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Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986)
Complete Organ Works

Suite Op. 5 (1933) [20.45]
Chant Donné – Hommage à Jean Gallon (1949) [1.25]
Méditation (1964) [3.24]
Prélude sur l’introït de l’Épiphanie Op.13 (1961) [2.15]
Scherzo Op.2 (1926) [5.47]
Fugue sur le thème du Carillon des Heures de la Cathédrale de Soissons Op. 12 (1962) [2.59]
Prélude, Adagio et Choral varié sur le thème du ‘Veni Creator’ Op.4 (1930) [18.32]
Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain Op.7 (1942 [11.32]
Friedhlem Flamme, organist
Rec. Mühleisen Organ (2000) Stiftskirche Bad Gandersheim 23rd-25th October 2003 (Surround Sound)
CPO 777 042-2 [66.48]


I was first introduced to the music of Maurice Duruflé at an organ recital in Glasgow. It was 1976 and the organist, whose name now escapes me, finished off his recital with the Toccata from the Suite Op.5. I was suitably impressed. As a young twenty year old I was even more impressed with the beautiful young lady whom I met at the recital. She was from Sydney in Australia and was on a kind of walkabout in Europe. Cutting a long story short, I was delighted when she agreed to let me take her to see the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond the following day. After a day full of adventures, including a delicious meal at a farmhouse where we sought shelter in the pouring rain and where it turned out the farmer used to work for one of the young lady’s friends in New South Wales, we were sitting on a rock at Balmaha. We got to discussing the previous night’s recital and she told me how she had visited Duruflé and his wife at their home in Paris. She mentioned that when she had seen him he was actually quite ill. I now know that Duruflé had a serious car accident in 1975 which severely incapacitated him. She wondered how long he would survive. I could tell that she was genuinely attached to the composer and the thought of his impending death deeply troubled her. I recall, even as a young lad, thinking that he must have been quite a character to create this kind of loyalty and concern. My friend went back to New South Wales via the United States and in spite of a flurry of correspondence we lost touch. Yet I never lost my interest in the music of Duruflé. I explored his small repertoire in depth and discovered a delightful world of inventive, interesting and often passionate music.

A few brief biographical notes will be in order. Maurice Duruflé was born at Louviers, near Rouen on January 11th 1902. At the age of ten he was entered to the choir school at Rouen Cathedral where he studied piano, organ and theory. It was at this time that some key formative musical experiences were laid down. Gregorian chant, which was to become an essential feature of his work, was regularly used at mass in those pre-Vatican 2 days. After this education he moved to Paris where he studied with the great Louis Vierne. At this time he was assistant to the enigmatic Charles Tournemire at Saint-Clotilde. Further study with Ernest Gigout and Paul Dukas gave him an incredible technical background as both an organist and composer. As a result of this expertise, Duruflé was selected as organist of St. Etienne-du-Mont in Paris at the age of 28. During the war he was appointed to the staff of his old alma mater, the Paris Conservatory.

In 1953 he married Marie-Madeleine Chevalier, who was also a considerable musician. He gained a number of prestigious awards including the ‘Grand Prix du Disque’ for the recording of his Requiem on Erato. In the mid nineteen-sixties he embarked on two highly acclaimed tours of the United States. In 1975 he was involved in a serious car accident in the south of France; as a result of his injuries he lost the ability to play the organ. The choral work Notre Père was most probably his last composition. Maurice Duruflé died on 11th June 1986 – some twelve years later. When I read his obituary in the musical press I wondered if he had suffered much over the years. I hoped and prayed that was not the case. I wondered how my friend felt on hearing this news in Sydney. I was never to know.

Duruflé actually composed very little. I understand that he was extremely self critical and probably destroyed many pieces that he was not totally satisfied with. All his works were meticulously composed; there is never a note too many. His greatest works perhaps are his Requiem Op. 9 which was written in 1947 and perhaps his Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain,’ Op 7.

The Duruflé sound is crucially influenced from two main directions; firstly, Louis Vierne and secondly, Charles Tournemire. Vierne was possibly the biggest name of his day. Organist at Notre Dame he is the composer of a great cycle of Organ Symphonies amongst many other works for organ and other instrumental forces. It was Vierne who gave Duruflé a sense of form in his works. There was always a danger when using Gregorian chant as a compositional basis, to meander. Vierne insisted of form and structure. Furthermore Vierne was a virtuoso performer as was Duruflé. He encouraged the younger man to make full use of both the organist’s and the organ’s technical capabilities in all his compositions.

