Cathedrals of Sound
The Symphony once again builds “Cathedrals of Sound” Oct. 23-25. Along with the return of the Norbertine Fathers and Jacobs, the concert features Ottorino Respighi’s Church Windows (1926), all as contextual setting for a performance of Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem. Joining Pacific Symphony for the Requiem will be the Pacific Chorale, under the direction of John Alexander.
“This program is close to All Souls Day,” says St.Clair, “and I’m thinking about that. The Requiem is a piece I really love, and the Chorale loves it as well. They recently performed it in the church where Duruflé was organist, so it’s a work close to them and to me, and it’s a wonderful way of celebrating our 25 years together.”
The Requiem is written with a significant part for organ, to be handled by Symphony favorite Paul Jacobs, navigating his way through the score on the massive and imposing William J. Gillespie Concert Organ.
“It’s important that we feature the organ this season,” says St.Clair. “William Gillespie, whose name is on the organ, has meant so much to us and this is a way of honoring him and featuring Paul who inaugurated the organ a few years back.
“The Duruflé is a little overshadowed by other large-scale sacred works—Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and C Major Mass, Brahms’ Requiem, the Verdi Requiem, all the various requiems we hear—but what I enjoy about Duruflé is that instead of having this fast and overwhelmingly powerful “Dies Irae,” the center of the Requiem is the “Pie Jesu,” the most intimate moment instead of the loudest and most powerful. It has power but a different kind of power. It ends where I like to think is paradise, so it’s going to be a very special moment for me. And my wife’s birthday is on the Thursday of that week, which is nice. She’ll know where I am.”
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3 flutes (third doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets,
bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass
trombone, tuba, timpani, 4 percussion, harp, celesta, piano, strings, organ
Performance time: 27 minutes
The Bolognese master Ottorino Respighi composed with his eyes and ears on the past, creating his music with the enraptured fastidiousness of an art collector.
Born in 1879, he lived most of his life in the 20th century. But in the charm and tonal elegance of his music we can hear 19th- and 20th-century aesthetics colored by his infatuation with earlier days: the sound of early sacred music, including Gregorian chant, and music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods, from the 16th through the 18th centuries.
Respighi’s music is graceful, courtly and opulent; it often seems to iridesce with shifting colors. The rhythms are whirling or stately. The sound beguiles us like an antique music box.
Respighi began his career as a violinist and violist, studying first with his father and then at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna, but historical and composition studies were also included in his curriculum.
After graduating in 1899, he became principal violist in the orchestra of the Russian Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg. There he studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov, one of the great masters of orchestral color, whose influence can be heard in all of Respighi’s most popular works.
Returning to Italy, he became first violinist in the Mugellini Quintet, but devoted himself mainly to composing from 1909 onward. He died in 1936 at the age of 56.
Wells Cathedral Lady Chapel
Photo Courtesy DAVID ILIFF
What to Listen For
Respighi possessed a rare gift for evoking specific visual effects in music, and his tone poem Church Windows, composed in 1926, put this ability to spectacular effect.
Based on a 1921 group of three preludes for piano, this four-movement orchestral suite is highly pictorial, with descriptive subtitles by Claudio Guastalia, a professor of literature. In the first movement, “The Flight into Egypt,” a caravan is borne through the desert on a starry night as we hear the rhythmic sway of the donkey contrasting with the tonal color of a melody suggesting the Middle East.
In the second movement, “St. Michael and the Archangel,” Respighi quotes a more recent source: Richard Wagner’s martial strains for the Valkyries in his Ring cycle.
In the lower brass Respighi draws from Gregorian chant, with a trombone signaling the dramatic entrance of St. Michael. “The Matins of St.Claire” depicts the founder of an order of nuns whose miraculous transport to the Church of St. Francis is described in The Little Flowers of St. Francis; here Respighi’s serene melody captures the tranquility of monastic life.
Finally, in the suite’s fourth movement, Respighi pays dramatic tribute to St. Gregory the Great,” the traditional founder of Gregorian chant, with a fantasia based on a Gregorian chant for the Gloria of the Mass.
Public Domain Image
A Modern Listener's Guide
In a vain attempt to keep up with the times, your intrepid annotator immersed himself in an online debate between fans of two pop divas, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé Knowles.
“If you knew anything about music,” wrote one antagonist—a passionate listener who seemed to feel that you couldn’t admire Beyoncé without attacking Mariah—“you’d know that song has nothing to do with melisma.”*
*Melisma (Greek: μέλισμα, melisma, song, air, melody; from μέλος, melos, song, melody), plural melismata, in music, is the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession. (Wikipedia - (CC BY-SA 3.0))
Who Was Right?
The hammer-and-tongs argument resembled the fights in old-time opera “claques,” and I could easily imagine it coming to blows, as claque members often did.
