Madame Marie-Madeleine Duruflé-Chevalier
University of North Texas
Recorded in February, 1992
Mme Duruflé was engaged at the University of North Texas College of Music as Artist-in-Residence January-June, 1992. Her contract specified 10 hours of weekly instruction for the semester, three public masterclasses, and a faculty recital. The recital and one masterclass were to be given in the context of an international conference entitled, “Neo-classicism in French organbuilding and composition 1920-1950,” featuring not only Mme Duruflé, but also Marie-Claire Alain, Marie-Louise Langlais, Jacqueline Englert-Marchal, Georges Danion, Clyde Holloway, and Lawrence Archbold.
To promote the conference and masterclasses, the university requested that Mme Duruflé be recorded at the auditorium organ. The resulting video was sent to local television outlets to advertise her concert and the larger conference scheduled at the very end of February, 1992.
I completely forgot, as the years passed, that this video existed. Indeed, I never saw the finished product as consumed with the conference and her residency as I was for that period. It was not until September 2019 that a former student, Christopher Rios, tracked it down in the UNT archives and brought it to my attention. I believe Mr. Rios was surprised that I had never mentioned the tape as he wrote in his initial email, “Your voice can be heard in the background.” Naturally with that prompt, I did indeed recall the recording session and was somewhat chagrined that I had forgotten this precious artifact.
Indeed, students were rarely present “up close” when she played. Unlike St-Sulpice or Notre-Dame, Paris, the tribune at St-Etienne-du-Mont is more difficult to access, and Mme Duruflé never left the access door unlocked. Even if I had been able to observe her hands closely, in the early 1980s I wouldn’t have known what to observe. With ten years of the so-called “Taubman” technique under my belt, I am now able to see specific items in her hands and arms that I would not have observed prior to 2007.
Naturally, I was aware of the video recorded in 1992 when she performed during one of the services at the Crystal Cathedral in California. It is an excellent tool, but the camera angles are superior in the UNT video and permit more detailed observation.
I had often lamented, following my work in Taubman, that I couldn’t watch Mme Durufle to see if any of Mrs. Taubman’s core beliefs were reflected in M-M Duruflé’s hands. Out of nowhere appeared Mr. Rios’ mail, and thanks to him, we have unearthed one of the most illuminating documentaries of keyboard technique that we have, especially in the organ world.
Before enumerating several characteristics of her playing, let me remind readers that the base of Mme Duruflés technique was pianistic. She studied piano from the time she was a small child, taught by her grandmother. She progressed swiftly through regional conservatories in the Avignon area, garnering first prizes in solfege and piano at age 13. Two years before, M-M Duruflé discovered the organ and was appointed titular organist in Cavaillon. From that first encounter with the instrument, she understood that her destiny was the organ, and was eventually introduced to Marcel Dupré following a concert he gave in Avignon in 1938. She was only able to travel to Paris at the end of the war, and when she arrived, Dupré asked her to work with his assistant at the time, Jeanne Demessieux. I believe it was this contact with Jeanne Demessieux that was decisive and insufficiently emphasized today in understanding the organist that Mme Duruflé quickly became.
There are two works, each recorded twice, on the video. The first, the famous Naîades of Louis Vierne, a work she cherished and played most of her life. The second work is the first movement of the Handel Organ Concerto in B-flat. Each “take” shows a different camera angle of her hands.
Before going further, I should note that Mme Duruflé was never curious about historic performance practices that were widely cultivated in France and reached the French organ world in the early 1950s. She remained essentially faithful to much (not all!) of the dogma of Marcel Dupré, somewhat modified and mollified by her husband, Maurice Duruflé. The Handel Concerto may sound dated to some listeners, but there are technical issues in her hands that are revealed, so close scrutiny is rewarded despite the rather archaic legato.
My students who first watched the video in October, 2019, were immediately struck with her posture at the organ. Despite the devastating auto accident in 1975, her torso is perfectly balanced over the “rockers” of the hips, with head, neck, shoulders, and back perfectly aligned. There is no slumping or rounding of the shoulders. French organists often lean in just a bit from the waist, always aligned, and many French organbuilders designed their consoles and keydesks in an effort to facilitate this position. There is never any sitting back on the tailbone which immediately immobilizes the feet and prohibits fluent pedaling. One observes this posture in almost every organist trained at the Paris conservatory under Dupré and his predecessors. Indeed, one of the best photographs exemplifying this posture was taken of Jeanne Demessieux at the Madeleine, several years before her death in 1968. Virtuosic pedaling is almost impossible without this posture.
