With Vierne, Duruflé learned impeccable structure and architecture, a far more rigorous and disciplined compositional style. It was Duruflé’s greatness that he was able to combine the exceptional imagination of Tournemire with the perfection of formal compositional techniques of Vierne into his own style, and ultimately surpassed his two masters.
When Duruflé finally auditioned for the Paris Conservatoire in 1920, he apparently impressed the jury so strongly that they predicted he would be a first-prize winner. In fact, he won five first-prizes - in organ, harmony, accompaniment, counterpoint and fugue, and composition. Duruflé was in the organ class of Gigout and in Paul Dukas’s class, where he learned much about orchestration and composition. (A classmate of his in Dukas’s class was the young Olivier Messiaen.) Duruflé’s student years in Paris came at the end of the Impressionists’ era. Most of the impressionist painters had died several years before, a few (Degas, Renoir, Monet) passed away around the time of his arrival in Paris. Claude Debussy, who was such a colossal influence on virtually all Twentieth Century French composers, died in 1918. The more classical, traditional music influence, Gabriel Fauré, retired as Director of the Paris Conservatory right as Duruflé entered.
During his student years Duruflé was named Assistant Organist to Tournemire at Ste. Clothilde and later to Vierne at Notre Dame. Upon graduation his career progressed brilliantly. He quickly became a popular concert organist and was appointed Titular Organist at St. Etienne-du-Mont in Paris, a post he held for the rest of his life. In addition, he became a highly-respected composer whose works were published by the prestigious firm, Durand, and were performed by major performers and ensembles.
In 1939 he gave the World Premiere of Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and advised Poulenc on the organ registrations. Duruflé’s recording of the work (with George Pretre conducting) is still the classic performance. During much of Duruflé’s career he played with orchestras, and was considered the orchestral organist par excellence.
In the 1940s he was named Professor of Harmony at the conservatory (“The best we ever had,” said Messiaen) and assisted Marcel Dupré with his organ class. It was in this organ class that he came to know a particularly attractive and brilliantly-gifted young organ student, Marie- Madeleine Chevalier. In 1953 they were married and she became co-titulaire at St. Etienne-du-Mont. He was twenty years older than she.
For many years the Duruflés toured widely, giving joint organ recitals. They were received everywhere with packed houses and exceptional enthusiasm from both professionals and the general public alike. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Duruflés were so highly regarded and in such great demand they could practically name where they would perform.
Then, tragically, in 1975, they were critically injured in a head-on auto collision in Southern France. Each of them underwent a long and painful series of operations. Mme. Duruflé eventually recovered enough to resume playing at church services - her first was Christmas Eve, 1976. During the next ten years, Maurice Duruflé seldom left his bed in their apartment, across the street from St. Etienne- du-Mont. He died in 1986.
This writer had the great opportunity to study organ with Mme. Duruflé during the winter of 1977, right after she had resumed playing in church. I attended every Mass she played and, week after week, heard some of the most extraordinary organ playing I have ever experienced. My lessons, long and incredibly inspiring, took place either at their church or at their small apartment, where they had a three-manual pipe organ. When I had lessons at the apartment, Mme. Duruflé would help her husband into the kitchen where he would listen to my lessons. Later she would pass on his comments.
In 1989, three years after her husband died, Mme. Duruflé made a triumphal return to concert life at a Duruflé festival I put on in New York City. (The New York Times referred to her as the Clara Schumann of the organ.) She then toured the United States twice, spent a six-month residency at North Texas State University, and played a stupendous recital here at Ascension in November, 1993. It was to be her final recital; for, shortly after her return to France, she underwent a shoulder operation which was not successful. Although she played in church for the next few years, she never returned to concert life. She passed away in 1999.
THE MUSIC OF MAURICE DURUFLÉ
Everyone who has come to love Duruflé’s music has, at one point or another, uttered the phrase, “Oh, I wish he had written more!” Indeed, is there any other major composer who has published only thirteen works? Of course, it is because the quality of each and every one of these pieces is so good that his place in music history is assured.
According to Mme. Duruflé, the reason he wrote so few works was a combination of his exceptionally self-critical personality (he kept re-writing and revising his works for years after they were completed) and his jobs which kept him very, very busy. (When they played joint organ recitals, she would play all the virtuoso pieces because he was too busy to practice much.) One wonders also if he was discouraged to continue composing since his style would be viewed progressively as “conservative.” For as the decades passed by and a multitude of more modern musical styles came and went, Duruflé continued to compose true to his own personal style, which just happened to be more representative of the first decades of the century than the mid and later ones.
It is wonderful to see in his music signs of the many musical influences of his formative years. He absorbed into his artistic being: the styles of Tournemire and Vierne; the elegant, Classical French school represented by Gabriel Fauré; the Impressionist school of Debussy, Ravel and others; and the world of the Church - the physical, spiritual, emotional ambiance of the buildings and the liturgies therein - and its music - the polyphonic Renaissance choral repertory, and, above all, the Gregorian chants. All these wonderful influences came together to form the musical style of Maurice Duruflé.
