Much as the future is, by definition, leaving the past behind, the past finds its ways to linger on. Life layers us with habits of mind—some good, some bad—that not only color our choices but also shape our sense of what choices we even have. The limits of the future are laid, it seems, only by our bounded imaginations. Might we not leave the past behind too precipitously, though? Mormon writes with regret about the youth who forgot the traditions of their fathers, as taught by King Benjamin, and yet Jesus frequently criticized those who “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” A great difficulty, therefore, lies in discerning which of our traditions to carry with us into the future and which to leave behind.
Maurice Duruflé came of age at a time when French organists and composers were rediscovering Gregorian chant and beginning to prefer this traditional music of the Church to the more secular Romantic religious music of the late 19th century. Duruflé, too, loved chant, following Jeremiah’s counsel for those whose ears are closed to seek out the ancient paths and walk in them. He also lived, however, during a time of great musical innovation, by the likes of Stravinsky, Ravel, Poulenc, and Messiaen. As the titular organist at St. Étienne-du-Mont in Paris for nearly fifty years, responsible for accompanying the services there, Duruflé weekly faced the choice of how to balance tradition and innovation, and this balancing act informs his compositions.
Duruflé’s job required that he improvise organ accompaniment to the chant melodies used in the service. Such frequent, sustained experience with improvisation allowed him to explore new ways of harmonizing the traditional melodies, which enriched his toolset for the slower, more considered work of composition. The fruits appear in his early “Prélude, adagio, et choral varié sur le thème du ‘Veni creator'” (Op. 4, 1930), which takes an 8th-century hymn invoking the Holy Spirit as its foundation:
The choral variations are frequently played, but the more difficult Prélude and Adagio better illustrate the complexity of what Duruflé was able to do with the familiar tune. These skills helped Duruflé to a second job as professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire, which gave him occasion to refine his vocabulary further. Compare the early work on “Veni creator” to two brief pieces from later in his career, one the Introit to the Epiphany service and the other on the theme played by the bells at Soissons Cathedral:
“Prélude sur l’introit d’epiphanie” (Op. 13, 1961)
“Fugue sur le thème du carillon des heures de la cathédrale de Soissons” (Op. 12. 1962)
Duruflé could innovate not only with traditional materials, but also with traditional forms. The works of J. S. Bach provide the foundation of organ repertoire, and Duruflé both played and taught them. Thus, when a promising young organist and composer, Jehan Alain, died in World War II, Duruflé turned to the traditional Prelude and Fugue as a way of honoring the life and mourning the death of his young compatriot:
“Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain” (Op. 7, 1942)
The pinnacle of Duruflé’s skilled elaboration on traditional materials, though, is his Requiem (Op. 9, 1947), which takes the chant melodies and develops them using modern harmonic methods to create a work that almost feels timeless:
The Requiem shows that innovation has upsides and downsides. On the upside, Duruflé produced a stunning piece of sacred music. On the downside, aspects of the composition prevent it from being used liturgically. (The setting repeats certain phrases too many times, and it turns out that Catholics, institutionally speaking, are no more cool with timpani in church than Mormons are.) Still, even though the Requiem can’t be used in an actual mass, churches can and do host performances, thus finding a way to stay true to the old while also embracing the new.
The challenge of blending tradition and innovation became more acute with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which encouraged greater congregational participation in both liturgy and music, in part by permitting both to take place in the vernacular. Although these changes helped to re-enliven Catholic worship, they also invited the replacement of traditional church music with relatively secular (because vernacular) music. Duruflé did not like how these changes resulted in the devaluation of the Gregorian tradition. This negative response to post-Vatican II music has earned Duruflé a reputation as a conservative, but his willingness to learn from 20th-century French music shows the limitations of the label.
If tradition can be a vehicle for accumulated cultural wisdom and provide potent means of enacting that wisdom in community, it can also ossify into something no longer living, but dead. Duruflé’s music exemplifies a balanced response to the psalmist’s question: “How shall young people cleanse their way / to keep themselves according to your word?” Just as the psalm suggests, keeping traditions vibrant requires meditation and contemplation, rather than mere rote obedience. Duruflé’s week-after-week pattern of living with the great music of the church, accompanied with the need to improvise on it, ensured that chant, for him, was not the dusty music of centuries past, but something vividly alive, perpetually re-embodied in human voices and the varied breath of organ pipes.
Just so, as we are commanded to “bring up [our] children in light and truth,” Duruflé’s respect for tradition and willingness to innovate mark a wise path. The most important key to walking it, though, is love. We cannot honor true traditions with our lips while keeping our hearts far from them. John writes that “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” The best traditions point us toward this animating human love, because traditions make possible our communal ways of coming together, and God has promised to dwell among those gathered in the divine name: love.
Duruflé celebrates this promise in “Ubi caritas,” the first of his “Quatre Motets sur des thèmes grégoriens” (Op. 10, 1960):
Drawing on the traditional chant melody and subtly layering it with modern harmonies, he produced music that is both of its time and timeless, just like the Christian community aspires to be.
Maurice Duruflé, composer, 1986
The Collect: Our Father of Song, whose divine harmonies run through all creation: teach us, like you did your servant Maurice Duruflé, to meditate on the past with an ear to the present, that we might learn to weave them together into a beautiful music, inspired by the perfect concord that makes you, together with your son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
For one final musical selection, here is an early piece that helped to establish Duruflé’s reputation, his Organ Suite (Op. 5, 1932):
In writing this post I drew on James E. Frazier, Maurice Duruflé: The Man and His Music (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007).