Durufle at St. James, Bach at Benaroya

Organ music at Benaroya, performed by St. James' organist Joseph Adam, and then an unusual celebrated Requiem mass by Maurice Durufle add up to a rich feast.
Crosscut archive image.

Maurice Durufle

Organ music at Benaroya, performed by St. James' organist Joseph Adam, and then an unusual celebrated Requiem mass by Maurice Durufle add up to a rich feast.

Devotees of liturgical music, and of music for the organ, have had two good weeks in Seattle. The annual All Souls evening on Nov. 2 at St. James Cathedral featured the Requiem Mass of Maurice Duruflé, and earlier this week the St. James organist Joseph Adam gave a recital on the Watjen organ at Benaroya Hall.

Adam'ꀙs program last Monday, sponsored by the Seattle Symphony, was announced as Bach and Liszt. In fact, Liszt got the lion'ꀙs share, at least in terms of time. His Prelude and Fugue on B A C H was the opener, and his massive Fantasia and Fugue on 'ꀜAd nos, ad salutarem undam,'ꀝ a chorale theme from Meyerbeer'ꀙs opera Le Prophete, brought the evening to an end. Bach was represented by the Prelude and Fugue in E minor, known as 'ꀜThe Wedge Fugue'ꀝ because of the widening shape of its theme. This is one of the most dramatically designed of his great pieces for organ, with a grindingly dissonant prelude that resolves into a fine climax, and a fugue that combines a formidable intellectual structure with an irresistible exuberance.

Two other pieces — an unusual arrangement for organ of Liszt'ꀙs funerary piano piece on the death of Chopin, and Marcel Dupré'ꀙs Prelude and Fugue in G minor — made for a long and technically very demanding concert. Adam has given excellent recitals at Benaroya before — his Bach series a couple of years ago, and his 'ꀜBach and Beyond'ꀝ program last year. On this occasion he excelled even his own high standards. He gave the Bach piece a magisterial performance — vigorous, colorful, and fully illustrative of its perfection of form.

In the Liszt pieces, he realized in full their drama and color. Particularly remarkable were the hushed and intense transition from prelude to fugue in the B A C H piece, and the thrilling series of rising pedal trills just before its end. In spite of Adam'ꀙs virtuosity and his mastery of pace and color, he could not altogether protect the fantasia and fugue on the Meyerbeer theme from its sprawling length (nearly 35 minutes) and the sense that Liszt spattered chromatic runs and diminished seventh chords across his huge musical canvas with too much abandon.

With its intense and reflective character, the evening of music of remembrance at St. James'ꀙs Cathedral on All Souls Day offered a welcome contrast to Halloween. Musically, the program was centered on the fine Requiem by the French 20th century composer and organist Maurice Duruflé. However, this was not a concert but a full-scale celebration of the Requiem mass to honor the dead. The Duruflé setting took its place amongst the plainchant and chanted readings of the modernized traditional high mass, with much participation from the congregation. There was a homily from Father Michael Ryan, the celebrant, and most of the large crowd that filled the cathedral to capacity took communion.

The great musical settings of the liturgy — the B minor Mass of Bach, Beethoven'ꀙs Missa Solemnis, and the Requiem settings by Verdi and Berlioz — are normally heard in concert performance. Occasionally they are presented as part of a service. Many years ago I attended a mass at the St. Eustache church in Paris where Bach's music was sung as part of the service. It made for a long and tiring occasion. And such music has a titanic scale and grandeur that upstage the liturgy which it is supposed to support.

Duruflé, who was organist at the Paris church of St. Etienne du Mont, ranks very high among the 20th century composers who have written liturgically usable music. There is some 45 minutes of music, and no single movement lasts much more than five minutes. The prevailing mood is sombre, austere, and reflective, as one would expect from a requiem written in 1947. The musical style, though distinctive and in no sense derivative, incorporates strong plainsong elements. The tone is often enigmatic and questioning; there is no facile confidence in the assurances of redemption and eternal life, or in the final plea for deliverance from eternal death.

It was given an excellent performance under James Savage, the Cathedral's music director, with Joseph Adam at the organ supplemented by a harp and percussion; Page Smith was a warmly sympathetic cello soloist in the Pie Jesu movement.

In his short but powerful address, Father Ryan linked the occasion to national issues (deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan) as well as the local tragedy of the Seattle police officer murdered a few days before. The whole occasion struck this secular observer as impressive for its quiet intensity and the strong sense it conveyed of a faith community, diverse in age and gender (rather less so ethnically) coming thoughtfully together for reflection amid great musical beauty.

By coincidence, on the same day, Anthony Robinson, writing in Crosscut to support its first membership campaign, said, 'ꀜThe people, gatherings, and institutions that make up the civil sector may not have global glitz, or neighborhood convenience, but they shape and sustain life in all sorts of ways. Crosscut keeps the lens focused there, and in doing so helps to build and sustain civil society.'ꀝ

This is true for the arts as well as in politics and the wider social issues that Crosscut covers. I hope readers will join us to sustain it.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors