Maurice Duruflé

1902 1986

Maurice Duruflé

Composer • Organ


Maurice Duruflé was a 20th century French composer and organist whose works, while limited in number, offer a distinctive voice among French composers of his time. Duruflé’s output is limited to about 30 compositions and some transcriptions. He enjoyed a very successful career as an organist.

Duruflé was born in Louviers, France in 1902. His early musical education began in 1912 at a choir school in Rouen (1912-18).  During his studies he learned organ and composition and had the opportunity to deputize for his teacher, Jules Haeling, at the cathedral. The majority of the music he heard as a young boy was of the plainsong tradition, which greatly influenced him throughout his life.

After hearing Duruflé’s talented playing, Maurice Emmanuel arranged for him to meet Tournemire in Paris. At the age of 17, Duruflé moved to Paris where he studied with Tournemire, who prepared him to enter the Paris Conservatory. After entering the conservatory in 1920, he also studied with Guilmant and Vierne. With Tournemire, Duruflé had the opportunity to act as deputy at St Clotilde from 1920 to 1927.

Although Tournemire and Vierne were very different musicians, Duruflé was able to learn techniques and styles from both of them. Evidence of Tournemire’s influence can be seen in Duruflé’s use of plainsong, and ambiguous tonal harmonies. From Vierne, he learned about structure and proportion, and gained insight into the organ’s great capabilities.

During his studies at the Paris Conservatory, Duruflé was an excellent student. He earned 5premier prix in five different subjects: organ, harmony, fugue, accompaniment, and composition. He received the awards under Gigout, Caussade, Estyle, and Dukas, respectively.

In 1927, after leaving his deputy position at St Clotilde, Duruflé became deputy to Vierne at Notre-Dame. Vierne had hoped that Duruflé would succeed him as organist there, but after only three years he was appointed organist at St Etienne-du-Mont, where he remained until he was physically no longer able to perform.

In 1942 Duruflé became active in teaching, acting as an assistant for the organ class of Dupré at the Paris Conservatory. From 1943 to 1970, he was employed as the professor of harmony.

As a performer, Duruflé premiered Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto in G minor, in which he offered suggestions to Poulenc regarding the organ registrations. Duruflé toured extensively, performing in Europe, USA, and the USSR. He also recorded actively, and appears on a number of recordings for organ music. He recorded music by composers such asBach, Buxtehude, Fauré, Franck, Handel, Honegger, Messiaen, Poulenc, and Saint-Saëns; he also recorded his own works.

Duruflé’s output as a composer is very limited. He composed just 20 works, though he also transcribed various works from other composers. Duruflé’s limited output can be explained by his self-critical and perfectionistic nature. He spent much time writing, re-working, and revising the same pieces; for this reason, his works are all of an even and high quality. Throughout his compositions, plainsong plays an important role. His use of the plainsong is very liberating in combination with his modal melodies and polyphonic structures. The combination of these techniques allows for music of varying moods, from ethereal to foreboding.

The Scherzo (1924), dedicated to Tournemire, was Duruflé’s first published work. As is expected in his works, it underwent numerous revisions and was even orchestrated in 1940. A piece dedicated to Vierne,Prélude, adagio et choral varié sur le ‘Veni Creator’  (1930), won a prize from the Amis de l’Orgye. Though plainsong also plays a role in this work, the theme is not revealed fully until the end. This work is the first of his three major organ works. It opens with the flute and reed stops trading off the theme, in an elaborate, yet contorted manner. The last part consists of four variations in which “the music winds up to a glorious climax.” The plainsong theme is finally revealed in full after the climax.

Prélude et fugue sur le nom d'Alain (1942) for organ is a homage to friend and colleague, Jehan Alain, who was killed in World War II. The work is not based on plainsong, but instead on a set of pitches derived from the letters of Alain’s name. The composition also quotesLitanies, Alain’s most popular work.

One of Duruflé’s few orchestral works is Trois dances (1932), which demonstrates his ability to orchestrate colorfully. This piece was greatly influenced by his studies with Dukas. Clearly one of his favorite works, Duruflé also transcribed this work for piano solo, piano for 4 hands, and for two pianos.

One of Duruflé’s greatest and most well-known works is his Requiem for soloists, choir, organ, and orchestra (1947); it is comparable to that of Fauré. The work is colourfully orchestrated and features a subtle use of plainsong. It was also in this year that Marie-Madeleine Chevalier became his assistant at St Etienne-du-Mont. They married in 1953 and formed a successful organ duo, touring throughout the 1960s and early 70s.

Also notable is Duruflé’s Messe Cum Jubilo, Op. 11 for baritone solo, male choir, and orchestra (1966; Version with Organ, 1967; Version with Orchestra, 1970; Version with small Orchestra, 1972). As can be seen, this work also went through many revisions and orchestrations. This work is based on Gregorian chant and successfully shows Duruflé’s spiritual quest in his music.

Duruflé’s total output includes 10 organ solos, of which three are unpublished and one chamber music work,Prélude, Récitatif et Variations, Op. 3 for flute, viola, and piano (1928). In addition he wrote two works for piano solo, four choral works, and two miscellaneous works that remained unpublished. Also included in his output are his piano transcriptions ofTrois dances.

In 1975, Duruflé and his wife were involved in a car accident and suffered injuries; his were severe and prevented him from ever performing again. His wife took over his work as organist at St Etienne-du-Mont. It appears that in his final years, Duruflé was not actively composing any new works. Maurice Duruflé died in 1986 in Paris.

According to Duruflé's biographer, James E. Frazier: "One cannot deny that Duruflé's improvisations and compositions had their source and their summit in a climate of belief." InMaurice Duruflé: The Man and his Music, Frazier also opined that "The pursuit of the beautiful was, for [Duruflé], a gesture of the soul, not merely a function or an exercise of musical giftedness, or even of liturgical necessity."

Header image courtesy of Schola Davidica Other images courtesy of and public domain