Requiem Masses by Victoria and Duruflé

24 March 2012, St Brandon’s Church, Brancepeth

Tomás Luis da Victoria: Requiem
Maurice Duruflé: Requiem

Mezzo-soprano: Sarah Ryan
Baritone: Ben Craw
Organ: Francesca Massey
Cello: Lucy Hoile

Programme note

The service for the dead, a communion service in the Roman Catholic rite, has been set to music many times by composers who have found in it a need for consolation in times of bereavement. After the Council of Trent, the actual Latin texts to be used in the Requiem Mass were standardized; but at different times different composers have used these texts in different ways, developing rich music out  of some parts of the rite while leaving out others, or interpolating their own selection of other Latin prayers. Mozart’s half-finished masterpiece,  which the Durham Singers will perform on 3 November this year, draws out in particular the drama of the ‘Sequence’ with its intense ‘Lachrymosa’, dramatic ‘Rex tremendae’, and beautiful ‘Recordare’. Brahms, of course chose quite different biblical texts for his ‘German’  Requiem. The French romantics, Fauré and Duruflé, set most of the main part of the Mass but added the ‘In Paradisum’ prayer at the end which rounds off both works in an atmosphere of peace and contemplation. Fauré and Duruflé both also wrote a separate movement for the middle of the work, a ‘Pie Jesu’ for solo voice. Tonight, we perform Duruflé’s ‘Pie Jesu’ with the accompaniment of a cello, a lovely and moving touch that gives this central movement a quality of breathing-space and moment of contemplation at the heart of the greater choral drama.

With the Renaissance composer Tomás Luis de Victoria, however, we are close to an original concept of the Latin Requiem in its post-Tridentine form. Victoria, like many later composers, chose to set the additional text of the ‘Absolution’ liturgy, which  comes after the mass proper is finished. This ‘Libera me’ then concludes the performance of his ‘Office for the Dead’ and leaves us with a beautiful, hanging ‘Kyrie eleison’ of great simplicity, after the polyphonic  grandeur of the earlier movements.

Both of the works we perform tonight, Duruflé’s and Victoria’s Requiem Masses, are based on plainsong; but with a gap of over three hundred years between them the beautiful sinuous melodies of the Requiem plainsong are naturally used and developed in quite different ways. In Victoria’s settings, little fragments of the plainsong are sung by upper voices as punctuation marks in the work. The different portions of plainsong that you will hear in this way are set indifferent modes, and this takes the music on a well-constructed tonal journey, allowing the listener to follow subtle shifts in mood and key as the Requiem text un-folds. In the main choral sections, the plainsong continues, though it may be hard sometimes to follow; it is usually placed in the second soprano line, but the gently, soft-moving polyphony that Victoria weaves around the plainsong is so subtly crafted that it is sometimes far from obvious that the second sopranos are indeed holding together the thread of the Catholic liturgy! The interplay between them, the altos, and first sopranos is achieved with great subtlety.

Victoria was a priest, and a chaplain in the court  of the Dowager Empress Maria, widow of the Emperor Maximilian II; what is the more striking in this wonderful music, then, is the sense of colour and drama that he develops out of the Requiem text. The piece was composed for the funeral of the Empress Maria in 1603, and the sombre occasion of that ceremony is caught in music that is gentle and glowing in its harmonic richness; but there are flashes of tension and drama in many places, especially the ‘Dies irae’ later in the work. These textual insights were of course of great importance to later composers who saw so much colourful musical potential in the words. Fauré’s ‘Libera me’, for baritone solo, is a great example. The mellow, moving melody of Duruflé’s ‘Libera me’ in unison choral voices captures a different mode. One hallmark of Duruflé’s beautiful setting is the influence of plainsong themes, an approach not developed by Fauré. Plainsong can be heard most clearly in the ‘Agnus Dei’, passed from voice  to voice, but it also informs the opening ‘Requiem’ and subtly influences the finely crafted fugue of the ‘Kyrie’. But around this, Duruflé sets up a strong, impressive tonal architecture, with the wonderful organ accompaniment, a virtuoso part in its own right. Duruflé’s own church, St-Étienne-du-Mont in the fifth arrondissement of Paris, has a wonderful Cavaillé-Col organ for which he wrote several much-admired solo  works. But it also has an exquisite architectural effect—a twin spiral staircase winding down from an upper balcony, on either side of the crossing. It is impossible when standing in his church not to think of the rapid winding intricacy of his organ writing, which is a feature  of all his music, but especially the organ accompaniment you will hear tonight. Especially in movements such as the ‘Sanctus’ you will hear this  architectural effect clearly—the beautiful airy spirals of the organ catching an echo in sound of the beautiful design of the church, in which the choir represents the centre of the religious, the organ the stonework on either side. Duruflé’s music represents the extraordinary fertility and richness of the plainsong tradition, but it is also, quite simply, one of the loveliest ways of giving yourself time and space to reflect, through music, on the great themes of life and death, in the tender atmosphere of musical meditation which, in the ‘Pie Jesu’ and ‘In Paradisum’ especially, Duruflé captures perfectly.

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