Charles Tournemire influenced Duruflé in another direction altogether. This French composer was well known for his improvisations. He had been a student of the legendary César Franck. His major achievement was to combine an acute understanding of Roman Catholic liturgical practice with his personal, almost mystical style of writing. His masterpiece is the L’orgue Mystique, which is a huge cycle of pieces spanning the churches year. It makes use of the plainchant that the missal prescribed for each Sunday and major feast. Tournemire was influenced by the organ style of César Franck and the harmonic freedom of Claude Debussy. He was one of the earliest of composers to explore the scales and modes of a variety of Eastern cultures.

Duruflé made great use of Gregorian chant though not, perhaps, to the degree of Tournemire. Duruflé’s use of it is highly individual and creative. The music is not all meandering as one might imagine. He uses plainsong to generate harmonic and contrapuntal structures which can be used in a variety of moods. Nicolas Kaye states that his muse extends from ‘the ethereal to the powerfully foreboding.’ I agree with this, but feel that even in the more exuberant moments there is a powerful restraint stopping the music somehow getting out of hand. Even the great Toccata from the Suite Op 5 never loses the plot; it is always under control. One other trait of the composer’s muse that is evident in the virtually unknown orchestral ‘Three Dances’ is a sense of the exotic. This was not really developed in his other works, although there are a number of intimations of this in both the organ and the choral pieces.

The Suite Op.5 is Maurice Duruflé’s longest work composed for organ. It is also perhaps his best known, although it may just be eclipsed by the work in memory of Jehan Alain. However, there is no doubt that this work is a masterpiece and is a defining work in the history of organ literature. I remember being terribly impressed on hearing the entire work being performed in Glasgow Cathedral. Of course, as noted above I had been introduced to Duruflé’s music by way of the Toccata alone. But to hear the complete work revealed the exciting last movement in the context where it belonged. As part of my thinking for this review I sat down with the score of the Op.5 and followed it with the present recording. I am more convinced than ever that this work should be listened to entire. It is not fair to take the Toccata out of context. I concede that it may be acceptable to do this for a recessional voluntary after mass or a wedding. But at a recital I feel it ought to be all or nothing. Like all of this composer’s music there is a sense of unity created from the first to the last bar. This is not really by quotation; it is really something that is often quite indefinable.

The Suite was dedicated to one of Duruflé’s composition teachers – Paul Dukas. Unfortunately that great composer is basically remembered for one work – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Out of 89 recordings of this work some 59 are dedicated to this single piece. So much for Walt Disney! However I recommend a study of his great Symphony in C major or his wonderful Piano Sonata. Then there is his opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleu.

There are three movements in the present Suite. The opening Prélude is marked as Lento. It begins with long slow notes that slowly but surely build up into more animated music. One of the features of this movement is the large number of time signature changes – this leads to a complex, unsettled feel to the music. There is a funereal sense to this music that not even the massive climax can quite dispel. This pinnacle subsides into one of Duruflé favoured ‘recitative’ sections. The music becomes reflective before the end of this movement is reached.

The second movement is a Sicilienne in 6/8 time. It is a long flowing piece that is based on the rondo form. Yet somehow the listener is not really aware of this structure. The music seems to evolve, always leading towards the conclusion where a number of the elements are combined. The last statement of the theme with accompanying triplets is a stroke of genius. This is one of the truly lovely, intimate moments in Duruflé’s corpus.

The Toccata is a splendid work - I have already mentioned how it impressed me as a young man. It must be regarded as one of the great ‘war horses’ of organ literature. It ranks beside other Toccatas by Vierne, Widor, Gigout and Johann Sebastian Bach himself. It is written very much as would be expected of such a work. Full of complex figurations that require a virtuoso’s technique, it never relaxes. Like all good examples of the form there is a strong pedal ‘refrain’ that underpins the semiquaver activity on the manuals. Of course there are moments when the tempo eases off or the tension relaxes a bit. However, the feeling is given of great energy surging forward to ‘an ecstatic conclusion.’

Duruflé contributed a miniature to the ‘festschrift’ for the teacher of composition Jean Gallon upon his retirement. Gallon had taught a number of illustrious musicians between 1919 and 1948, including Olivier Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux and Paul Tortelier. The piece by Duruflé was composed in 1949 and entitled Chant Donné. It is difficult to decide whether or not the piece was originally written with the organ in mind. The holograph is in short score on two staves, but the published version was in four staves using ‘antique’ notation. There is no indication of instrumentation. So perhaps it could be a short string quartet movement? It is very short, at under a minute and half. However, its attractive modal harmonies and rather lovely melody make this a delicious miniature. The last chord seems just a little too long for equilibrium.