Another basic consideration is movement. Only those movements permitting the hands and feet to locate correct notes are allowed. Mme Duruflé embodies this Widorian precept perfectly. There are no extraneous movements. She sits balanced and graceful, limiting movements to the absolute essential.
Notice also the near perfect alignment between arm and hand: most often, they form a single unit. The hand is not twisted at the wrist, allowing the carpel tunnel to remain wide open.
As for the hands, her default “position” illustrates the concept of long fingers perfectly, just as Horowitz used at the piano. Naturally, the “position” is altered whenever necessary to accommodate the particular technical demands of the passage in question. She “defaults” whenever possible to a longer finger, meaning only the natural bend in the middle finger joint. A rounded shape is certainly to be found, especially in Handel, but Mme Duruflé appears to resume her longer fingers whenever possible. Whatever shape the hand assumes, the fingers are never “held.”
Thumbs are relaxed and allowed to be straight, with no “hook” at the first joint (from the tip). There is no rigidity whatsoever. The entire thumb moves out from the hand as necessary from the joint attaching it to the hand. Her touch is light. She called this her “jeu de papillon” or butterfly touch. A deep legato is not needed for Naîades, so the scales are light, buoyant, and highly fluid, what some pianists call the “jeu perlé”. In her hands, Naîades appear natural and easy to play.
Some of the same traits are found in her performance of the Handel Concerto as well, but given the tonality, there are fewer passages where long fingers are deployed. The touch is a bit more incisive with somewhat faster attacks and releases. Of particular interest is her use of forearm rotation. There are several back and forth passages where Mme Duruflé uses rotation, some more subtle than others, allowing her to maintain suppleness at all times. Never is there a hint of rigidity.
Decisive finger action is at the very core of French pianism. Her technical pedagogy began and ended with incisive, energetic attacks and releases. Her students were often drilled in this technique by examples drawn from the Bach Orgelbuchlein where we were instructed to play the smallest note values at a very slow tempo in order to focus on a quick, energetic attack to the bottom of the key and an equally decisive second motion, the release, to the top of the key. She credited her electrifying releases to Jeanne Demessieux, and it is this simple technique that allowed both Mme Duruflé and Demessieux to play at brilliant tempos with absolute clarity, even in resonate spaces. Mme Duruflé’s friend, Pierre Labric, once asked Jeanne Demessieux if he should play slower in naves with great resonance, and she replied, “Mais non, cher Pierre, c’est une question d’articulation.” In other words, adjust touch, play less connected, but don’t compromise tempo.
These examples from Vierne and Handel, however, go beyond prescribed technical theory and confront real music. Clearly, she adjusted every technical parameter to the needs of the music at hand. Both the Vierne and Handel are clear and energetic (on an electropneumatic organ where releases are anything but energetic) without the aggressive attacks she was capable of mustering in other repertory, for instance in the Victimae Paschali of Tournemire or the B Major Prelude of Dupré. Indeed, her own keys at St-Etienne-du-Mont on the Great Manual acquired exaggerated “dips” in the ivory due to the power of her attacks in certain repertory.
Marie-Madeleine Duruflé-Chevalier was quintessentially French. She came of age in a time and region where international influences were few and far between. It was only after the war that there were greater influences coming from Germany and points further east. If we can consider arm weight and movements of the arm originating in Germany, they were not much practiced in France before the war, especially in Dupré’s organ class. With the exception of Blanche Selva and to a certain extent Alfred Cortot, the French piano school celebrated the fingers and relied on them almost exclusively until the 1950s and 60s. While not adhering rigidly to that dogma, Mme Duruflé did preach the gospel of the fingers and advocated playing organ without involving the arm, but this video bespeaks of a greater truth: arm involvement was fundamental to her technique at the organ, even if she was unaware of it, and this is obviously exemplified in her performance of Handel with forearm rotation and up/down movements.
Such is the case for many a celebrated artist: belief in a fairly iconoclastic theory, but on the concert stage, all the rules are thrown away. This applies to Mme Duruflé as well, and in multiple ways. Not only did she play with whatever technique she needed to assure control and ease, but in performance she threw “caution to the wind” and enjoyed herself immensely. She never permitted wrong notes, rhythm, or nuance in practice, but once on the stage, was able to throw away all control with abandon. She once told me, “Les fausses notes ? C’est la partie du feu !” (Wrong notes? It’s the ash after the fire!”)