The Sea We Swim In

The two principle works on Chorale’s June 9 concert, Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem and J.S. Bach’s double choir motet, Komm, Jesu, komm, though very different in most respects, are both meditations on death. 

The Vichy regime, which governed France during the Nazi occupation during the early 1940’s, commissioned Duruflé to compose a symphonic poem; he chose instead to write a requiem mass, utilizing thematic material from the Gregorian Mass for the Dead. Always a self-critical perfectionist, Duruflé worked on it, very slowly, up to the time of the regime’s collapse, in 1944.  After the end of World War II, he once again took it up, completing it in September, 1947. Though not specifically designated as such, it stands as a requiem for the war’s dead, much as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem memorializes those who died during World War I.

I first encountered the Requiem when I was bass section leader of the Chamber Singers at Holy Name Cathedral, in Chicago. Cardinal John Cody died on April 25, 1982, and our director, Richard Proulx, programmed Duruflé’s requiem mass for the cardinal’s funeral.  Few of us were familiar with the work, and we had to prepare it very quickly—the funeral took place on April 30.  So I had little time to reflect upon the piece, beyond noticing that it was warm, comforting, and gentle in character, much like the Fauré Requiem, that the vocal writing was gracious and idiomatic—easy on the voice—and that the organ part was fiendishly difficult.   I have had many opportunities to return to it in the years since, as chorister, soloist, and conductor, in many and diverse settings, with several different organs and organists.  Each time I perform it, I am struck anew by Duruflé’s skill, and craft, in incorporating the plainchant melodic lines with his dramatic, virtuosic organ style, creating a seamless, wholly integrated work, which combines ancient and modern musical elements in such a fearless, compelling manner. And does so with music of extraordinary sensual beauty.

Chorale last performed this work nine years ago, on March 27, 2010.  Three hours before our scheduled Wednesday dress rehearsal, I received a telephone call from the police department in Harrisburg, Illinois, informing me that my daughter and two of her close friends, on a spring break bicycle trip, had been struck by a van on a remote road in southern Illinois, and had been airlifted to trauma centers in Evansville, Indiana.  My wife and a friend immediately left, by car, for the hospital; I had to stay and run the rehearsal.  I had no cell phone at that time, so I gave my wife the phone number of Jacob Karaca, a member of the choir.  Halfway through our rehearsal, his phone rang. One of the girls was dead, the other two severely injured; our daughter was in a coma, her life hanging in the balance. And then I returned to our rehearsal of Duruflé’s Requiem, a work which had suddenly taken on new meaning for me. We worked for another half hour, and then I had to stop, as the situation caught up to me.  John Gorder, our pastor, came to the church; members of Chorale kicked in to arrange housing, meals, rides to school for our other children; to find me a plane ticket; to take care of our dogs and cats; to arrange a ride to the airport.  I went home, and our phone was ringing, almost non-stop, with calls from reporters, family members, friends-- national news services had picked up the story, and news of the girls’ accident was being broadcast all over the country.  I flew to Evansville and rushed to the hospital—my wife met me at the front door, and then we spoke with one of the surgeons, who wept as he told us that our daughter’s face had been broken like an eggshell.  I was allowed in to see her—her appearance was one of the most shocking things I had seen in my life.

Kaia, Faith, Julia_ March 24, 2010.jpg

Our daughter pulled through.  So did Julia, the second friend.  When I was sure Kaia was going to make it, I flew back to Chicago, in time to conduct our Saturday night concert of Duruflé’s Requiem. Our pastor spoke to the audience before we began, telling them that we were dedicating our performance to the memory of Faith Dremmer, the girl who had died.  The next morning I attended Faith’s funeral; afterward, I collected our other three children, and a friend, Bill Bennett, drove us back to Evansville, where we waited as Kaia recovered sufficiently to travel back to Chicago.

As wonderful a piece of music as it is, Duruflé’s Requiem means more to me than the notes on the page would dictate.  Music is not just pretty, escapist stuff that exists in a sheltered vacuum; high art, low art, in-between art, it is the very matrix in which we live.  It doesn’t just accompany us: it runs in our veins; we swim in it, it sustains us. As I prepare for our coming concert, I relive those events of nine years ago; and I’m sure they live, as well, in the musical choices I will make, this time around. 

Bruce Tammen1 Comment