The Organ

Maurice Duruflé: the Man and his Music

James E Frazier: Maurice Duruflé: the Man and his Music
University of Rochester Press
ISBN 978-1-58046-227-3

This book is simply outstanding. Frazier provides us with excellent, comprehensive scholarship. We must here be looking at the standard work on Maurice Duruflé for many years to come. Given the fact that some material is not easily available as yet to even the serious scholar, there will be a revision – I hope – at the appropriate time. What is particularly impressive about this study is the author’s attention to detail – take the early biographical sections, and the information about the choir school where Duruflé boarded. Throughout the book it is clear that we are largely reading about a bygone age, sadly much diminished by the church reforms of the 1960s. But what talent Duruflé had! His significant achievement as student, performer, composer and teacher are almost understated, so rigorous is Frazier in charting the details of the composer’s life and work. But then, he was working at a time when there were many giants in the field. The book begins chronologically: there are chapters on the composer’s early life, his time at the choir school in Rouen, lessons with Tournemire and Vierne, his time as a student at the Conservatoire and his many distinctions; then follow chapters on his failure to secure the posts at Notre Dame and St Clotilde, his performing career, his involvement with orchestras and in particular his part in the Poulence Organ Concerto (which he premièred), his time as a teacher at the Conservatoire, his relationship with Marie-Madeleine Chevalier, his second wife. The second part of the book (though it is not described as such), looks at Duruflé’s output, beginning with an overview of the compositions, their genesis and first performances. The importance of plainsong to his music is denoted by a separate chapter charting his role in the plainsong revival in France. Special mention is made of the Vichy commissions, and the Requiem, not unnaturally, is given a whole chapter. Two chapters focus on the church and organ of Saint Étienne-du-Mont, where Duruflé was titulaire for so many years. A further two chapters talk of his work as organist and teacher and his approach to organ design (where he clearly favoured a neo-classical approach). The changes in the church are described and Duruflé’s reactions discussed. A chapter on the famous North American tours that both he and his wife undertook and an assessment of ‘the man’ complete the book. There are appendices comprising a complete list of the music, a discography and stoplists of the main instruments in Duruflé’s life. There is a comprehensive bibliography and a good index. The book is much enhanced by many appropriate illustrations; these point up significant aspects of the text, as for example the architectural influences on the composer and his creative output. There is also a useful ‘glossary’ of some of the terms specific to French church music and organ performance. As I said at the beginning of this review, this is a superb book. It is well written, thoroughly researched, comprehensively produced. It has been a privilege as well as a pleasure to be able to read Frazier’s work. It is possible to get to know Duruflé through it; and there are many sadnesses and disappointments logged there, but there is also a celebration, made with love and dedication, to a significant figure in twentieth-century French music.