Duruflé “Requiem” & Herbolsheimer Works


September 25, 2016, 3pm | Plymouth Church, Seattle



Bern Herbolsheimer (1948-2016)


Bern Herbolsheimer (1948-2016)

I AM THE VINE (2009) 

Bern Herbolsheimer (1948-2016)


Bern Herbolsheimer (1948-2016)

Jubilate! Young Women’s Ensemble | Stacey Sunde, Director

REQUIEM Opus 9 (1947)

Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986)

Doug Cleveland, organ

Stacey Sunde, mezzo soprano

Virginia Dziekonski, cello

Bern Herbolsheimer (1948–2016)

Seattle’s choral community has rarely known such a loss as the death of Bern Herbolsheimer this past January. We choral folk tend to claim Bern as our own, even though we know this is unfair. After all, his operas have been performed across the world: Aria da capo gained quite a vogue in Germany, and The Quartet recently premiered at Carnegie Hall. His orchestral music was written for august bodies like the Florida Symphony and Seattle Symphony, and his ballets for Frankfurt Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and other major companies. His instrumental chamber music is performed regularly, especially by Seattle players who knew him well. To listen to Bern’s music for solo voice and piano—especially his versions of old American folksongs—is to laugh and to grin and to cry. He composed more than 500 works.  And beyond his compositions, he was well-loved as a pedagogue at Cornish College of the Arts and the University of Washington. He was as sensitive a pianist as you will ever hear, and as supportive to a vocalist as can be imagined. Bern was a busy fellow.

But with Bern’s choral music… ah, here we are in extra-special territory. He had a very close relationship with three major choirs in Seattle. First was the resident ensemble at St. James Cathedral, for whom he wrote in the 1980s and ‘90s, adding a new, fresh voice to liturgical music. Through that experience he developed friendships with the conductors of the next two ensembles, the Cascadian Chorale and Opus 7, both of whom commissioned, premiered, re-performed, and recorded Bern’s music with almost religious zeal. Bern thus had the opportunity to compose both sacred and secular music for expert ensembles, and explored the possibilities with zest. Among his sacred works are straightforward carol arrangements such as Stille Nacht, virtuosic masterworks like David Mourns for Absalon, multi-movement cantatas, two Masses, an award-winning Te Deum to rival any of history’s great settings of that text, and simple, unison songs with piano such as Blessed (performed today by St. James’ Jubilate! ensemble). His darkly passionate Seven Last Words, probably his most performed large-scale work, bridges these worlds, involving sacred texts but having been composed for a secular community chorus. Bern’s concert music includes many folksong arrangements, such as the haunting Red River Valley and the raucous Ratcoon. His chosen poetry was always brilliant, including humorously fourteenth-century texts for Ralph Roister Doister, Tatar folk poetry for Love Letters and Nightingale’s Tongue; Baudelaire in Mirrors of Love, and a Civil War-era lament for One Vacant Chair. As diverse as the texts were, such were the moods that Bern converted to sound and the constructions that he fashioned to convey the depth of each unique sentiment.

Though the world didn’t know it, Bern was one of the most gifted choral composers of our time. Every work is brilliantly crafted. Every pitch, every syllable, every rhythm, every dynamic, every articulation, every element of music feels perfectly in place. There is nary an extraneous or superfluous note or marking to be found. More importantly, all of that attention to detail exists not merely for its own ends, but for an emotional, inherently communicative effect. Bern was—rather, he is—a deeply thinking and deeply feeling composer of a variety rarely found in history.


Bern Herbolsheimer (1948–2016)

Father William E. Gallagher was the parish priest at St. James Cathedral, the principal Catholic church in the Seattle area, from 1973 to 1988. His term was marked by two major shifts in the very nature of the cathedral’s worship. The first was to develop a deeper sense of community among the parishioners, and the second was to improve the cathedral’s languishing music department. In 1981, he hired Dr. James Savage as the cathedral’s music director, and together they fashioned one of the leading church music programs in the country. In fact, those two shifts went hand in hand; as Dr. Savage has said: “Father Gallagher believed that the way to build the parish was through a vigorous music program.” Part of that transition involved commissioning new liturgical music from a leading local composer. Bern Herbolsheimer’s It was not you was written to commemorate Father Gallagher’s retirement.

This short church anthem exemplifies Bern’s simple but sophisticated craft. It is in two main parts, with a brief homophonic bridge and a gentle coda. The two main sections have the same melodic idea of a steadily rising fifth. The first time the text is “It was not you who chose me”, whereas the second time it is “This I command you”, as if the commandment were a direct result, even a benefit, of having been chosen. The harmony, as is often in Bern’s music, is vaguely French, sprinkled with modal and pentatonic flavors. Those primary sections both begin in E minor, flirting with E major. The final exhortation to “love one another” has no such ambiguity, but leads restfully to D major.

