Ars Nova singers open season with the Monet of choral music

Program features the complete choral works of Maurice Duruflé

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Ars Nova singers
Julie Afflerbaugh

If Monet’s paintings were music, they would be the choral works of Maurice Duruflé.

That’s the view of Thomas Edward Morgan, director of Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers, who open their season Oct. 6 and 7 in Denver and Boulder with an all-Duruflé program, featuring the composer’s entire output for chorus.

“Our mailing for this [concert] used a Monet painting of Rouen Cathedral,” Morgan says. “Duruflé was a choir boy at that cathedral, and [his music] is as close as we get in the musical world to how Monet was seeing the world.”

Duruflé’s name is probably better known to choral singers than to the general public, largely because his music is very rewarding to sing, but there’s not very much of it. “He was a perfectionist,” Morgan says. “He didn’t release very much material, but all of what he did is just extremely well crafted, and a joy to do.”

The anchor of the program will be Duruflé’s best known work, his Requiem, composed in the 1940s. The other choral works on the program are a set of four motets, composed in 1950; the Cum jubilo Mass of 1960, for male choir and organ; and Notre Père (Our Father), an a capella work composed in 1977.

In addition to his few choral works, Duruflé, who was regarded as the greatest organist of his generation, wrote a number of virtuoso organ pieces. Organist Joyce Krull will perform his Variations on the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit), with women from the choir singing the verses of the original chant between variations. Organist Brian de Fresne will play the Fugue on the Theme of the Carillon of the Cathedral of Soissons.

Although Duruflé lived in the 20th century, his works were never what we would call “modern music.” That is partly due to his training at Rouen Cathedral, where he sang the Medieval and Renaissance music of the Catholic Church. Consequently, his music is permeated with the restrained and flowing style of Gregorian chant. Or as Morgan explains it, “Duruflé intermingles so much of the Gregorian aesthetic [that] it presents a timelessness to the music and is very connective across centuries.

“I don’t remember who this quote came from, but the music is described as ‘an eclectic mixture of plainsong [chant], Renaissance polyphony, the organ textures of [earlier French organists] and the Impressionistic harmonies of Debussy and Ravel.’ So I think it becomes broadly appealing to people.”

Morgan acknowledges that Duruflé’s music is slightly out of character for Ars Nova, which is known for their exploration of much older music and challenging contemporary works. ”This is probably the most standard repertoire concert we’ve done in many years,” he says.

Morgan gives several reasons for performing Duruflé at this time. “It’s a good way to start a season,” he says. “It has a broader public appeal and can draw people in, and there’s a lot of good vocal things for ensembles to focus on at the beginning of the year.

“So much of it is based on chant, [and] having a choir that can focus on the forward and backward motion of chant and how to do that together is just a really good ensemble exercise at the beginning of the year. And the motets especially require precision, both in attacks and in the section sound. Building those musical aspects of the ensemble is helpful for the whole year.”

With such a restrained aesthetic, Duruflé’s music does not have the overt drama of music from the 19th and 20th centuries. The Requiem, for example, has none of the musical thunder and lightening of similar works by Berlioz, Verdi and Benjamin Britten.

“It’s not overtly demonstrative that way,” Morgan admits. “But there are moments in both the Requiem and the Men’s Mass (Cum jubilo) that he goes for a very dramatic sound.

The combination of the emotional expressiveness of the music, not only in those more dramatic moments but in the more reflective passages as well, with the Impressionistic style is what Morgan finds most attractive in Duruflé’s choral works.

“This is music that captures the emotion of these texts, and in just these lush, beautiful harmonies.”

On the Bill: Maurice Duruflé: The Complete Choral Works. 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6, St. Paul Community of Faith, 1600 Grant St., Denver; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7, St. John’s Episcopal Church, 1419 Pine St., Boulder. Tickets and information: 303-499-3165