Westminster Cathedral Choir, James O'Donnell (conductor)
Recording details: July 1994
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Release date: March 1995
Total duration: 19 minutes 59 seconds
"For Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986) composition was a slow, laborious process involving constant revision and impeccable craftsmanship: only ten works have been published—one fewer than his teacher Paul Dukas, a similarly fastidious perfectionist. Unlike his friend and fellow-student Olivier Messiaen, Duruflé eschewed the avant-garde experimentation that might have resulted in a fashionable new language, choosing instead a retrospective stance, looking to plainsong for his inspiration, and great French composers—Debussy, Ravel, Fauré and Dukas—for his models. He was known to feel ‘incapable of adding anything significant to the piano repertory, viewing the string quartet with apprehension, and envisaging with terror the idea of composing a song after the finished examples of Schubert, Fauré and Debussy’. Instead Duruflé composed for his two favourite media, orchestra and organ (he was renowned as a virtuoso organist).
Duruflé was working on a suite of organ pieces based on plainsong from the Mass for the Dead when the commission for the Requiem arrived from his publishers, Durand. The sketches already on his desk proved themselves an ideal starting point, the plainsong becoming the basis of the whole work, unifying it and breathing into it the timelessness and meditative spirituality that are its essence. The model is Fauré’s Requiem; but this is no mere imitation, rather a reworking within the structure and mood established by the older composer, born of admiration and respect. Fauré chose to break away from the examples typified by Berlioz and Verdi and their tragic, blazing images of hell-fire and heaven-storming grief. He omitted the ‘Day of Judgement’ texts and concentrated instead on rest and peace, even going so far as to borrow the In Paradisum from the Burial Service. Duruflé sets the same texts as Fauré (although the division into movements is a little different, and he retains the Benedictus) and adopts a similarly restrained approach. Both use a baritone soloist in the Domine Iesu Christe and Libera me, and a treble for the Pie Iesu. Duruflé opens the work within the same tonality as Fauré, the Offertory with the same voices, and the Pie Iesu in an identical fashion. The structure of the Sanctus owes a huge debt to Fauré’s example, as do the Libera me and In Paradisum—yet the overall effect transcends the possible limitations of such a fine model, and gives us something very original.
The strength of Duruflé’s composition lies in its extraordinary fusion of disparate elements—plainsong, liturgical modality, subtle counterpoint, and the sensuous harmonies and refined scoring of Debussy, Ravel and Dukas. Duruflé’s often literal use of plainsong melody gives the work a great expressive and rhythmic freedom and results in a natural flow of both text and music. When seated within such colourful tonalities and underpinned with modal harmonies, the emotional impact is heightened, yet somehow the all-pervading tranquillity and spiritual optimism is maintained. The Introit flows smoothly, the plainsong rendered note for note, moving into the imitative entries of the Kyrie and its heartfelt pleas for mercy. In the Domine Iesu Christe the text is dramatically declaimed by the choir until Saint Michael leads them into the heavenly light and assures them of the promise of peace. The Sanctus takes the form of an instrumental moto perpetuo against which the voices are cleverly built into a climax at ‘Hosanna in excelsis’, then subsiding, arch-like, to a peaceful conclusion. The Pie Iesu is the physical and emotional centre of the work, a poignant and almost painfully beautiful setting of the plainsong for treble and solo cello, supported by harmonies rich in seconds and sevenths. The Agnus Dei moves us gently onward, yet without detracting from the atmosphere left by the preceding movement. Duruflé weaves an expressive counter-melody around the plainsong, avoiding any dryness of expression without affecting the delicacy of the scoring. More imaginative touches are found in the Lux aeterna—the vocalizing of the lower voices beneath the trebles, and the unison chanting of ‘Requiem aeternam’ over changing chords. The Libera me brings lengthier development, and the dramatic climax of the whole work with the ‘Dies illa’; the last ‘Libera me’, like Fauré’s, is sung in unison to the end of the movement. The final movement, In Paradisum, is an exquisite creation; the opening chords form an ethereal mist from which the trebles emerge, finally at peace. The sensuous chords of the full choir add to the spiritual tranquillity, and the last chord, an unresolved dominant ninth, evaporates into eternity.
Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens
The four motets of 1960 are ideal companion pieces for the Requiem, each being based on the requisite Gregorian chant in the same way as the movements of the larger work. Here again Duruflé shows his particular genius for invoking the spiritual element of plainsong in a polyphonic context, achieving a suppleness of rhythm alongside strong characterization of each text. Ubi caritas et amor flows freely and syllabically in a meditative fashion, while Tota pulchra es (for high voices) is lighter and more sprightly, yet soft and feminine. Tu es Petrus is a rousing and optimistic work, the churches’ foundation on the rock of Peter being indicated by the building of the motet on its canonic opening to a strong and sturdy final cadence. Tantum ergo returns us to the meditative, wistful style which characterizes so much of the Requiem; the concluding ‘Amen’ settles as a sigh on this group of motets, crystallizing as they do the essence of Duruflé’s considered, yet inspired musical language.
As with the other works on this recording, this setting of the Lord’s Prayer clearly demonstrates how Duruflé’s few choral works were fashioned for liturgical use; the French text is used, and set without the doxology. Each phrase is presented separately and with a straightforward homophony which suggests the rhythm of contemplative speech or prayer. The work was published in 1978 and is dedicated to the composer’s wife.
Mass ‘Cum jubilo’
The Mass ‘Cum jubilo’ suggests even more forcefully than does the Requiem the distaste Duruflé felt for ‘excessive’ settings of the text such as had been favoured during the preceding decades. Here only the lower voices from the choir are used and these voices present the text in unison. There are just two short solo sections: in the Gloria at the words ‘Domine fili …’ and in the Benedictus. The comparable work by Fauré is the Messe Basse but even this allows the choir (of two equal-pitch parts for high voices) to sing harmony. Duruflé’s use of plainsong themes is at once apparent but again these are used with a subtlety which belies their underlying simplicity. The organ part contributes to this effect. The flourish which announces the Gloria marks the key moment for the glory of God to be celebrated in the Mass while, by contrast, the accompaniment to the closing movements—the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, which complement the act of communion itself—suggests an atmosphere of ethereal journeying and a more detached wonder at the divine presence. This is music for the Catholic Mass at its most practical level, but also at its most beautiful.
Wadham Sutton © 1989 (https://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA66757)