Monday, 1 September 2008

The Secrets of Maurice Duruflé

Maurice Duruflé was one of the last great proponents of the French Romantic School of organ playing. For many years he was the organist at the church of Saint Etienne-du-Mont in Paris, on the northeast corner of the large square where the massive Panthéon stands, on the highest hill south of the Seine. He composed a handful of major organ works, a luminously impressionistic chamber work, a major orchestral work (Trois Danses), and, of course, the Requiem, considered to be his greatest work. In this first posting of our Autumn season, James E Frazier describes some of the pit-falls of writing biographies of the recently deceased:

Not every author receives published reviews in advance of a yet-to-be-published book. In my case, two “reviews” appeared nearly five years before the publication in 2007 of Maurice Duruflé: The Man and His Music (University of Rochester Press), the book I had worked on for perhaps eight years before that.

In the course of my research I discovered the facts about several of Duruflé’s open secrets and thought they merited publishing in two back-to-back articles in The American Organist. At the time, I innocently surmised that their publication would generate interest in the book, and while I correctly anticipated an energetic response, I got much more than I anticipated.

For reasons that remain obscure to me, the fact that Duruflé had a first wife was not to be discussed in polite society. Duruflé’s second wife, the virtuosic organist Marie-Madeleine Duruflé-Chevalier, quickly garnered an international reputation as his primary interpreter, and, after their marriage in 1953, any remembrance of the first wife served no useful purpose. She became one of Duruflé’s open secrets, even though she was a respected teacher of piano and solfège, as I discovered, and was legally Duruflé’s spouse at the time he wrote his major works, including most of the Requiem.

The second secret was not exactly an open one, as nobody knew about it until the late 1990s when the American musicologist Leslie A. Sprout did some research into previously sealed documents from the Vichy era. It was she who disclosed the existence of a government program to provide work to composers by offering them commissions to write symphonic works, operatic works, chamber works, and the like. The program actually began in the waning years of the Third Republic, but Vichy continued it. Duruflé was among eighty-one composers who received commissions from the Vichy government. He agreed to write a symphonic work, but produced the Requiem instead.

Both of these “secrets,” along with a few others (for instance, the fact that Duruflé had studied composition with Charles-Marie Widor though he denied doing so, and the fact that from his adolescence he wore a toupee to cover some unsightly scars to his scalp), were among the material that I presented in the The American Organist.

The journal later published two letters written in response to my articles. One was from Frédéric Blanc, then president of the Association Maurice et Marie-Madeleine Duruflé, in Paris, who was a protégé of Mme Duruflé and lived in the Duruflé apartment on Place du Panthéon, with total control over the Duruflé estate. The other was from Ronald Ebrecht, an American who in 2002 published Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986): The Last Impressionist, for which I supplied a biographical chapter (without mentioning the open secrets). Both men wrote scathing critiques of the articles.

Mr. Blanc declared the articles “an accumulation of false information and insulting implications concerning the Duruflés, who were upright, honest, and virtuous artists,” saying my research was based on “small anecdotes, things [I] considered sensational, and some perfectly indiscreet revelations concerning the private life of Maurice Duruflé, a procedure considered to be in very bad taste in France.”

Mr. Ebrecht lamented that my articles constituted “an extreme disservice” to the journal’s readers, who were thus treated “with both disdain and disregard,” and claimed that my treatment of the first wife and Duruflé’s baldness constituted poor taste, insofar as they brought “no demonstrable influence upon his music.” Neither of the letter writers mentioned the Vichy commission specifically, but one can well assume that both men thought the matter entirely too sensitive to mention. So much for pre-publication reviews.

In support of his position, Mr. Blanc solicited letters from five prominent French organists, including one of the titular organists at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. These he submitted (in French only) to the editor of the journal, who refused to print them. He subsequently published them in the French journal of the Duruflé Association. All the writers were incensed by my articles, but none offered any specific response to the points treated in them, suggesting that for them the open secrets were still too sensitive to name, even in rebuttal.

Duruflé’s secrets were real, and some of them remain unexplored or unexplained. Their answers - if there be any - may lie hidden in the Duruflé apartment, among the papers still protected by Frédéric Blanc, with no forecast as to when they might be opened to researchers.

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