Last month, on a Valentine’s visit to see Joy in Paris, we set out on foot from Joy’s apartment in the Marais. Traveling South, we crossed the Seine on the Pont Notre-Dame and climbed a hill towards the Panthèon, where located next door is the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. It was here that composer, organist, and teacher Maurice Duruflé served as organist from 1929 until his death in 1986. Across the street from the church we rang a bell and entered an apartment building, climbing to the seventh floor. A charming man named Frédéric Blanc welcomed us and we stepped into the apartment where Duruflé and his wife, the brilliant organist Marie-Madeleine lived for 60 years. Since the apartment is on a hill, the large terrace has what must be one of the best views of the entire city.
If I had to be stranded on a desert island with just composer’s organ works, it would be Duruflé’s. His compositions are easily among the most beautiful and emotionally moving in the repertoire. Yet as beautiful as they are, he was extremely self-critical, publishing only a handful of works. Among his choral works, the Requiem, Opus 9 is the best known, but there is an underperformed gem, called the Messe “Cum Jubilo” scored for unison men’s chorus that Duruflé composed in 1966. In it, he combines his unique and colorful impressionistic compositional style with the ancient Gregorian plainchant melodies he was so familiar with as an organist accompanying the liturgy. The melodies, already beautiful, become soaring and aspirational, lifting the listener towards the ethereal.
I think I’ve observed this before in these paragraphs, but one of the things I love about being a church musician is the opportunity to interact intimately with great works of art. A painting in a museum is beautiful, but you can’t touch it (without going to jail) and you have to leave it where it is. In every worship service at GPC, we’re interacting with musical art, whether a great hymn tune that has come down to us through centuries of singing, a stirring choral anthem, or this composition by Maurice Duruflé that will be threaded throughout our service this week. I look forward to experiencing it together.