NZOrgan Musings and Amusings, September 2009

20th Century Organists: Part II
Marie Madeleine Duruflé (1921-1999)

Marie Madeleine Chevalier became one of her century's outstanding organists despite misfortunes that might have defeated one less determined. At the age of 11 she was appointed organist of Cavaillon Cathedral (surely this must be a record?). While there, she distinguished herself at Avignon Conservatoire and, under normal circumstances, would have continued her studies in Paris from the age of 18. The outbreak of WW2 made it advisable for her stay in the South. She was thus in her mid-twenties when she enrolled as a pupil of Marcel Dupré: six important years had been lost. This did not prevent her winning first prize for organ at the Paris Conservatoire. She also won the Widor prize for improvisation. These were notable achievements in the highly-competitive world of Paris organists.

Marie madeleine1. Marie Madeleine Duruflé

In 1953, she married the composer Maurice Duruflé, who had held the prestigious appointment of titulaire at Ste-Etienne-du-Mont since 1930. Some eyebrows were raised at the alliance: Maurice was 20 years older than she and his gloomy, introverted temperament contrasted markedly with hers, which was lively and outgoing. The marriage was a triumphant success. They also formed a strong professional alliance, as joint titulaires at Ste-Etienne (pic 2) . For some years they gave concert tours together and became especially well-known in the USA. When her husband's declining health brought these joint ventures to an end, Mme Duruflé continued alone, doing much to bring Maurice Duruflé's compositions to a widening and increasingly-appreciative audience.

Husband and wife had been brought up in and remained devoted to the 19th century French romantic school of organ music and to its older roots. Maurice had been a pupil of Paul Dukas, born 1865, of Louis Vierne and of Charles Tournemire both born in 1870. (It is thanks to Maurice Duruflé that transcriptions of some of Tournemire's legendary extemporisations are available). One of Marie-Madeleine's earlier appointments had been that of deputy to Marcel Dupré at St Sulpice. Picture 1 shows her at Dupré's famous house organ at Meudon, about 1971. Note the fashionable shoes: her formidable pedal technique owed nothing to "dressing down".

Marie developed an eclectic approach to the instruments she played. As visiting Professor or recitalist at American Universities or guest artist in European countries, she stressed that a performer's insight, interpretation and technique are what matters. The particular school of building to which the organ-builder had belonged was a minor consideration; it was, however, one that required understanding and imagination to produce satisfactory results. More than one performer who had played a work by Maurice Duruflé on instrument tonally far-removed from those for which it was conceived was surprised – and delighted – to receive an appreciatory note from the composer's wife.

organ2. St Etienne du Mont organ

Many organists in Paris, as elsewhere, found it very hard to accept changes in Liturgy and language brought about by the 1962 decision, known as Vatican 2. They saw that a long and glorious tradition was threatened and that a vast musical heritage could become redundant. Mme Duruflé spoke and wrote tirelessly about these dangers, both in French and in English. She did not hide her own distress, occasionally using the work “despair”. (In England, her exact contemporary, Philip Marshall, organist of Lincoln cathedral, had similar feelings about changes in the Anglican liturgy....see previous article here)

Mme Duruflé was a noted exponent of that French speciality, improvisation. Someone who was able to watch her at close quarters on a number of occasions noted the expression of intense concentration on her face as she played the opening bars, and planned the development of an extemporisation. As she got into her stride, the look of concentration was combined with intense enjoyment. A flicker of a mischievous smile betokened a forthcoming surprise - the introduction of a second theme taken from another piece in her programme, or an unexpected change of tempo or style, perhaps.

In 1975, she and her husband, driving in difficult conditions, were involved in a serious road accident, caused by the recklessness of another driver. Neither recovered fully from the effects. In fact it virtually ended Maurice Duruflé's playing career and his wife took on the role of long-term nurse as she overcome, to some extent, her own injuries. She continued as titulaire at Ste Etienne and was able, in time to resume recital and teaching work. A former pupil said that her cheerfulness, enthusiasm and interest in friends and colleagues were in no way diminished by the effects of her declining health.

plaque3. Plaque on St Etienne

Over the centuries, many Paris churches have been served as organist by several generations of one family. The record - surely not for France but for the whole world - must be the seven generations of Couperins, successive organists at St Gervais for 173 years from 1653. The present titulaire of St-Germaine-en-Laye, the celebrated Marie-Claire Alain, succeeded her father, who had held the post from 1924 - at the time of writing, this amounts to a total of 85 years between them.

Maurice and Marie Madeleine Duruflé - a single generation - served St Etienne over a period of 69 years. This remarkable achievement is recorded on a wall plaque near the building (pic 3).

Mme Duruflé's recorded output was not as extensive as her admirers might have wished - perhaps the road accident was partly responsible for this. The following are available at the time of writing:

  • Maurice and Marie-Madeleine Chevalier Duruflé At The Organ - Gothic Records
  • M & M-M Duruflé: Bach J.S: Preludes, Toccatas, Fantasies & Fugues - EMI
  • DURUFLÉ Maurice and Marie-Madeleine - IN CONCERT - Solstice.
  • Les Orgues de Paris: Marie-Madeleine - plays Prelude & Fugue on the name Alain on the organ of Ste-Etienne-du-Mont (a splendid 3 CD anthology of composers, performers and instruments) - Erato

David Bridgeman-Sutton,
September 2009


Picture credits:
1 with the kind permission of the Association Maurice & Marie-Madeleine DURUFLÉ
2 and 3: Philip Wells