Duruflé’s love of plainchant

The combined tenors and basses from the choirs of St Peter’s Cathedral and Pilgrim Uniting Church will be singing Duruflé’s exquisite Messe Cum Jubilo within the context of eucharist services at the Cathedral on Sunday 18 September at 10:30am, and at Pilgrim on Sunday 25 September at 11am.

It is clear that Gregorian plainchant has a special significance in the music of Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). As a child he would return home from accompanying his father to mass and play the chants back on the piano. Plainsong permeates nearly all his works, woven into his musical textures with extraordinary creativity. In the 1970s Duruflé was a major rallying point in France against what many saw as the sacrilegious abandonment of Gregorian chant and Latin texts after the Vatican II reforms.

Duruflé himself described his relationship to plainchant in the following terms:

‘For me, Gregorian chant is something tyrannical. It has perhaps surrounded me too much, too much – how shall I say? – narrowed my harmonic field. But I don’t want to talk of my “Gregorian narrowing.” Quite the contrary, I am grateful for it’ (New York Times, 12 November 1989).

He was inspired by teachers such as Charles Tournemire, who would improvise extensively on the set chants while accompanying services. According to Duruflé:

‘Tournemire never played from a prepared score at Sunday Mass; the book of Gregorian chant was always on the music rack, open at the liturgical office of the day’ (The American Organist 14, November 1980).

In the Messe Cum Jubilo, Duruflé makes use of the plainchant of the ‘Cum Jubilo’ mass (mass IX in the Solesmes categorization), designated for use on Marian feast days. The choral part is a single, unison line divided between a baritone soloist and the combined tenors and basses. The plainchant itself – often altered melodically and rhythmically – is shared evenly between the voices and the accompaniment throughout the five movements (there is no Credo).

In the Kyrie, for example, it is the organ which plays the plainchant, while the tenors and bases sing a meandering, at times imitative, countermelody. By contrast, the Gloria begins with a declamatory statement of the plainchant in the voices, before moving to sharing segments of the chant between the singers and the accompaniment. And in the Agnus Dei, Duruflé converts the initial rising F major triad into a diminished triad, which – along with a harmonization based on diminished chords – confers a detached, ethereal atmosphere to the first two iterations of the Agnus text, before returning to the major triad in the final statement (in the organ) for a much more grounded and resolved Dona nobis pacem.

Using techniques such as these, the Messe Cum Jubilo is a masterclass in the incorporation of ancient plainchant melodies into highly original, relevant, and above all beautiful new music.

Source: J.W. Reynolds, 1990, The choral music of Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986), PhD thesis, University of Illinois.

The photo is of the interior of the church of St-Étienne-du-Mont, Paris, where Duruflé was organist 1929-1986. The choir organ is just visible under the elaborate screen.

Photo: Photochrom Print Collection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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