The Gregorian soul

4 07 2021

Some time ago, I became fascinated with French organ music from the late 19th and early 20th century. I am not sure why, because it doesn’t really appeal to me aesthetically. Honestly, the organ hasn’t really been a favorite instrument. I suppose I am more interested in this music as tradition. At least in the recent past, the organ has played a substantial role in Catholic music, so in order to properly understand the evolution of the Catholic liturgy over the last two centuries, one inevitably encounters the organist and their instrument. In France in particular, with the likes of Charles-Marie Widor, Cesar Franck, and Louis Vierne, you have not only famous organists in prominent churches but figures who played an influential role in the emergence of the music of the modern French school. One of the last figures of this school, one whose life spans the ascent and decline of the Catholic cultural revival in France between the wars, was the organist and composer Maurice Duruflé.

James E. Frazier’s masterful biography, Maurice Duruflé: The Man and His Music, is of interest not just from the perspective of musicology, but also as a portrait of the emergence and precipitous decline of the Catholic cultural revival in France in the 20th century. Duruflé was born into a middle class family in Louviers in 1902, and as a boy was educated at the cathedral choir school in music and plainchant. Duruflé thus grew up in the immediate shadow of the revival of Gregorian chant late in the 19th century and was in infancy when Pope Pius X issued his motu proprio Tra Le Sollecitudini which mandated the restoration of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony in the liturgy. After the French Revolution in particular, plainchant in the churches experienced a substantial decline to the point of almost complete extinction in most of the Catholic world. In its place, Catholic liturgical music was dominated by operatic settings of sacred texts, when these same texts weren’t just set to drinking songs or other popular melodies. The Gregorian revival sought to restore the primacy of the text in setting the music, emphasizing that the music is a prayer in itself, rather than the liturgy aping the sound of a marching band or a secular orchestra.

From his experience singing in a choir, Duruflé’s interest naturally drifted toward the organ, and he soon emerged as a gifted musician. He later studied at the Conservatoire in Paris with some of the leading organists and composers of his time, and he took on as a day job the position of organist at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris. Duruflé also taught composition and organ to students who would go on to have illustrious careers in their own right. One of these was Marie-Madeleine Chevalier who would become Duruflé’s second wife (Duruflé’s first marriage having ended in a civil divorce followed by a Church annulment, a rarity for that time), as well as a constant companion on his international tours as an interpreter of his and other works.

What is notable for me in Duruflé’s life was how influential Gregorian chant proved in his compositions. His Requiem, largely considered his most notable work, borrows heavily from the Gregorian setting. As a church organist, his improvisations were exclusively based on Gregorian melodies. His wife saw her role (as an organist at the same church), as commenting on the progress of the liturgy as “musical incense”. In restored Gregorian chant as formulated by the Abbey of Solesmes, it was the words themselves that propel the rhythm and shape of the music, rather than shoehorning the ancient texts into modern operatic and popular settings. Thus, Duruflé’s musical language sought to translate this atmosphere to the organ and orchestra, in continuation with the musical innovations of such modern composers as Debussy, Ravel, and Fauré. Though a perfectionist who produced only a handful of finished works in his lifetime, his music was the high point of a revival in French ecclesiastical culture in which a restored tradition influenced and could be influenced by an ever-restless modernity.

Unfortunately, Duruflé lived to see the world that he worked so diligently to build crumble into an anachronism in less than a decade. I speak of course here of the Second Vatican Council and the explosion of vernacular liturgy throughout the Catholic Church. Though the documents of the council indicated that Gregorian chant and the Latin language should retain their pride of place, the allowance for the vernacular overwhelmed the traditional music of the Church in most of the Catholic world. For composers like Duruflé, who composed works based on Gregorian melodies and whose most famous work was a Requiem Mass, the new order of the liturgy rendered them homeless. Duruflé’s last hurrah in 1966, his Messe “Cum Jubilo, can’t really be considered a direct response to the changes going on in the church, but it is essentially the last major work he would compose. After the promulgation of the New Mass in 1970, Duruflé increasingly withdrew from public life except for touring especially in North America, until an auto accident in 1975 gravely injured him and made all physical exertion painful and difficult. Maurice Duruflé died in 1986 at the age of 84, after a prolonged period of decline exacerbated by the auto accident.

There are several trends around Duruflé’s career worthy of extended comment. Duruflé was active professionally in a window of time when the Church had a complex relationship with its own tradition. Mirroring the Scholastic revival in philosophy, the musical restoration of the late 19th and early 20th century sought to restore a somewhat dead tradition in a modern and constantly evolving context. Duruflé was in the first contemporary generation that had the benefit of being formed from childhood by the restored chant books of Solesmes. He worked in an atmosphere in which the Church was actively trying to restore ancient chant to the churches, and thus his music absorbed the chant and used it to inform his own musical evolution in the modern French school. Composers as diverse as Wagner, Debussy, and Dupré greatly appreciated Gregorian chant and urged its restoration when not themselves employing it in their own compositions. Plainchant was both appreciated for its primordial importance to modern culture as well as its alien soundscape almost lost in time to the march of progress. The Church wanted to reclaim a music that was both prayerful and contemplative, one that grew organically from the ancient anonymous texts inherited in the Latin liturgy. But the actual restoration was all-too-brief, perhaps only a half century in most places.

