Saturday, July 18, 2009

Stairway to Heaven

Last May I had a busy organistic Saturday in Paris. In the afternoon Suzanne Chaisemartin gave a recital at St. Paul-St. Louis. It was remarkable to hear one of Marcel Dupré's last students and an octogenarian, no less, play so well. Pierre Cogen sat across the aisle- this made it no less exciting!

From Le Marais I hopped on Line 1 and made my way to La Madeleine. I met François-Henri Houbart, the titular organist. We mounted the tribune and he played Dupré for the Mass of anticipation- that is, his teacher's teacher (Mme. Chaisemartin, being his teacher.)

After Sortie, the angsty and powerful "Amen" toccata from "Vêpres de la Vierge- 15 Pieces," (complete with the chamades!) M. Houbart, the sacristan, and I all simultaneously declared our hunger and set off across the plaza for dinner.

We were joined by a colleague of M. Houbart, M. Frédéric Blanc, titular organist of Notre-Dame d'Auteuil in the 16eme. I immediately recognized his name because he was giving the afternoon recital at Notre Dame de Paris the very next afternoon. M. Blanc invited me to visit Auteuil on Monday when the the recital would be behind him (understandably so- it was phenomenal, especially the improvisation).

To make a long story somewhat shorter, M. Blanc was the last student and disciple of Mme. Marie Madeleine Duruflé-Chevalier. For a number of reasons M. Blanc inherited the Duruflé couple's personal effects and apartment. Today he heads the Duruflé Association and is a dedicated ambassador of their legacy.

Unknown to me at that time, he asked, "would you like to see where M. Duruflé lived?" I said "Yes! You know where this is?" He grinned, "I live there."

6, place du Panthéon is about 8 stories and a typically Parisian building. There are many luxurious apartments and a beautiful lobby- but this is not our entrance. Through a small and unassuming passageway one approaches the stairs traversed thousands of times by one of the 20th century's musical masters.

Maurice Duruflé became titular organist of St. Etienne du Mont in 1929. Looking for a place to live he found this apartment across the square. A wealthy butcher's wife from Les Halles owned the building and her aspiring artist son occupied the small studio residence on top. When things went south he left and Mme., the landlady, offered it fairly cheaply on account of its size. M. Duruflé moved in and stayed nearly his entire life.

For respect of his privacy I do not have photos of the interior. This is alright because the best part belongs to everyone. The view, at the level of the towers of Notre Dame, allows one to panoramically survey the enormous and breathtaking entirety of the city. At night it is most stunning. In this place, one can understand how Requiem came to life, how the Messe cum Jubilo was born, the Quatre Motets- not to mention the organ works. The surreal surroundings drove Duruflé's already demanding standards of himself to such exclusive heights that his few extant works near perfection.

The first time I heard Duruflé I was bewitched with it- with its undulating rhythmic propulsion, its seemingly timeless metrical ambiguity, its refined post-impressionistic color, its nostalgic modal harmony, its religious passion. M. Blanc grabbed an old score of Andante et Scherzo, Op. 8 and we listened to a recording. My eyes followed the dancing notes, intermingled with pencil markings. In the upper right corner of the cover the owner's name was penciled like many scores. Needless to say, this one was different!

Absolutely everything danced. In a word, it was heavenly.

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