Duruflé’s complete works consist of six organ pieces, the Andante et Scherzo and Trois Danses for orchestra, a chamber piece, and four choral compositions: the Quatre Motets (two of these appear on our first recording, Mysteries Beyond, Delos 3138,) and the three works which appear on our Duruflé Album recording: Notre Père, Messe ‘cum jubilo,’ and the Requiem.
REQUIEM, Op. 9
Duruflé’s masterpiece, the Requiem, began as an unfinished organ suite based on the plainchants for the Mass for the Dead. Through the encouragement of Marcel Dupré and Durand publishers, he transformed it into his Requiem. Completed in 1947, it was dedicated to the memory of the composer’s father. Of the Requiem, Duruflé wrote, “This Requiem is entirely composed on the Gregorian themes of the Mass for the Dead. Sometimes the musical text was completely respected, the orchestral part intervening only to support or comment on it, sometimes I was simply inspired by it or left it completely, for example in certain developments suggested by the Latin text, notably in the Domine Jesu Christe, the Sanctus, and the Libera. As a general rule, I have above all sought to enter into the particular style of the Gregorian Themes.
“Therefore, I have done my best to reconcile, as far as possible, the Gregorian rhythms, that which has been fixed by the Benedictines of Solesmes, with the demands of modern meters. The strictness of barline structure, with its strong beats and weak beats returning at regular intervals, is in effect difficult to be compatible with the variety and suppleness of the Gregorian line where there is only a succession of impetus (rising) and falling. The strong beats had to lose their dominant character to take the same degree of intensity as the weak beats, in such a manner that the rhythmic Gregorian accent of the stressed Latin syllables could be placed freely on whichever beat of our modern meter.
“As to the musical form of each of the pieces composing this Requiem, it was generally inspired by the same form set forth by the liturgy. The organ has only an episodic role (in the original orchestration). It intervenes, not to support the choirs, but only to underline certain accents or momentarily to disguise the orchestral sonorities that sound too human. It representsthe idea of tranquility, faith, and hope.
“This Requiem is not an ethereal work which sings detached from worldly anxiety. It reflects, in the unchangeable form of the Christian prayer, the anguish of man facing the mystery of his last ending. It is often dramatic, or filled with resignation, or hope, or terror, like the same words of the scripture used in the liturgy. It tries to translate the human feeling in front of their terrifying; inexplicable or consoling destiny.
“This Mass consists of the nine parts of the Mass for the Dead: Introit, Kyrie, Domine Jesu Christe, Sanctus, Pie Jesu, Agnus Dei, Lux aeterna, Libera me, and finally, In Paradisum, the ultimate response of faith to all the questions, by the flight of the soul toward Paradise.”
Duruflé scored three different accompaniments of this work: 1) the original version for large orchestra, 2) a version for solo organ accompaniment, and 3) a second orchestral version (three trumpets, timpani, harp, strings, and a major organ part). It is this final version that we have chosen for this performance.
The Requiem begins with the gentle-running sixteenth notes of the violas and organ, which seem as if they have been flowing on for centuries. On top of this, one measure later, Duruflé gently places the ancient Gregorian melody - so familiar to the faithful, so comforting. Thus the timeless ritual begins, the procession of generations, those who passed away since the beginning of time and are now at peace, and those on earth or yet unborn who will one day join them.
This is one of the great openings in music. It is also a perfect example of Duruflé’s art at its best. To begin with, Duruflé was one of those rare composers who could express a lot with simple means. Here, with very little happening, and in the briefest time, he has evoked so much for us. These measures also show his trademark gift of combining the beautiful impressionist orchestral background with the ancient Gregorian chants. These two elements fuse together in a unity that is at once luxuriously beautiful in a worldly sense and utterly, profoundly spiritual. Duruflé portrays in his music a loving theology where one element does not negate the other.
The Gregorian melody unfolds, one phrase at a time, punctuated by the “ahs” of the women’s voices. The first real crescendo occurs on the words “luceat eis” (“and let perpetual light shine upon them!”).
A brief second section provides contrast. Here the chant is intoned first by sopranos, then altos, to a very simple organ accompaniment.
The running notes of the violas and organ return for the third section. This time the chant melody is given to the first and second violins, in canon, one note apart, as the choir comments: first, the tenors and sopranos with repeated “c” pedal points followed by a simple downward melody, then the full choir in harmony (for the first time) with a large crescendo, again on the words “let perpetual light shine on them!” The movement concludes quietly, as the running sixteenth notes slow down, little by little, and lead us straight to the next movement.