In the latter part of his life, Duruflé could not really be considered a traditionalist. Frazier mentions in his book that Duruflé was not nearly as devout as his wife, and he doesn’t seem to have ever been given to pious affectation or to the mystical flights in his music characteristic of his contemporary organist / composer colleague Olivier Messiaen. From this portrait, Duruflé strikes me more as a “company man,” someone who saw the old liturgy as familiar and comforting (though, according to his wife, he did show some emotion privately when composing his Requiem). He even tried to “go along to get along,” composing in 1977 a French setting of the Lord’s Prayer for the New Mass. All the same, he was an inaugural member of Una Voce in France, a lay organization that exists to this day with the mission of fostering Latin and Gregorian chant in the Catholic liturgy. Overall, as one critic put it:

It cannot be stressed too much the despair [the Duruflés] both felt at the musical-liturgical revolution that occurred in France in the aftermath of Vatican II. No sensitive visitor could fail to be aware of how culturally disinherited they felt to be creating magnificent. plainsong-inspired improvisations… when the plainsong had been expelled from the service and replaced by banal jingles. They knew that the sun had set on a great live tradition.

Before reading Frazier’s book, I would have given some push back about how plainchant could only be superficially considered traditional even at the time of Duruflé’s birth. How “traditional” can something be that was largely lost in most of the Church? How “traditional” is it when the Solesmes method itself was somewhat controversial in its time and had to be forcibly imposed on the Catholic world, only to be cast off by the Church itself only a half century later? However, in reading Frazier’s book, and of Duruflé’s devotion to the chant in particular, I am more reticent to dismiss the movement to restore Gregorian chant in spite of my problems with it. Indeed, the musical chaos in the churches after Vatican II was perhaps too much a return to normalcy, as churches such as St. Suplice in Paris in the late 19th century had a bad reputation of employing mostly secular and banal jingles to set the Latin liturgy. Perhaps a deeper return to a contemplative tradition was needed, no matter how artificial or political it ended up being. Duruflé’s devotion to plainchant and its subsequent near-total extinction in the Church can be conceived of more as a tragedy than a mere bureaucratic foible. If it had worked, maybe Catholics worldwide would be more prayerful and zealous. As it stands, that didn’t come to pass.

If I might be permitted a short philosophical reflection, I have to bring up the question of whether Tradition is an imposition of eternity on us in spite of time, or is it the Eternal emerging within time, no matter how faintly. I believe the Catholic view is the latter. Even if I think people fetishize it too much, I can’t help but appreciate the eternal devotional essence of Gregorian chant. As most of its composers were anonymous, the feeling that these chants were composed by men who led a vibrant life of communication with the divine is palpable. These chants emerged over a period of two millennia as reflections on a series of events conceived of from all eternity. I admit that they are a bit dated, and even with intensive scholarly reconstruction, they can seem rather jarring and unpleasant at times (such as the many forgettable Graduals in the Mass). It’s rather sad for me that for the vast majority of Catholics, the ethos of plainchant is too foreign and too alienating to possibly have any meaning for them. Continuity is key perhaps, and the people have been divorced from plainchant for centuries, its rhythms and timbres being as strange to the average person now as the music of any foreign culture. For me, there is something of the Eternal still there, something still trying to burst out of the notes and Latin syllables, even if I still have only a hazy idea of their origin and meaning.

Frazier summarizes Duruflé’s religious aesthetic stating:

All matters of ecclesiastical orthodoxy and theological fashion aside, Duruflé was endowed with a keen aptitude for spiritual things that stood above the vicissitudes of the changing church. The pursuit of the beautiful was, for him, a gesture of the soul, not merely a function or an exercise of musical giftedness, or even liturgical necessity. This is perhaps, what Mme. Duruflé meant in saying that he had une âme grégorienne, a Gregorian soul.

Duruflé’s life spanned the period of a brief experiment in reviving a spiritual art form in an increasingly godless world. This experiment sought to make church music flow from the cadences and spirit of the Word Himself, to bring back the sacred in a world increasingly enamored with the secular. By all measures, this experiment failed, and Gregorian chant is for the most part a novelty found in the used CD bin, or in New Age-style music for relaxation on Internet streaming sites. It has as much meaning for the modern person as Hindu bhajans or reconstructions of ancient Greek modes. The Church in which Duruflé composed no longer exists, and yet we can appreciate the architecture of his music in the midst of the ruins, perhaps inspiring us towards new vistas in our own spiritual journeys.



One response

7 07 2021
Arthur Lenskold

Python developers can keep honoring St. Gregory the Great.
Blessed Carlo Acutis, patron of database programmers, pray for us.
Art Lenskold

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