The Meditation is a small but extremely attractive piece. It was written and dated in 1964 but was not published until 2002. This was around about the time of Duruflé’s first concert tour of the United States. I am unaware if it was played there. The Meditation is cast in the form of a rondo; the main theme or as the programme notes refer to it as the ‘refrain’ was used by the composer in the Agnus Dei of a later choral work, the Opus 11 Messe cum Jubilo. This is quite an introverted piece that muses on the theme which is quite angular in its melodic construction, even if it has its roots in Gregorian chant. The interludes exploit the string stops and give the work an air of improvisation. The piece ends with a long closing chord. It is not a major work but one that adds a pleasant number to the composer’s limited catalogue of organ pieces.

The Prélude sur l’introit de l’Épiphanie Op.13, was written for an anthology of music for use before mass. It was entitled ‘Preludes à l’introït.’ It was composed in response to a commission by the musicologist and organologist (a new word for me!) Norbert Dufourcq. It was written in 1961 at the time when the composer had received the Vatican citation of Commander in the Order of St Gregory. This is appropriate. The composer uses a tune or cantus firmus which is firmly in the ‘Gregorian’ model. This is played on the ‘trompette.’ Around this theme he weaves a complex but always modal counterpoint. It is one of these pieces that although short in actual minutes seems to be almost timeless. Not the greatest work on this CD but certainly one that deserves our attention.

I think that the Scherzo Op.2 is one of the best works on this disc. It never ceases to entrance me. Yet it was written as an examination exercise. It was completed when Duruflé was a student at the Paris Conservatory in January 1926. The work was dedicated to his organ teacher Charles Tournemire who at that time was organist at Sainte-Clothilde, Paris. The score is inscribed, ‘To my dear master, Charles Tournemire in grateful homage.’

This work displays the influence of both Vierne and the dedicatee, yet it is a completely new piece not at all dependent on anything that has gone before. It is anything but an academic exercise. It displays all that is best in Duruflé’s compositional skill. There is an imaginative sense of colour; it has a hazy mystical feel to it that defies categorisation and is a difficult work that calls for considerable skill from the organist. In spite of the cloudy feeling to this work it is on strong formal foundations. In fact it is a small rondo. The work opens slowly and quietly with string stop sound. But soon, what Flamme calls ‘motorically filigree playing figures’ announces the main rondo refrain. These are technically complex and difficult. The episodes are based on chorale motives which provide considerable contrast. Throughout the entire work the listener is captivated by the many mood swings, changes of tempo and complex modulations. A great work, indeed.

I had never heard the Fugue sur le thème du Carillon des Heures de la Cathédrale de Soissons until this recording. It is a short piece – barely three minutes long. Yet the musical content is intense. The work was written in 1962 for an anthology of music published to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Louis Vierne’s death. According to the programme notes the theme of this fugue is based on the melody of the clock at Soissons Cathedral. It is perhaps a bit of an unusual fugue. The theme is presented at the beginning with counterpoint as opposed to the usual single voice. Duruflé uses all the academic devices that are available to composers of fugue. However there is nothing pedantic about this work. From its gigue-like opening to the final chords it is full of vigour and even fun. The programme notes point out that Vierne himself had written a piece which he dedicated to his pupil, Duruflé based on a bell sequence at St Geneviève-du-Mont. He had called it Matines. So it is pleasant to see the pupil similarly honouring the master.

Another work which is full of the Duruflé magic is the Prelude, Adagio et Choral varié sur le thème du Veni Créator Op. 4. This work was presented as an entry to a composition competition organized by the ‘Friends of the Organ’ (Les Amis de l’orgue) in 1930. Naturally, this present work won first prize. However it is remarkable that this is only his second published work for the organ.

The form of the work is a Triptych. The word is more commonly met in the art world where it means a painting or perhaps a carving, often as an altarpiece that has three panels side by side. The transferred meaning is something composed or presented in three parts or sections.