Beati quorum via (1999)

Bern Herbolsheimer (1948–2016)

Bern was Composer-in-Residence with the Cascadian Chorale for so long that no one in the organization quite remembers when the relationship began. Cascadian was then directed by Philip Tschopp, who sings regularly in Choral Arts Northwest. Bern’s Beati quorum via is a special hybrid: a sacred text set for a secular choir. It is modeled somewhat on Charles Villiers Stanford’s setting of the text, composed about 110 years previously. Like the Stanford, Bern’s work is set for six-part choir, with sopranos and basses divided. Also like the Stanford, the three women’s parts often function more or less independently from the men’s. But after these superficial similarities, Bern’s music is all Bern.

The harmonies in Beati quorum via demonstrate well how Bern was influenced by the past century of French music. At the outset, women sing closely spaced chords of E major alternating with widely spaced chords of G major. This static harmonic oscillation is far more reminiscent of Debussy and Satie than of Stanford. The repetitions recall footfalls as one walks a path steadily, slowly, gently; E major feels like home, G major more a dream than reality. Meanwhile, the tenors sing a smooth rising line, lingering on pitches dissonant to the women’s chords. After a chant-like section when the whole choir is in octaves, the men and women trade roles. The men now oscillate between A-flat major and C-flat major, which have the same harmonic relationship to each other as the women’s initial chords did. The sopranos’ rising line bears some resemblance to the earlier tenor line. There is another chant episode, then the work ends calmly in G major: what had been a widely spaced, dreamlike chord at the beginning is now a peaceful, resonant, blessed home.

I am the vine (2009)

Bern Herbolsheimer (1948–2016)

I am the vine is one of six settings of inscriptions found on the walls of St. James Cathedral. The text is from the same biblical chapter as that of It was not you, also performed in this concert. The commission specifies that the work was written “for those branches in our midst who serve,” referencing the text that compares worshippers to parts of a vine. Bern depicts the vine ingeniously in the music itself: two parts, initially alto and soprano, whose melodic fragments interweave, growing steadily to a contemplative pentatonic chord. This repeats a step higher, as the vines crawl up. When the text shifts to the branches, the sopranos leap up as if reaching dramatically to the sky. For the final declaration that the faithful will “bear much fruit,” Bern returns to the opening music with subtle changes that relax the harmony to a gentle D major.

Requiem (1947)

Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986)

The text of the Catholic Missa pro defunctis—the Mass for the Dead, or more colloquially the Requiem Mass—evolved over several centuries, and began to attract composers by the late 1400s. Mozart’s 1791 setting is certainly the most well-known, and was the first to add a greater sense of drama to the liturgical text. Hector Berlioz (1837) took the drama to a further extreme by calling for a chorus and orchestra of gargantuan proportions, even incorporating sixteen timpanists and several additional brass bands. Giuseppe Verdi (1874) and Antonín Dvořák (1890) contributed similarly dramatic if less excessive Requiems, as did a host of lesser known figures. In 1887–93, however, the Frenchman Gabriel Fauré took a decidedly different approach by imbuing into his Requiem a sense of calm: avoiding the drama of damnation, embracing eternal rest.

Enter to the scene Maurice Duruflé, a quiet, unassuming organist, composer, and pedagogue in Paris. A major component of his training as a teenager at the cathedral in Rouen had been the scholarship of the Benedictine monks at Solesmes, who had codified plainchant into modern notation in the 1890s. Further apprenticeships and training from Louis Vierne and Charles Tournemire, both participants in the revival of chant, honed young Duruflé’s interest. Having completed his conservatory training with the highest prizes, Duruflé in 1930 became organist at St. Étienne-du-Mont, a post he retained until his death. Starting in 1942, amid the depths of the Second World War, he taught harmony at the Paris Conservatoire. At this time he turned his mind to the great Requiem tradition.

The exact inspiration behind Duruflé’s work has been questioned deeply and somewhat controversially in recent years. It emerged that Duruflé in 1941 accepted a commission for an orchestral tone poem. The commission came from the Vichy government, which ruled on behalf of the occupying German forces. Six years later, the postwar French government accepted the Requiem as fulfillment of that commission. This in itself should exonerate Duruflé from any misguided accusation that he was a German collaborator; he was simply a musician trying to survive during an economically difficult time. We also know that, at around this time, Duruflé was at work composing not a tone poem but an organ suite based on the ancient Requiem chants. Perhaps this tone poem was merely to be an orchestrated version of the suite. Duruflé stated years later that, after completing the Sanctus and Communio sections of the suite, he had realized that these chants required voices for their full fruition. Near the work’s completion, he gained another commission from his publisher, Durand. Coincidentally, Duruflé’s liaison with the publisher had once held a post with Vichy. In essence, it seems wisest to theorize that Duruflé wrote the Requiem simply because he loved the chants, and that he found ways to get paid for the work.

