I spent yesterday afternoon driving back and forth across Washington in pursuit of some really wonderful music. After the noon Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, with its always amazing choir, I quickly scooted off the the University of Maryland where the Marine Chamber Orchestra and UMD Symphony Orchestra were combining for a concert of music inspired by World War I. Still applauding the end of this magnificent concert I quickly jumped back in my car and headed to the Kennedy Center where the Washington Chorus was performing an evening of French sacred music.
Two of the major works on the program were by the great composer and organist Maurice Duruflé. The first half featured his Messe “Cum Jubilo“ and the second half his most famous Requiem. Some secular directors might try to distance these sacred works from their proper Catholic context (as a guest conductor with the U.S. Army Band did at a recent concert where O Magnum Mysterium was described merely as “An inward looking piece” with no mention of Christmas or even religion at all…but I digress). Such was not the case yesterday with director Julian Wachner. He went out of his way to explain how the music of Duruflé was liturgical music and its context of the Catholic Mass. At one point, seeming almost taken up into the beauty of the liturgy, he asked the audience to picture the “gold vessels, incense, gorgeous vestments, and a cathedral with 6 seconds of reverb…” finally declaring, “This music just sounds so…so Catholic!”
I was struck by how much the soul was made for this beauty and longs for it, even when it is so hard to find these days. The music of Duruflé and Fauré are today more likely found in the concert hall than the cathedral. What a travesty that we’ve lost so much of what sounds and looks “so Catholic” in the modern world, all in the name of “progress.” In addition to the description of maestro Wachner, I was particularly moved by the program notes on the life of Duruflé and the context that gave rise to this beautiful music. Consider the following notes from Dennis Keene and see if you don’t long for this…and weep for its absence:
It was Easter Sunday, 1912, and young Maurice Duruflé and his father were traveling from their home town of Louviers to the great city of Rouen. It was the most exciting trip the ten year old boy had ever taken. One can almost imagine his eyes bulging as they arrived in that great metropolis and came upon the huge and ancient gothic cathedral. What a day he must have had, getting the grand tour, including a visit to the boychoir school and a talk with its director.
But his excitement at all this was completely dashed at the end of the day when his father informed him that he wouldn’t be returning home, but, starting that very night, living there for the next several years! In Duruflé’s own words, “I needn’t say what was my reaction. That night in the dormitory I sobbed on my bed.”
Fortunately, the kind choirmaster of the Cathedral heard the boy crying, and raised his spirits by telling him of all the exciting things in store for him how he would get to study music all the time, be a part of all the great High Masses and ceremonies of the Cathedral, and one day play the organ. Duruflé said of this turning point in his life, “A great page opened in front of me.”
And what a page it was! His life for the next six years was centered on one of the glories of France, the Cathedral of Rouen. Built in the 1200s, the magnificent cathedral had attracted countless visitors down through the centuries. One famous visitor, Claude Monet, was painting his famous Rouen Cathedral paintings just eighteen years before Duruflé arrived.
Although life at the choir school was strict (up at 6:00 every morning, no heat in the dormitories, prayers at 6:30, studies and rehearsals all day) young Maurice was thrilled by all the musical activity and he was quite overwhelmed by the great liturgies of the Cathedral. His years there were to have an extraordinary influence on him, arguably the single strongest artistic influence of his life. For the world of the Gregorian chant, its melodies, modal harmonies, the rise and fall and supple contours of the lines, and the spiritual and mystical aesthetic-this special world remained at the core of his artistic soul for his entire career.
Every morning of the week the choirboys would study and rehearse the chants for the upcoming Sunday. There were evening rehearsals as well, when the boys would be joined by tenors and basses. On Sundays they sang at the High Mass in the morning and Vespers in the afternoon. At the end of the Vesper service was the liturgy of the Benediction of the Most Holy Sacrament, for which the Rouen townspeople packed their ancient cathedral week after week. Duruflé described the grand procession as follows: it was led by two Swiss men in specially designed uniforms, followed by the boychoir, then fifty seminarians, dozens of canons and clergy of the cathedral, all dressed in white and grey ermine, and finally by a large velvet canopy under which processed the Archbishop carrying the Holy Sacrament. Directly in front of the canopy were eight thurifers-men carrying pots of incense which they waved regularly, creating great clouds of smoke. This was the kind of ceremony he lived with every week during this part of his life. And it is important to remember that the central musical component of this and all other liturgies was Gregorian chant. This influence was to become a part of his very being.