Friday, June 30, 2017

Duruflé and the pursuit of beauty

Somewhere — I think in a short biography  I remember reading a remark of the composer Edward Elgar, that he thought had always really been 'a literary man': in other words, that although his gift was undoubtedly for music, he felt that literature drew on him with a more instinctive or immediate power.  Perhaps he would have supposed of himself that his talents would have reflected this, but, curiously, they did not.

I think I know what he meant.  Even if I flatter myself that my 'definite service' really does include foisting blog-posts upon the Internet and so on, it certainly doesn't involve musical composition.  So it's a funny thing that I probably listen to more music than I read works of literature.  Not that I am an inverted Elgar — but beauty flashes out at me more boldly from music than from most literature, even from most poetry, and music, slight as my actual musical competence is, informs my writing.  My hope for my aspiring verse, and to a great extent for my prose, is for it to sound musical, or more precisely for it to be beautiful for similar reasons to those for which a piece of music is beautiful.

So I find that I am easily as much in sympathy with the ideas, and simply enjoy the company of favourite composers as much as I do those of writers.  Composers, then, spark off the muse as much as poets and authors.  Do many writers, I wonder, wish they could hammer out words capable of bringing about a mood or making an utterance heard first from notes on staves?  In many cases this is too ambitious an enterprise, not least because a composer's language is not limited by borders, and a poet's is, but I don't believe it is altogether hopeless, since I believe that all beauty, along with all truth and all goodness, has one source.  So on I go thinking it over and over.

As a treat I recently bought myself a new CD of the choir of King's College, Cambridge, singing music by the French composer Maurice Duruflé, the thirtieth anniversary of whose death was last Friday (16th June).  He was the organist (titulaire) at the church of St-Etienne-du-Mont in Paris, a vocation which makes itself heard in most of his compositions, written as they generally are for organ or choir and under the roof of the Catholic liturgical tradition.  

Duruflé is notable for the small volume and intricacy of his compositional output, the result of a ferocious self-criticism and scrupulous perfectionism.  He left only fourteen opus numbers, all meticulously-crafted works.  Against the insincerity and irony of much twentieth-century art he is an antidote, a quiet but determined anti-fraud who knew that the talent given to workers of beauty is precisely that, a gift, not to be thrown away or misused or squandered in pride; he knew, too, that artistic beauty is hard-won and that truth and beauty are intertwined.

But it is not only the perfectionism of the composer that appeals to me.  It has always been the mood and texture of his work.  Here, perhaps, is a clue as to why:  Frédéric Blanc, author of the CD's sleeve notes, and referring to the Requiem, speaks of the composer's blending of Gregorian plain-chant with a 'touche impressioniste'.  Duruflé was working within a tradition that he revered, but it was also, without contradiction, his tool, to be used for new purposes and new beauty.  He took the best of the old and the best of the new, working shimmering and scintillating impressionist wraiths around unambiguous, familiar Latin plainsong melodies seven centuries old.  He marshalled the full strength of the symphony orchestra even as he called for the medieval human voice.

In general I love music, and poetry, that is full and rich and resplendent  not heavy and cumbersome for the sake of it, but luminous and misty  full of details and treasures to be found, plainly the fruit of a labour of love, that can be read or heard again and again, each time with something different to pick out and savour.  (Thus I like Howells' Hymnus Paradisi and Larkin's poem Whitsun Weddings for largely the same reason)  But at the same time it can't be frothy or over-elaborated.  I think it must have a plain heart and possibly also a simple message: in other words, that a work should be easily reducible to its essentials, but also easily embellished and decorated and elaborated upon if need be, much as a church building, whether built in simplicity or in a dazzling proliferation of ornament, is always a church, neither more nor less.  I feel that there ought to be something to hold onto: for the melody, or the words, or the subject, to be ardent and disarming.  In any case, to strain and labour to enunciate the simplest message is itself, I think, to strike at a truth about man's weakness and humbleness in art, as in much else.

Duruflé does the same thing in his Prélude et Fugue sur le Nom d'Alain (Jehan Alain, organist and composer, fell in the Second World War).  Here it is, played by the German organist Lisa Hummel with skill beyond my understanding.  It is ethereal, mysterious music, but it hangs around a single theme.  The loveliest part of the Prélude in my view is the reappearance of the theme in simple sincerity, at 5'04", as if it were plainsong, but it is only that lovely because it is a reappearance, its previous iterations having been made amid an outpouring of richly-wrought lace-fine harmonies and flourishes. 

Well, I'm no more a Duruflé than I am an Elgar, but if I asked myself about my literary ambitions (or pretensions!), I would perhaps decide that I would like, one day, to write poetry as comparable to music by Duruflé's music as it would be to actual poetry by Betjeman, or Larkin, or Masefield, or Jennings.  And, by the way, one reason it is so difficult is that it all requires balance, I think: between new and old, between candour and ornament, between richness and austerity, between humility and ambition.  But we persevere because the reward is to have been allowed, by the author of all beauty, to have 'had a go' at creation, and to have seen that it is good.

Incidentally, the fact of Duruflé's having only fourteen opus numbers to his name makes it all the more baffling that this orchestral piece, the Andante et Scherzo, seems so little-known.  There are no professional recordings.  (How?!)  Here is an old recording which someone has gone to the trouble of uploading 

— and here is another rendition by the participants in a music school, the Semaine Musicale de Clairac, under the baton of Jean-Pierre Ballon, who did not beat about the bush with explanations or reasonings: 'Il a fallu le faire'.

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