Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) is one of those composers who left us a small but perfectly-formed body of work. His music is a private passion of mine, which I'm now going to make public - starting with the organ works.
Duruflé was soaked in the French organ tradition. He was the assistant of Charles Tournemire, the organ-composer who succeeded another great organ-composer, César Franck, as the organist at St. Clothilde, Paris. Another of the great organ-composers, Louis Vierne, became his mentor. Their influence on his own work is audible, as is that of his composition teacher, Paul Dukas - in whose class also sat one Olivier Messiaen. Duruflé also adored the music of Debussy and Ravel and their influence is strongly reflected in other aspects of his work. All these composers share a peculiarly French-sounding ear for harmony - sensually-appealing harmonies that, when combined with the spirit of plainchant, float mystically like incense over candlelight. Duruflé was a master of such harmonies. He took their discoveries, especially the rich, impressionist harmonies of Debussy and Ravel (including the whole tone scale and the octatonic scale - that favourite of Messiaen's), and fused them with the old church modes of his beloved plainchant. The richness that results can be heard from his earliest works - a richness made all the more potent by a certain (very French) restraint which which it is usually wielded.
Like Dukas, Duruflé was fond of using Classical forms. His first organ piece is the captivating Scherzo, Op.2. This uses rondo form, but into its perfectly-balanced structure Duruflé pours a heady brew of tunes and harmonies which he surrounds in lively figuration that flickers like myriad tiny flames.
His next organ work, the Prélude, Adagio et Choral Varié, op. 4, is based on the old plainchant melody Veni Creator. The Prélude has the feel of an improvisation and its quiet, floating, flickering atmosphere is quite magical. The Adagio carries us into darker shades of feeling (and more chromatic kinds of harmony) as it meditates on the ancient melody and reaches a unexpectedly exciting, powerful and Romantic climax - thus showing the range of Duruflé. Out of this (beautiful) slough of despond, the Choral Varié (a theme followed four variations) emerge in radiant confidence like the coming of the Creator Spirit.
The opening Prelude of the superb Suite, Op.5 begins with something of the inward-looking, oppressed spirit of Dukas's great and ridiculously neglected Piano Sonata. Its gloomy but deeply beautiful main melody suggests again the inspiration of plainchant. The movement is a classic journey from darkness to light and a magnificent piece of music, conjuring up a louring sense of the ominous before dispelling it with a blaze of C major, brighter registers, perfumed harmonies and warm recitative-like melodic writing. The central movement of the Suite, Sicilienne, follows in a fine tradition of French siciliennes and shares the soft-spoken elegance of Fauré's enchanting example, though the influence of Ravel is the one that's easiest to hear. This lovely movement takes the classic form of a rondo with two contrasting episodes. The concluding Toccata follows in another fine French tradition (cf Widor!). It's an improvisatory-sounding maelstrom requiring extreme virtuosity from the performer. It strikes an heroic note that might not seem typical of this composer, but (Duruflé's own doubts about this movement not withstanding) its harmonic flavours are just what we Duruflé-enthusiasts relish.
The elegaic Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d'Alain, Op.7 is another masterpiece. Playing around with the name of the recently slain composer, Jehan Alain (subject of this blog's first post - and another of the great French organ-composers), Duruflé creates a set of notes (ADAAF) which he uses to fashion the magical scherzo which comprises his Prélude. Interrupting its flickering yet progress appears a phrase from Alain's own masterpiece for organ Litanies. The Fugue is a work of contrapuntal genius powered by strong rhythms. At its luminous climax the music of the Prélude returns and joins with the fugue themes to bring the work to a mighty close.
As well as these four major pieces, there are a smattering of other organ pieces to enjoy. There's the Fugue sur le Thème du Carillon des Heures, op. 12 which makes a fugue from the eight notes of the chimes of Soissons Cathedral and shows Duruflé in Bachian mood. There's also the Prélude sur l'Introit de l'Epiphanie, Op.13, another plainchant-inspired miniature (Ecce advenit dominator Dominus), full of warmth and beguiling harmonies. There's also a lovely late Méditation which only became known in 2002.
There's more to Duruflé than organ works, of course. There are choral works - including his famous Requiem and Ubi caritas - plus a chamber work and a piece for orchestra. These, however, will do for another day.