The work begins with a rather fast but very quiet passage in triplets. This is the basis of the whole of the first movement. Melodic phrases rise out of this rippling effect based on plainsong –one of the fragments nodding to the theme used in the last movement. One of the characteristics of this work is the ‘interlude’ material between movements. At the end of this Prélude, the triplets give way to a Lento passage of long notes. There is a complimentary recitative passage before the second part of the triptych begins. The Adagio is truly the heart of the work. It is signed to be played ‘sweetly and sustained.’ There are additional directions instructing the performer to play with warmth and with much expression. This is, as a friend of mine from Coatbridge once said, seven minutes of pure organ-music heaven. Once again we become aware of the transitional material that leads to the last movement. After the halfway point of the movement the music becomes much more turbulent. The composition becomes louder and more insistent and even quite violent. However it ends quietly. There is a short pause before the great theme of ‘Veni Creator’ is announced in all its glory. There follows four variations. The first with triplets harks back to the opening movement. The second is for manuals only. The third is an academic structure – a canon at the fifth. However it is the last variation that sums up the work. It is a brilliant Toccata that seems to arrive from nowhere and goes on to dominate all that has gone before. The work closes with a very loud Largamente.

This is not the forum to discuss the life and works of the French organist and composer Jehan Alain, save to make one comment. Alain was perhaps the single greatest loss to French music sustained during the Second World War. I remember many years ago visiting the spot on the bridge at Saumur in the Loire Valley where the 31 year old soldier was reputed to have been hit. I found it an extremely poignant and moving moment. I stood there with the sounds of his Litanies echoing in my mind. It has given me a soft spot for his music.

The Prelude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain is perhaps Maurice Duruflé’s best known work? It was composed immediately after Alain’s death in 1942; the score is prefaced with the following words (translated) – ‘To the memory of Jehan Alain, who died for France.’

The work is based on two major elements - a motive derived from the letters A.L.A.I.N. related to the scale, and a second motif taken from what was perhaps Alain’s masterpiece ‘Litanies.’ Of course Duruflé uses a little creative licence here. The key relation is between the two ‘A’ notes. For the other letters Duruflé feels free to use other notes useful to his purpose. The actual note sequence is a – d - a – a – f.

The opening prelude is in the style of a perpetuum mobile – in many ways it is quite will o’ the wisp. Soon the second motif emerges. This is not really a direct quotation of Litanies – much more of a paraphrase. Yet to anyone knowing the dead composer’s music it is obvious. However there are no profundities here in the music – the sadness is only apparent to those who know the work’s genesis. There is actually a sense of pure delight in these difficult pages. At the end of the prelude the Litanies theme is quoted verbatim before leading onto the fugue.

The fugue is a double fugue. For those that maybe do not know what this means – it is simple. It is a fugue based on two separate subjects. The first theme is a quiet and slightly introspective 6/8 theme based on the A.L.A.I.N. motive This in turn gives way to a new theme written in semiquavers. This is totally complementary to what has gone before. Strict fugal procedures are used to combine both themes and leads up to a fine peroration. I must say at once that although this fugue is academic – it is not as dry as dust. The music actually wears it structure well. In fact it is a moving tribute to a great man. It is triumphant and reflects a tremendous hope both for the memory of Jehan Alain and for the greater good of La France for which he so bravely laid down his life. It is a beautiful tribute from one fine composer to another.

The recording of these works is superb. The CD is presented in the ‘Surround’ format which is designed to give the effect of actually being in the Stiftskirche at Bad Gandersheim. Of course the CD is playable on ordinary ‘hi-fi’ equipment and sounds equally impressive.

The organ itself is a beauty. A large three manual with fifty speaking stops, it was built by Manufacture d’Orgue Mühleisen based in Strasbourg. It was inaugurated in 2000 and replaced and earlier nineteenth century instrument that has been patched up over the years. The organ was specifically designed so that the whole range of the repertoire can be played – from baroque through to the complex music of Messiaen, Vierne and Duruflé.

The organist, Friedhelm Flamme plays these works with great skill and conviction. It is perfectly clear from this recording that he is in his element with these works. Not only is he an extremely able player, he also wrote the exceptionally learned programme notes. However, these lose a little in the translation, but are still a model of their genre.

I am unimpressed by the unusual CD box design. All my discs have boxes with square corners – except this one. Why have CPO decide to use round corners - it looks untidy on my shelf. I will, of course, replace it with a standard box so it slots neatly into the ‘D’ section in my organ CDs – between Dupre and Dyson. There is no need to be this creative – just because it is Surround sound!

Of course there are a number of other versions of the complete organ works by Duruflé. One thinks of John Scott’s version on the organ of St Paul. However that particular cathedral is noted for the 10 second reverberation that muddies much of the complex figurations of this music. Olivier Latry’s performance on the organ that the composer played at St Etienne in Paris is perhaps the most authentic. However, the present version is a fine addition to the seven or eight other versions available. It will remain in my collection as first choice for some years to come.

John France



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