Amid all of this jumble, we cannot neglect the death of Duruflé’s father in 1945; the score is dedicated to his memory. This pulls us back to the nineteenth-century Requiems: Fauré’s is dedicated to his parents, who had died just before its composition. Duruflé makes other direct references to Fauré, most obviously the basic mood of the piece. Here is peace, calm, and contemplation; we are worlds away from the doom and gloom of Berlioz or Verdi. Like Fauré, Duruflé omits the Dies irae sequence. Similarly, he assigns the Pie Jesu couplet to a mezzo-soprano solo, and displaces it from its usual place in the liturgy. Both Requiems conclude with the In Paradisum text, taken not from the Requiem Mass but from the Catholic burial service. But these are all superficial, casual observations. At its core, the music itself hardly recalls Fauré at all—even Duruflé himself, a renowned professor of harmony, averred: “I do not think I was influenced by Fauré…. I have simply tried to surround myself with the style suitable to the Gregorian chants.” In fact, chant is woven into the very fabric of the work: melodically, rhythmically, harmonically, metrically, and even structurally.

The Requiem’s opening seconds demonstrate clearly that this is an unprecedented sound-world. The organ (or strings, in the original orchestral version) flows in D minor, and after just one bar of introduction, the tenors and basses in F major intone the

chant traditionally associated with the text: “Requiem aeternam” (“Eternal rest”). After each phrase of the text, the women interject with a brief, wordless line that echoes and outlines the chant just heard. After a middle section for sopranos and altos only, it is not the chorus but the organ that sings the initial chant. The Kyrie follows without a break. It is almost a canon, with the basses’ and tenors’ very similar entrances offset by one bar. The middle section uses a similar technique: the theme is pronounced by the altos first, then the sopranos a third higher. The men finally interrupt with a rapturous horn-call. The organ initiates the third movement’s chant, continued by altos. The full choir—for the first time homophonic, or singing with the same rhythm and text—beg that the dead be saved “from the mouth of the lion, … from darkness,” descending amid harmonic complexity that Fauré would never have considered. After a marvelous climax, the organ returns to the initial theme. The baritone soloist leads a prayer of sacrificial offerings, the organ tremblant (trembling, or with vibrato) like a haze of incense.

A brook-like organ figure pervades the Sanctus. Duruflé plays with liturgical convention: traditionally the word “sanctus” is stated three times, and now Duruflé gives three statements of the entire phrase. Powerful fanfares of “hosanna” provide the loudest music, marked triple-forte, of this famously quiet Requiem. Surprisingly, Duruflé called the Pie Jesu aria for mezzo-soprano “unsuccessful and detestable.” Audiences have long disagreed. The ghost of Fauré haunts this movement’s structure, harmony, and mood. Chant is subsumed into modern French delicacy, returning more overtly in Agnus Dei, but it is in the Lux æterna that chant takes over. Duruflé bends the rhythm and meter entirely to the chant’s will. Organ and unaccompanied chorus alternate the use of chant, with wordless voices supporting the sopranos. Twice the chorus intones on repeated notes, allowing the organ to act as a praying congregation.

Duruflé begins his Libera me in the same manner that Fauré had his entire Requiem: with trumpets, or the trumpet stop on the organ, in octaves of just one note, long held and slowly diminishing. The text first mentions the “day of wrath” (“dies iræ”) that Duruflé had omitted earlier. The composer eschews chant at the most dramatic point, when, as he put it, “an original musical fabric inspired by the text takes over completely.” The music calms, but the basses are a measure behind the rest of the choir, resulting in an echo of the final words: “per ignem” (“through fire”). When the full chorus adopts the basses’ original tune, the tensile organ writing, with notes suspended from the previous chords such that crucial notes are temporarily withheld, this is not comforting, but a repetition of a heart-felt plea. The tenors alone sing a brief, almost hopeless “per ignem.”

For the finale, we return entirely to chant. The text is no longer a prayer to God but a statement of hope addressed directly to the departed soul. A pentatonically tinged chord more familiar to Debussy than to Fauré builds glassily, introducing the listener to “Paradisum”—the heavenly Paradise. The choir of angels, united and at peace, accompanies the organ’s chant and delicately rising chords. The final F-sharp seventh chord—far from the harmonic ambiguity with which the Requiem began—is peppered by a single delayed pentatonic G-sharp, for heaven is never quite what we expect: it is better.

Duruflé’s entire Requiem—and particularly its shimmering conclusion—adds support to the supposition of a prominent American scholar of French music: “In France, Death wears pink chiffon.” This work speaks not just for Duruflé or for chant, but for all France.

Its premiere took place not in a worship service or a concert hall, but over the radio, to be heard throughout the country. This was 1947, on November 2: All Souls Day, when Roman Catholics pray for the dead. The two other pieces on that program, both for orchestra alone, were titled In memoriam. Whatever his inspiration and motivation for composing the Requiem, Duruflé had unwittingly tapped deep into the French soul’s need to mourn after the Second World War. But the composer, a notorious perfectionist whose complete output could fit onto three CDs, himself was unsatisfied with the work, decrying privately: “Oh what a disaster that I let this work be published!” We can be grateful that he did.

Program notes and translations prepared by Dr. Gary D. Cannon, www.cannonesque.com.

  © 2016 Gary D. Cannon. All rights reserved. Further use is prohibited except by agreement.