But it was also striking for the fans’ use of technical terms like “melisma”—a word we know from Gregorian chant.
Who was right? Actually, the song in question (Carey’s “Vision of Love”) contains a great deal of melisma. In the pop realm it has come to denote a style of virtuosic solo embellishment used by artists from Whitney Houston to Stevie Wonder, but in Gregorian chant it refers to the singing of several notes on a single syllable.
Mariah Carey Performing at Edwards Air Force Base, Dec 1998
Public Domain Image
Would we hear these songs in the same way if Gregorian chant had not been so richly melismatic? Probably not.
Musical lexicographers are being forced to re-edit their entries on melisma because of its modern influence.
The 1986 edition of The New Harvard Dictionary of Music connects it “especially [with] liturgical chant… In Gregorian chant, melismas are particularly characteristic of the alleluia… the gradual, the tract, and the great responsory. They may consist of as many as several dozen notes.”
The distinctive sound of Gregorian relied heavily on that melismatic flow of notes. This music is serene and pure, moving with the smoothness of oil.
And “melisma” is not the first term in this medieval art that took on another meaning centuries later: It is also “monophonic,” sung without harmony and without the aural context of instrumental accompaniment. Focused precisely on a single melodic line, Gregorian chant intensifies the listener’s experience of each tone in the melodic line. This is music that seems to suspend time.
Lithograph or engraving of the ethereal suspension illusion as performed by Robert-Houdin. Illustration from William Manning
Public Domain Image
Sacred chant exists in cultures throughout the world; Gregorian chant is the best-known form of singing that we know as plainchant, whose free, unmeasured rhythm is another reason why it seems so fluid and timeless.
Imagine the difficulty of building a house without blueprints and you can begin to understand the challenge of singing with such precision without the benefit of time signature or modern musical notation to describe each melismatic phrase.
The Gregorian tradition arose in central and western Europe during the ninth and 10th centuries and takes its name from the pope St. Gregory the Great.
Recent scholarship has cast doubt on his traditional role as inventor of the form; more likely it germinated over the generations as church choirs synthesized and combined earlier forms of chant.
Eventually, patterns of Gregorian chant emerged as modes—basic patterns of pitch that preceded our modern major and minor scales. A distinctive vocabulary arose as the structures of chant became more complex and systematized, with complex relationships governing usable tones and their relationships.
Today we can easily imagine the church’s far-reaching influence on music during Renaissance and Baroque times, when religious music was the mainstay for composers such as Monteverdi and Bach.
During those centuries, the artists who glorified God with their paintings and artworks depended upon a familiar patron-client relationship with their religious and political benefactors. But during the medieval period, when religious institutions provided the only means of legitimate musical expression, this relationship was more extreme and more highly controlled.
To cite just one major historical example, the 8th-century emperor Charlemagne used the unification of and growth of Gregorian chant as an instrument of political hegemony in controlling the Holy Roman Empire.
Painting by Albrecht Dürer
Public Domain Image
Sound is Still Fresh
Yet for all of its seeming exoticism—and despite the fact that we rarely have the chance to encounter Gregorian chant in live performance—the sound of this remarkable music seems fresh in our ears. Why?
For one thing, it is so vividly different from our usual musical experience that it resounds in our memory whenever we hear it. Then, too, Gregorian chant so vividly expresses the essence of a long-ago time and place that Hollywood has long relied upon it for atmosphere in recreations of medieval settings. We can easily envision lines of monks garbed in austere brown cowls chanting in a stone courtyard. What other device can so handily fix Robin Hood in historical context?
More recently, the serene expressiveness of Gregorian chant inspired 19th-century composers of religious music such as Duruflé, and it sparked a 20th-century revival that continues into the 21st.
During the “New Age” and “World Music” movements of the 1980s and 1990s, recordings of Gregorian chant by Benedictine monks from Spain and Austria became unexpected bestsellers. With that kind of success, parody soon follows—as it did with the self-flagellating monks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and with the affectionate album Grunt, an anthology of “pigorian chant”dating from 1996 and featuring a chorus of pigs, apparently fluent in Latin, chanting in properly dignified Gregorian style.
Whether or not such humor appeals to us, it is proof of the expressiveness and staying power of Gregorian chant—a musical genre that dates back a thousand years, yet remains fixed in our modern consciousness.
3 flutes (second and third doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes (second
doubling on English horn), English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns,
3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion, harp, celesta,
strings, mezzo-soprano, baritone, organ, chorus
Performance time: 41 minutes
Though the music world has yet to receive an authoritative biography of Maurice Duruflé, his music tells us much about his life and character:
only 14 compositions survive by this composer, who dedicated his work to the organ and to God. His unending dedication in revising and refining reflect his self-effacing piety.
