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Maurice Duruflé, 1902-1986: The Last Impressionist
Ronald Ebrecht (editor)
Scarecrow Press
$55.00 Cloth 0-8108-4351-X June 2002 248pp £42

 

 

Published to mark the centenary of his birth in 2002 Ronald Ebrecht has selected a wide-ranging tribute to Maurice Duruflé who is fully deserving of biographical and analytical study. This volume goes some way to examining his importance and place in French musical life from his student years under Tournemire, Vierne and Dukas to the international touring he undertook with his wife, Marie-Madeleine, so cruelly curtailed by a horrific car accident that increasingly crippled him.

Though the majority of contributors are American , perhaps inevitably it’sMarie-Claire Alain and Eliane Chevalier who most poignantly and acutely point to the complexities and ambivalences of Duruflé’s personality – who point, indeed, to the timidity and warmth that lay at his heart as a man, the veneer of which was composed of a kind of cloistered distance. Product of successive choir schools and provincial and Parisian organ lofts he studied with the mightiest of the mighty though always denied, as has sometimes been alleged, that he was a student of Widor. He did however certainly deputise for Dupré’s organ classes around 1943, by which time he was into middle age. The trouble with Duruflé, if trouble it is, is what one contributor characterises as his "minuscule output." Given that he came to hate his Greatest Hit, the Toccata, and that his other well-known composition, the Requiem, has been so haughtily dismissed in some powerful quarters it’s a wonder that he composed at all. Written after his father’s death and his first post-War work, the Requiem was written off as "weak" by Nadia Boulanger and though Dupré, showing better taste, admired the Requiem, it was inevitably the case that Duruflé was increasingly seen as too old-fashioned for the Lions of Modernism, who found his Debussyian-Fauréan heritage too old hat for their liking.

And yet it was Duruflé, the organist, who premiered Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and who, as an executant, left impressive memorials of his art (in the Fauré Requiem, in Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony amongst others – it’s a pity there’s no discography in this festschrift; it’s badly needed). He attracted a wealth of young talent to his classes and increasingly gave far-flung tours as a soloist, not least to American Universities. It was only the 1975 crash that curtailed his involvement – a role increasingly taken by his exceptionally gifted wife, whose interpretations of his work were different from his own but equally powerful.

There is just appreciation here of his essentially traditional approach to composition. Though he was certainly no innovator he is not the comfortably quiescent composer some see him; we see, convincingly, how restless and alive his harmonies are, how, whilst following the dictates of the text, he nevertheless manages to construct long phrases of multi-sectional complexity. And awareness of his organ compositions shows how attuned one needs to be in understanding the tonal resources of the French romantic organ as well as the importance of the electric action that superseded the manual in Duruflé’s lifetime. One might also want to consider tempi in the light of the suggestion made in Ebrecht’s own chapter that tempos were slower in certain acoustics; also that when the composer played his own works they were slower than the published, revised tempi. Of interest, additionally, is Duruflé’s late embrace of a stripped down neo-classicism and the way in which, cleverly and with minimal adjustment, he converted his earlier late Impressionist style to a more modern one (even in the case of works which he subsequently revised). The fact that both these styles were already old fashioned when he employed them shouldn’t really be of concern – they were what suited him.

There are of course some typos and other mistakes; it was Arthur Rubinstein who lived in Paris and so electrified audiences with his Chopin not Anton Rubinstein (spelt here Rubenstein). Ford Madox Ford wasn’t an American – he was British. And when Mme Duruflé is quoted as saying on page 45 that "My usband says that I play too fast, but I can, and I love to" I hope this is a case of a dropped H and not Franglais. I would also point to the fact that the documentation of his life before around 1963 is rather sparse and, as I said earlier, a discography should have been appended to join the useful organ specifications and bibliography.

Otherwise this is a well-produced, thoughtful and illuminating festschrift whose value is significant in one’s perceptions of this still undervalued and "timid" traditionalist.

Jonathan Woolf

 

 



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