Sunday, October 30, 2005

A Little Sermon About Maurice Duruflé

It is about Duruflé; it just takes me a while to get to him. I was waxing rhapsodic over a coupe Krispy Kremes the other morning while sitting out the sort in the crew cafeteria, and this is what came out. Sorry there are no pictures, but I spent all day yesterday driving cross country home.


My post earlier about Paris puts me in an impressionistic mood. When I hear "impressionism" I automatically think of painting. I'm not a very visual person, and my tastes in painting are, I'm very sure, absolutely pedestrian and inane. Hopper and all that. But if I'm in a museum I will invariably find myself stuck before whatever Monets or Manets or Renoirs or Seurats they have in their collection. Whether I understand it or not, there is a resonance to this era and style that grabs me. I get to Picasso and my brain just kinda shuts down.

I'm better at placing impressionism in a musical context, and this admittedly imprecise term serves as a rough blanket thrown over a key core of my musical interests. I recall about 20 years ago my discovery of Debussy, kinda like your lawn mower kicking up the Hope Diamond in your back yard. It was like getting a pass into a secret, impossibly cool world you had no idea existed. I remember this epiphany when, laying in the dark with headphones on, I consciously listened to his piano music. (Ravel, about whom Debussy said "He has the greatest ear in all of music," took me a bit longer but has moved to the top of the list for it. He'll get his own entry.) While Debussy sounds pretty mild to a 21st-Century ear, you can see that in the context of what came before him--Chopin, for example--he is like the discovery of a new color.

I remember listening to his Preludes and thinking about his harmonies, "Where the hell did that come from? How did you decide to make that choice?" It was like some of what I heard in jazz, but with all of Western concert music loosely in tow. But my real epiphany was that somehow it all made sense, in the same bedrock way that we unwittingly come to grasp (or at least accept) the inscrutable logic that lies beneath music generally. If you pay attention to it, it sounds daring and almost random at times; but like the best of any music, it also makes an internal sense, both asking the questions and giving the answers in due time to those patient enough to listen and scrutinize. And that seemed Debussy's genius, like Einstein's: he intuited that the world was really a certain way even though nothing in our observation should incline us to think so.

I'm led to think of all this as I listen to Maurice Duruflé's Op. 5 Suite for Organ, and it's actually this man, Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986), that I wanted to write about. He is the best instance I can think of--or at least my personal favorite--of Debussy's or Ravel's harmonies and aesthetics applied to my favorite instrument, the organ. (Louis Vierne is maybe the most recognized answer to this little test question.) But Duruflé's genius stands on its own, without reference to whatever group would have him as a member. I used to run a little cyber-shrine to Duruflé, back when there was no information about him to be found on the web. I had been a fan of Debussy for some years when a friend introduced me to Duruflé's music after I had whined about there being no Debussy pieces for organ.

Turns out, Duruflé would be easy to overlook. His total output will fit on two CDs, one for organ music and another for everything else. A self-effacing person, he resisted the spotlight and stayed for his whole career in the post of a modest church when his skills at the organ (which might, in an earlier time, have qualified as sorcery) could have secured him the most prestigious posts in Paris. He saw himself first and foremost as a teacher, teaching composition for years at the Paris Conservatoire; and blamed his meager compositional output on a paralyzing self-criticism overdeveloped from years of teaching the highest standards to others. Words, words, words; but an astute listener can tell a lot about him from his two CDs' worth. Each piece achieves technical perfection while being absolutely devoid of any decorativeness, and taps into something deep in the human psyche. This is the closest I get to mysticism.

I think one of the most intriguing things about his writing is his affinity for Gregorian chant (speaking of mysticism). I did not jump on the chant bandwagon when it rolled into town 15 years ago (and rolled out as quickly), with cheesy as-seen-on-TV compilation albums promising everything from better sleep to increased fertility. But Duruflé grew up in a deeply Catholic environment (before whatever the transformation was called where one of the Popes traded in the chant and Latin for local languages and ex-hippies with acoustic guitars), and his intensely musical mind was steeped in chant from an early age.

Chant is strange, spare, mystical music to our ears now. I've always tended to think of it as melody divorced from harmony, which is a mirror image of my own musical proclivities; but this harmonic sparseness was a perfect setting for Duruflé. During his schooling and after, he had acted as an assistant for Louis Vierne at Notre Dame and, perhaps more tellingly from a harmonic angle, for Charles Tournemire at St. Clotilde in Paris. (Tournemire, who is another interesting, shadowy study, had fantastic ideas of what could be considered passable within a nominally tonal piece of music.) These were both very much men of the age, and Duruflé took all this and applied his own strictures to it. And to my ear his harmonization of gregorian chant is the locus of Duruflé's genius. He took the most ancient music of his church, music which, along with Bach's harmonizing of old Lutheran melodies, arguably set the foundation for modern Western music, and sieved it through the filter of Tournemire's 1920 harmonies.

This all, in more capable hands than mine, ties into the fantastic aesthetic world of Paris around the turn of the last century. A world where Chopin had exited the stage, and the new upstarts were pushing envelopes at every turn. I think often of the fertility of that place and time, and it was to breathe that air that I made my little pilgrimage to Paris some years ago. I was able to walk silently around these churches--and in some cases, the organ lofts--where a small and artistically incestuous group of composers plied their trade over the past 100 years.

Like a well-made recording where you can, if you listen carefully, hear the very dimensions of the room in which the recording was made, a careful listening to the quiet profundity of Maurice Duruflé is like stealing a peek at some seminal bit of the 20th Century.

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