Though Durufle’s music and his ability as an organist commanded great respect among his colleagues, he remained critical of his own abilities and compositions, allowing only a handful to be published and continuing to revise them after publication.
Maurice Duruflé was born in the French town of Louviers, in the Eure river valley, in 1902. He enrolled as a chorister at the Rouen Cathedral Choir School in 1912,
studying piano and organ with the teacher and author Jules Haelling; at age 17 he moved to Paris, continuing his organ studies in private lessons with Charles Tournemire, whom he assisted at the cathedral Basilique Ste-Clotilde, enrolling at the Conservatoire de Paris in 1920.
Private organ instruction—a rigorous musical pathway, especially in France—provided a strong grounding for Duruflé’s studies at the demanding Parisian conservatory.
Image Courtesy Mbzt
During this time Duruflé remained with Tournemire as his protégé, emerging from conservatory with first prizes in organ, harmony, piano accompaniment and composition.
In 1927 the eminent organist Louis Vierne nominated Duruflé to serve as his assistant at Notre-Dame de Paris, cementing a lifelong friendship; they were together when Vierne died at the console of Notre-Dame’s great instrument in 1937, even though Duruflé had accepted an appointment as organist of St-Étiennedu- Mont eight years earlier.
He had also won the prestigious Prix Blumenthal, a grant awarded to the most promising young French artists through the Franco-American Florence Blumenthal Foundation, in 1936.
A Fateful Partnership
Duruflé began what was to be a fateful partnership with the organist Marie-Madeleine Chevalier in 1947, when she became his assistant at St-Étienne-du-Mont.
They worked and performed closely together, marrying in 1953 after his first marriage was annulled by the Vatican; he had obtained a civil divorce six years earlier.
As husband and wife, Marie-Madeleine and Maurice became a popular organ duo, performing throughout Europe and in the U.S. through the 1960s and into the 1970s. Forced to retire to his apartment after an automobile accident in 1975, Maurice gave up performing. He died in 1986 at the age of 84.
Husband and Wife
Maurice et Marie-Madeleine Duruflé
What to Listen For
Ernest piety and polished refinement shine through the works of Maurice Duruflé. In his best-known work, the Requiem, we hear the characteristic timelessness of his work:
though the centuries-old Gregorian Mass provides the thematic source for the Requiem, its melodic materials are developed in a context of polyphony and counterpoint that are more modern, while retaining a sound that resonates with ancient spirituality and seeming spontaneity. The result seems to exist outside the bounds of ordinary time and space.
The Requiem opens with the “Requiem aeternum” section sung in the lower choral registers. The higher voices enter with the section’s central melody, the “Te decet hymnus,” leading directly to the Kyrie.
Listeners who are familiar with the order of the Mass will note that the “Dies irae” section is absent:
Where this contemplation of God’s ultimate judgment often forms a thunderous (and terrifying) dramatic centerpiece of the Mass, as it does in the Verdi Requiem, Duruflé takes a gentler approach—replacing it with the “In paradisum” text of the traditional burial service and moving directly to the offertory section (“Domine Jesu Christe”).
Fauré takes the same approach in his ravishingly beautiful setting. The effect is poetic and characteristically French, though the requiem by another celebrated French composer—Hector Berlioz—includes a scorching “Dies irae.”
Image Courtesy Flopinot2012
Duruflé's Own Commentary
Completed in 1947, my Requiem is built entirely from the Gregorian themes of the Mass for the Dead.
At times, the text is paramount, and therefore the orchestra intervenes only to sustain or to comment; at other times an original musical fabric, inspired by the text, takes over completely—notably in the ‘Domine Jesu Christe,’ the ‘Sanctus,’ and the ‘Libera me.’
In general, I have attempted to penetrate to the essence of Gregorian style, and have tried to reconcile as far as possible the very flexible Gregorian rhythms as established by the Benedictines of Solesmes with the exigencies of modern notation…
As to the musical form of each of these pieces, it is dictated simply by the form of the liturgy itself. The orchestra plays a merely episodic role; it intervenes not to support the chorus but to underline certain rhythms, or to soften momentarily the too human orchestral sonorities. It represents the idea of comfort, faith and hope.
Author Hartker of Sankt-Gallen
Public Domain Image
Pope Gregory I (ca. 540– 604)
Later known as Saint Gregory the Great, Pope Gregory I is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students and teachers.
Gregorian Chant was named after this influential Papal figure largely due to the legendary propaganda which solidified this body of work as the officially sanctioned music of the Roman Catholic Church.
As there were competing styles of chant and each regional variant claiming supremacy, the myth that the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove whispered these melodies into Pope Gregory’s ear, which he then dictated to scribes, indicated that this divine music came from God. As the story became accepted, so did the authenticity and legitimacy of Gregorian Chant.
In fact, Pope Gregory I lived centuries before the chants themselves were composed anonymously.