The genius of Maurice Duruflé

Most church musicians hold a special place in their hearts for Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). Though only leaving to us a tiny number of compositions (he only approved 14 for publication, painstakingly revised until perfect), for many of us he is one of the truly great composers of organ – and choral – music. 

While much of his music is difficult, requiring many hours of practice, these are hours of joy, not toil: one never grows tired of the originality and complexity of his musical language. No doubt many an organist, practising late into the night, alone in a darkened church, has caught a glimpse of the divine in the sublime soundscapes of his music. 

Though often described as a musical ‘conservative’ or even ‘a man out of step with his times’, those of us who know him better understand that his innovation and ingenuity lie in another dimension to his more famous peers of 20th century composition. We shouldn’t forget that J.S. Bach was also considered old-fashioned in his day, but it was not his raw materials or his forms, rather his mastery over them that made him perhaps the greatest composer who ever lived. In a similar way, Duruflé was inspired by plainchant and church modes, impressionists such as Debussy and Ravel, and – perhaps influenced by Paul Dukas and Les Six – he wrote in the ‘forms of earlier centuries, including fugue, rondo, suite, mass and motet.’ But he harnessed these resources with supreme mastery to create compositions that need no categorization to be considered great. 

The Pilgrim tenors and basses will be joined by the men of the St Peter’s Cathedral Choir under the direction of their Director of Music Anthony Hunt to sing Duruflé’s Messe Cum Jubilo during a communion service at 11am, Sunday 25 September, at Pilgrim. 

Source: Charlyn Dumm, 2010, The compositional language of Maurice Duruflé as manifested in Prelude, Adagio, et Choral Varié, Op. 4 and Quatre Motets, Op. 10, Master’s Thesis, University of Louisville. 

Photo: unknown photographer, CC BY 2.5 <;, via Wikimedia Commons 

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