This movement represents perhaps the most inspired music Duruflé ever composed. It is written in the traditional three parts of a Kyrie. The first and third parts are composed in a style inspired by Renaissance contrapuntal motets. Duruflé had so absorbed the Renaissance idiom and had developed such a mastery at contrapuntal composition (independently-moving voice parts) that he was able to compose in this antique style with complete naturalness. And, rather than using Renaissance harmonies, he spoke with his own harmonic language, thus creating music that was both ancient and Twentieth Century.
The first section, begins most simply with just voices and organ. The Gregorian melody is heard in the bass and alto voice parts, with commentary melodies. sung by the sopranos and tenors. After all four parts are going, Duruflé superimposes the chant melody (played by trumpets) in “cantus firmus” style, one slow note at a time. In this and the similarly-composed third section, Duruflé follows in the line of other great composers who chose the most formal, rigid musical forms to express their most profound musical thoughts.
The middle section is freer, more personal, the sopranos’ and altos’ pleas for mercy are intertwined, accompanied by very expressive string writing.
Then, with great emotion, almost as if they can’t contain themselves, the women build up to the stunning re-entry of the basses and tenors. Then the sopranos and altos enter again and the entire orchestral ensemble, asthe whole community sings to God from the very depths of their souls, with all the emotions and feelings they can ever express. As this movement concludes in a profoundly touching, prayerful way, the listener is aware that he has experienced one of the great moments in music.
Domine Jesu Christe
The compositional formality of the Kyrie is contrasted by the freer, highly imaginative third movement. Intended for the Offertory of the Mass, it is by far the longest movement of the piece. It travels through such a variety of imaginative terrain that it is practically an epic journey in itself. Much of this movement is reminiscent of the impulsive, highly-charged, dramatic music of Tournemire.
It begins in a dark, mystical world, conjured-up, first, by the organ, and then by the deep tones of the bass and celli. The altos enter with a rich chant-like melody (“Deliver the souls of the faithful people.”). Suddenly the whole ensemble bursts forth, “Save them from the lion’s mouth!” What follows is one of the most dramatic sections of the whole work. As the chorus cries out that the souls of the departed be saved from the horrors of hell, the orchestra is heard in fast, jagged, flamboyant music. After a ferocious peak, the music subsides, and eventually comes upon a new world, ethereal, distant, mystical. Here the pure tones of the sopranos are cushioned on soft string chords. (The chords are off-beat and irregular, producing a nebulous effect.) A variety of delicate instrumental colors accent the section: an organ oboe stop, trumpet chords played with mutes on, a solitary flute note on the organ. The section is concluded by the comforting “Quam olim” of the sopranos and altos.
The next section is highly imaginative. It begins with the violas playing two notes pianissimo, with a very fast tremolo “près du chevalet.” Duruflé has asked them to move their bows back and forth as fast as possible in tiny little strokes at the spot where the viola strings meet the bridge. This produces an eerie, nervous effect. An organ stop is then heard, obscure, unsettling. The men enter, mysteriously, in unison. Suddenly, the entire string section opens up with a giant crescendo - all of them in a wild tremolo. The men soar up to the highest notes.
This, too, subsides, in a most misterioso manner. The section, and the whole movement, conclude with the comforting refrain of the women, “Quam olim Abrahae”.
After the dark mysteries of the third movement, the effervescence of this famous Sanctus is most appealing. Against the rippling organ ostinato the chant melody is heard in three part chords in the violins and violas and in the women’s voices. The bass and celli pizzicatti (plucked notes) add to the buoyancy. For this writer, this music has always conjured up the picture of a choir of angels singing - angels who have had a bit of champagne - like the famous sculpture, “The Smiling Angel,” on the façade of Reims Cathedral (in the capital of the Champagne district).
The Holy, Holy, Holies are sung three times: piano, mezzoforte, forte. Then the music quiets down and the celebrated build-up begins. Against a jazzy rhythmic background of plucked instruments and the rippling organ part, the first hushed Hosanna is sung by the altos. The sopranos enter, a bit higher but still pianissimo. The tenors can’t wait any longer. They charge in, mezzo-forte, in another key with a whole new accompaniment. Then the basses, second violins, and trumpets.Then the altos, timpani, harp, first violins, sopranos. Atrumpet fanfare. A gigantic crescendo. And, as the bass line plummets to the bottom, the rest of the ensemble explodes into the stratosphere in one of the most extraordinary climaxes in Twentieth Century music.
The happy angels conclude the movement as it began.
The Pie Jesu, which comes in the center of this Requiem, is the only solo movement of the work. Originally Duruflé had intended for a baritone soloist to sing the “Hostias” section of Movement III and a short passage (“Tremens factus sum ego”) in Movement VIII. Later, he decided that he preferred those passages sung by all the men in the choir. (This instruction, common knowledge now, was told to me by Mme. Duruflé. It also appears in the last printed copies of the score.) When the former baritone solos are taken by all the men, besides being preferable for those sections, it also reinforces the architectural position of the one solo movement, the Pie Jesu.
