Sacred Music for a Sacred Space 2014 Program Notes

Program notes for Toronto Mendelssohn Choir concert on April 18, 2014 – Sacred Music for a Sacred Space – at St. Paul’s Basilica.  Notes by music reviewer and lecturer Rick Phillips.

Louis Vierne (1870–1937) was born blind and studied with Cesar Franck (1822–1890) and Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937). In 1900, he applied for the vacant top organ position at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, beat out eight-eight rival contenders by being selected unanimously, and held the job for thirty-seven years until his death. He underwent a series of successful eye operations that eventually allowed him to recognize faces and read a large print. In 1912, Vierne became professor of organ at the Schola Cantorum teaching such later luminaries as Nadia Boulanger, Marcel Dupré and Maurice Duruflé. In 1937, at the age of sixty-six, Vierne was in the middle of an organ recital at Notre Dame, when he suffered a stroke and collapsed on the console, his left foot holding down the low “E” on the pedal board. Apparently, this was how he had dreamed to go, and his student Maurice Duruflé was assisting him, at his side at the time.

Vierne composed orchestral works, chamber music, choral music, piano pieces and songs, but is best-known for his solo organ compositions, especially the six organ symphonies.

The Messe Solonnelle was completed in 1900, the year in which Vierne was appointed titular organist of Notre Dame, and premiered in 1901. Originally scored for choir, organ and orchestra and lacking a Credo, Vierne’s mentor Widor advised him to re-arrange it for two organs, since an orchestra would be rarely available for church services. Tonight, we’ll hear a later version for one organ. Clearly intended as a liturgical work to be performed during a High Mass service, Vierne nevertheless composed a solemn mass of great power, drama and passion with vivid contrasts. Witness the somewhat terror-filled Kyrie as opposed to the reflective and ethereal Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant us Peace) that closes the mass. The organ is treated as an equal partner to the choir throughout, not merely accompaniment. The two are often heard in dialogue or alternating loud blocks of organ sound with more melodic, gentle phrases from the choir. Considered revolutionary by many in 1901 because of the dissonances and unusual harmonic modulations, with today’s ears more attuned, the Messe Solonnelle has captured a secure place in the choral repertoire.

Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986) was a Parisian church musician, a renowned virtuoso organ recitalist and a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. The main influences on him were the music of other French composers, like Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, his own teacher Paul Dukas, and Gregorian chant. Duruflé was a slow, meticulous and methodical composer, constantly re-writing and revising, and as a result, there are only a handful of works by him. He published a total of just fourteen, mostly for organ, choir or orchestra. As he once claimed,

“I am incapable of adding anything significant to the piano repertoire, view the string quartet with apprehension, and envisage with terror the idea of composing a song after the finished examples of Schubert, Fauré and Debussy.”

Duruflé’s Requiem is the largest, most important and best-known of his works and one of the most famous of all 20 th century requiem masses. It was composed at the end of W.W.II, completed in 1947. Like Fauré, and our own Canadian church composer Healey Willan (1880–1968), Duruflé loved plainchant and incorporated its styles into his own music. He was composing a series of organ pieces based on Gregorian chant tunes from the ancient Mass for the Dead, when his publisher asked for a requiem mass. Duruflé adapted some of the organ pieces into his requiem. He wrote,

“This requiem is composed entirely on the religious themes of the requiem mass. Sometimes the text has been respected in its entirety, where elsewhere I was merely inspired by it, or even departed from it completely. In general, I have primarily tried to penetrate the individual style of the Gregorian themes.”

Like chant, the musical lines tend to be step-wise, long and flowing, sometimes used intact while at other times, the treatment is quite free. At times, Duruflé adds counter melodies with imitative sections, using modern harmonies and interesting effects. With the Fauré Requiem a distinct influence, the fear and terror of the Judgement Day are downplayed. There are moments of thrilling excitement and deep emotion, but overall, the style is restrained, tranquil and spiritual. Although it was originally scored for orchestra, organ and chorus with soprano or mezzo-soprano and baritone soloists, this evening we’ll hear Duruflé’s own version featuring organ alone.

Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, reviewer, lecturer, concert host and musical tour guide.

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: Thank you.

Categories: 2013-2014 Season and Program Notes.