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Maurice Duruflé

picture of Duruflé

Formative Years

Maurice Duruflé was born in 1902 at Louviers France in the province of Eure. He attended the Cathedral Choir School in Rouen, where he studied piano and organ. Aged 17, he moved to Paris, where he took organ lessons with Charles Tournemire and assisted at the Basilique Ste-Clotilde. Tournemire was noted for his ability to improvise, particularly on a basis of Gregorian chant, and this background was a strong influence on Duruflé's compositional style. Tournemire challenged Duruflé to be more adventurous in his improvisations. Duruflé admired Tournemire, describing him as his "cherished Master" although Tournemire was reported to have expressed a dislike of Duruflé's personality to others. Duruflé entered the Conservatoire de Paris in 1920, and graduated with prizes in organ, harmony, piano accompaniment and composition. His harmony professor was Jean Gallon, many of whose students went on to became notable French musicians.

Prominent Musician in Paris

Duruflé took up a post as assistant to Louis Vierne at Notre-Dame in 1927, and the two organists formed a firm friendship. ( Duruflé attributed his success in organ competitions to his friend Vierne's teaching and not that of Gallon.) He was appointed to the post of titular organist of St-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris in1929 and retained that title for the rest of his life, although he continued to assist at Notre-Dame until Vierne's death in 1937. (Vierne died suddenly, whilst playing the cathedral organ, with Duruflé at his side.) In 1936, Duruflé won the Prix Blumenthal and In 1939 he premiered Francis Poulenc's Organ Concerto (a work for Organ, Strings and Timpani), having advised Poulenc on the choice and combination of organ stops for this work. In 1943 he became Professor of Harmony at the Conservatoire de Paris, and continued an association with the Conservatoire until 1970.

His Marriages and his Car Accident

Duruflé was married twice; the first time to Lucette Bousquet in 1932, a union which ended unhappily in divorce in 1947. In that same year, Marie-Madeleine Chevalier became his assistant at St-Étienne-du-Mont, and he married her in September 1953, his previous marriage having been declared null by the Vatican in June 1953. Marie-Madeleine Duruflé-Chevalie was also a very gifted organist, and the couple became a famous and popular organ duo. Duruflé suffered severe injuries in a car accident in 1975, and as a result he gave up performing, being largely confined to his apartment. The service at St-Étienne-du-Mont was passed to his wife, Marie-Madeleine, who was also injured in the accident, although he retained the title of organist of the church until he died in 1986.

The War Years and French Politics

Since the French revolution there had been troubled relationship between the French State and the Roman Catholic Church, the state being secular in outlook. The Vichy government, which was set up during the German occupation, was not so constrained by the history of French politics and it was offered commissions to composers for different types of work. and were prepared to accept submissions from composers associated with the church. In 1941 Durfle received such a commission , and he agreed to write a symphonic work, but wrote a Requiem instead! Paradoxically French church music was thus enhanced by support from a regime which was hated by a substantial part of the French population, particularly those living in the north of the country under direct Nazi occupation. When Paris was liberated in 1944, there was a parade where well over a million people lined the route from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre-Dame Cathedral. At the Cathedral, a service was planned with a thanksgiving hymn 'Te Deum laudamus'. The Cathedral organist Léonce de Saint-Martin was not invited to play the organ, being under a cloud for his association with the Germans, and Duruflé, who was probably seen as neutral, was invited to play instead. Things did not go to plan and there was an armed confrontation between various groups and Duruflé did not get to play the organ because his way was blocked by armed guards.

His Music and Influences

During the late 19th Century, and in the early part of the 20th Century, when Duruflé was studying music and developing as a composer, the world of music was going through great change. The French impressionists, led by Debussy and Ravel were creating new, richly evocative harmonies and new instrumental textures, and the Russian composers, such as Stravinsky and Shostakovich and Prokoviev, were pushing the boundaries of musical form. However, Duruflé's schooling at the Rouen Cathedral Choir School, and his time as assistant to Tournemire at Basilique Ste-Clotilde and Vierne at Notre Dame, placed him firmly at the centre of conservative church music. Nevertheless, when in later life he was asked what influences there had been on his work, he said he admired Ravel and Debussy more than Faure. This seems to be contradiction, since his most successful work, his Requiem, is clearly based on Gregorian chant and has much in common with Faure's Requiem. The two works are often chosen as a pair in the same concert.

The two most popular and most played of Duruflé's works have been choral, his Requiem (1947) and his Messe Cum jubilo (1967). It is remarkable that up to 1947 he had had no formal training or background as a choral composer, being principally an organist, but of course his early musical life in the church had been steeped in choral tradition and he had sung in the Rouen Cathedral Choir as a boy.

He wrote a significant body of solo organ music, much as arrangements of works by other composers including Bach, Faure, and Schumann, and some instrumental work, including solo piano, piano duos, 'cello, and pieces for small orchstra.

Duruflé was extremely self-critical of his work. He wrote much more music than was published, largely because he was not happy with what he had written, and he continued edit and change his work after publication. Although his work cannot be described as 'popuar', the result of his perfectionism is that his organ music is highly regarded in that field.

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