This is actually a solo for two musicians, a mezzo-soprano (or contralto) and a cello. (Some conductors have recently misunderstood Duruflé’s wishes in regard to the baritone solos, thinking he meant for the Pie Jesu to similarly be sung by all the altos of the chorus. This is most certainly not the case.)
The first time many people hear Duruflé’s Requiem, they are reminded of Fauré’s Requiem. Of course, the more they get to know the Duruflé, the less similar they appear. They are, in fact, completely different, and no more so than in their Pie Jesu’s. Fauré’s, written for soprano - and probably sung by a boy - is profound. But there is a purity, almost an innocence to it. Duruflé’s Pie Jesu, on the other hand, is the utterance of a mature person who has experienced the joys and sorrows of life. It is intense,very deeply felt, and very personal, perhaps the expression of a mother who has lost a child. There is deep sorrow and loss, but also consolation, as she knows the child is at peace. As the movement accelerates suddenly, she cries out with a mixture of deep grief and perhaps uncertainty at the fate of the loved one. Finally, there is resignation and ultimate belief in the peace.
The next two movements are the prayerful, meditative movements of this Requiem.
The Agnus Dei is testament to Duruflé’s gift of balance. After the stark intensity of the Pie Jesu, we are given here a most beautiful quietude. We have been through so many strong emotions thus far in the Requiem; we need now some moments of peace and quiet. He achieves this by slow instrumental themes that provide wonderful counterparts to the vocal chant melodies, by the soft undulations of the harp and organ, and by a slow harmonic rhythm (the rate of change of harmonies is slow). There are, periodically, entire measures where nothing occurs except one chord, gently undulating. We need these quiet moments.
Amidst this background, Duruflé presents the haunting Agnus Dei chant in various voices, in various keys, and sometimes accompanied by newly-composed string melodies of the most beautiful nature. Unlike many Agnus Dei’s that beg for mercy, this one is imbued with an inner serenity, luminous and loving.
The Lux Aeterna goes even further in the meditative vein. It is personal and intimate, incredibly understated, and deeply touching. It begins with a beautiful, simple organ solo followed by an a cappella (unaccompanied) choral section. The sopranos’ melody rests on top of chords sung on “oo” by the rest of the choir. Another organ solo follows, this time a bit higher. Then the choir again, a fifth higher, and with the soprano melody played in canon on the organ flute stop.
Then Duruflé’s master hand appears. Soft octave Cs appear in the strings, sustained for several measures, while the organ plays a chordal melody in an ancient fauxbourdon style and the sopranos and tenors intone, on a single note, the words “Give them rest and perpetual lighr.” With such simplicity he turns our personal, private meditation into a timeless, universal prayer.
The organ music appears again, more extended this final time, followed by a short abbreviation of the a cappella choral material. Then the timeless music reappears, now in a lower, more touching key for the altos and basses.
The Libera Me (“Deliver me from eternal death”) provides the last great dramatic moments of the Requiem. It begins with a surprising trumpet note, low and almost ugly (the “last trumpets” of the Judgment Day, no doubt.) The basses sing a plaintive melody, with an underpinning of urgency and uncertainty in the strings. The tenors enter, and the world is more anxious and confused. Next the altos and then the sopranos. The music becomes still more frantic and chaotic until it spews forth in a brief fortissimo.
A smoldering, swirling, agitated string undercurrent continues, while the men sing a rather desperate cry, “Tremens factus” (“I am trembling”). Sudden string attacks announce the Day of Wrath
(Dies Irae), at first sung only by the men, then by the whole chorus with the tutti of the orchestra rumbling underneath.
This music eventually calms down and we find ourselves in a new, ethereal world. Pure soprano tones sings the chant, “Requiem aeterna,” accompanied by the soft celeste stop (undulating strings) of the organ. After a brief orchestral interlude, the full chorus sings the principal Libera melody, in octaves, with great feeling. The movement concludes with seriousness and resignation.
As soon as we hear the first organ chord and gentle harp notes, we know we are in another world. We have left the turmoil of earthly life. In what may be the finest setting ever composed for this text, Duruflé has created an extraordinary world, luminous, universal, timeless.
The sopranos enter with the ancient chant, the chant that has been sung at requiem masses for centuries. At first their accompaniment is just organ and harp. Then a shimmering string halo appears. The final phrases of the chant are given to a flute stop on the instrument of the Church, the pipe organ. The chorus finishes the text in a ritualistic manner. As the voices fade away, lower and lower, the strings ascend, disappearing into the heavens. The centuries-old ritual is once again over, as the souls move on to their eternal Paradise.
- Dennis Keene