The sound of perpetual light

by Ken Myers

[This article originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Touchstone magazine.]

One of the most popular works of twentieth-century sacred choral music is the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). Completed in 1947 and still performed regularly in concert, Duruflé’s Requiem is often linked with the earlier (and probably better known) Requiem by Gabriel Fauré, which dates to 1888. Both works are marked by a comforting, serene spirit and both reflect the influence of French musical impressionism, which offers a harmonic vocabulary of mystery. But Duruflé’s setting is distinguished by its pervasive use of Gregorian chant melodies.

In the opening Introit, after an introductory measure of shimmering (fluttering, like wings?) notes played by the organ (or by strings, in Duruflé’s orchestral arrangement), the tenors and basses sing the opening notes of the Gregorian text and melody: Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine: “Give them eternal rest, O Lord.” As the phrase ends, sopranos and altos enter, hovering in harmony above the male voices, echoing and thus affirming wordlessly the final notes of the chant. Then the men return to sing the second line: et lux perpetua luceat eis, Domine: “and let perpetual light shine on them, O Lord.”

The Gregorian melody in this second phrase is more elaborate, swelling upward near the end of the line before returning down to the original pitch; the highest note in the phrase is then echoed an octave higher by the women’s voices when they re-enter. The effect is radiant, confident, and comforting, an effect that deepens and intensifies right to the final notes of the In Paridisum 35 minutes later.

For those who familiar with the centuries-old plainchant in the Mass for the Dead, Duruflé’s setting affirms its rootedness in the Church’s perennial rituals, and simultaneously does a new thing in continuity with ancient things. His Requiem is a brilliant lesson in the dynamic shape of a living tradition.

From “Maurice Duruflé 1902-1986; The Last Impresssionist edited by Ronald Ebrecht

Durufle’s Requiem (like his exquisite Four Motets on Gregorian Themes) was in part a product of his boyhood experience as a chorister at the Rouen cathedral. It was also influenced by the Gregorian revival of the early twentieth century, a movement advanced by Duruflé’s organ teachers Charles Tournemire and Eugène Gigout. In 1903, Pope Pius X had declared that “the more closely a composition for the church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes.” In making this claim, the Pope was reinforcing a movement that had already gathered great momentum without official sanction.

Power & restraint

For centuries, the soundscape of the Church was dominated by the simple, serene form we know as plainchant, from the Latin, cantus planus, a flat, level, or even melody. Chanted text is more powerful than texts merely read (remember Augustine’s observation that he who sings well prays twice), but chant nevertheless preserves a posture of chaste restraint, reducing the temptation for singers to impose their own personalities on the text. Chant is simultaneously intimate (by virtue of its simplicity) and depersonalized (by discouraging self-expression). By means of a single, unaccompanied melodic line, following the organic rhythmic contours of the chanted text, “the priest praying or the deacon or other official intoning the lesson is a vehicle,” writes chant scholar David Hiley, “an instrument whereby the words become audible, rather than an actor delivering a personal statement.”

In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries‚ a group of composers working in and around the Cathedral of Notre Dame began to experiment with ways of augmenting plainchant. By this time, there was quite a body of liturgical material in the Western Church’s repertoire, collected into an authoritative canon that we now know as Gregorian Chant (although Charlemagne and his court probably had more to do with the assembling and authorizing of this body of music than did Gregory the Great). These French composers began adding parallel lines of harmony and even secondary melodies that were heard in concert with the canonical chanted melody. The chant opened up and out; familiar melodies could now be heard in new dimensions.

The beginnings of polyphony — the organic interweaving of many voices as one musical expression — was an aesthetic event tantamount to the Renaissance discovery of perspective. The compelling Gregorian melodies continued to serve as the foundation for sacred music well into the seventeenth century. Even some Lutheran chorale melodies, so intricately expounded by J. S. Bach, are based on Gregorian predecessors.

Modern rediscovery

For a time, beginning in the seventeenth century, the liturgical use of Gregorian chant was displaced by newly composed chants that were more harmonically predictable; some were based on expressive techniques developed in operatic performance. This modernizing push lasted for almost two centuries. Then, in the nineteenth century, after the upheavals of the French Revolution, a new appreciation for the liturgical power of chant was born. In 1814, a French teacher and writer on music published a treatise calling for the re-establishment of Gregorian chant in the churches within the Napoleonic Empire. Mid-century scholars in medieval studies were discovering and publicizing lost chant manuscripts. some dating back to the late tenth century.

But the decisive moment for the modern recovery of chant came with the refounding of St. Peter’s Abbey at Solesmes by Benedictine Dom Prosper Guéranger. His publication of the three-volume Institutions liturgiques (1840-51) set the stage for scholarly restoration of Gregorian chant, as well as the recovery of its practical implementation in the life of the Church.

Developments in nineteenth-century French classical music reinforced the revival of chant emanating from Solesmes. César Franck (1822-1890), for example, was not only a leading composer of the era; he was organist at the Basilica of Saint Clotilde in Paris and organ professor at the Paris Conservatory, where he insisted his pupils know how to improvise four-part polyphony based on plainchant melodies. Later French composers, including Debussy and Ravel, would experiment with non-traditional scales that actually had links to the medieval modes common in plainchant.

Maurice Duruflé was clearly the beneficiary of multiple eddies of culture, within and outside the Church. His Requiem, like all great works of art, is less the product of an individual genius’s creation ex nihilo than the evidence of a keenly alert and receptive imagination and intellect. His wife said that he wept during the work’s composition, tears no doubt of gratitude for the comfort of beauty bestowed.