by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Son of Italian immigrant parents, Dominick Argento (1927-) was largely self-taught. After serving as a cryptographer in North Africa during World War II, he studied from 1951 to 1954 at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory. Here the influence of Hugo Weisgall motivated Argento to change from being a career pianist to an all-consuming devotion to opera and vocal composition. Subsequently at the Eastman School of Music he studied under Howard Hanson, Richard Rogers and Alan Hovhannes. After a sojourn in Florence, Italy, Argento joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota where he became deeply involved in the operatic and musical life of the Twin Cities. He has resided there ever since.
Commentators' observations note the remarkable parallels between Argento's career and that of Benjamin Britten. James Sutcliffe observes: "Both fine pianists and superb orchestrators, their music combines an impish sense of humor with a darker form of tonal expressivity ... Both create stage characters who come alive through the music they are given. Both tend to favour the variation form in their works, and both rejected the academic 19th-century aesthetic, preferring instead the 17th-century models of Purcell and Monteverdi."
Argento has been influenced by a wide range of musical styles which he has integrated well into his post-romantic tendencies. These he has disciplined by the self-imposed restrictions of classical forms. While essentially a tonal composer, he has adapted the 12-tone row to provide a source of motivic and melodic variation materials. His compositions impress the listener as being in the presence of a strong musical personality.
Recognition of Argento as a leading American composer has developed significantly in the past 20 years. His operas, especially, have been performed in major European and American opera houses and festivals. He has been the beneficiary of two Guggenheim Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. Likewise, he has received several honorary doctorates and has been elected a Fellow to the Institutes of the American Academy and Academy of Arts and Letters.
In 1987, the Buffalo Schola Cantorum commissioned Argento to compose his Te Deum in celebration of its golden jubilee, and the work was premiered by it. In October, 1988, the Plymouth Music Series under Philip Brunelle presented its Midwest premiere. On April 25 of this year, the work received its West Coast premiere with the Pacific Chorale conducted by John Alexander.
Argento himself provides a most apt description of his Te Deum (Verba Domini cum verbis populi) ("the Word of the Lord with the words of the people.") "The words of this Te Deum, as its subtitle implies, are partly liturgical and partly non-liturgical. Associated with each of the six Latin sections is an anonymous Middle English lyric which either treats the theology of the original [Latin] text in vivid and popular language or is almost a vernacular paraphrase of the Latin itself. This was done for musical and linguistic variety; the liturgical text seemed to call for a serious and learned treatment throughout - what, in Mozart's day, used to be termed the 'church style.' In fact, the image of a medieval cathedral seemed inescapable during the composition of the Latin portions.) To avoid the monotony of an all-pervading solemnity, the Middle English out-of-doors music provides, as it were, a sometimes lusty and humorous, sometimes pastoral and contemplative commentary, but always to reinforce the faith expressed in the beautiful prayer that the Te Deum is."
Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) stands as one of the eloquent 20th-century spokesmen for the great tradition of French organ and religious music. At the age of 18 he entered the Paris Conservatory, studying under a number of prominent performers, academicians and composers among whom were Vierne, Tournemire and Dukas. He was professor of harmony at the Conservatory from 1943 to 1969. In 1961, Pope John XXIII conferred on him the honor of Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory in recognition of his outstanding contribution to sacred music.
After World War II, the French publishing firm of Durand et Cie in 1947 commissioned Duruflé to compose a Requiem. In view of this commission and the fact that it was premiered in November, 1947 over Paris Radio under the baton of Roger Desormiere, one may conclude that the Requiem commemorates France's war dead. Duruflé dedicated his Requiem to his father. An exceedingly fastidious and cautious composer, Duruflé followed in the footsteps of Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), whose famed Requiem emphasized the more consoling, hopeful aspects of the ritual text rather than the dramatic. Even more than Fauré, however, Duruflé was influenced in much of his sacred music by Gregorian chant, from which he drew his thematic materials. In the Requiem, he maintains the suppleness of the Gregorian melody while decking it with brilliant modal harmonies and surrounding it, as Xavier Durasse has observed, with polyphony.
Duruflé has described his Requiem in these terms: "My Requiem is built entirely from the Gregorian themes of the Mass for the Dead. At times, the text is paramount, and therefore the orchestra intervenes only to sustain or to comment. At other times an original musical fabric, inspired by the text takes over completely, notable in the [offertory] Domine Jesu Chri.ste, the Sanctus and the Libera me. In general I have tried to reconcile as far as possible the very flexible Gregorian melodies as established by the Benedictine [monks] of Solesmes with the exigencies of modern notation. As for the musical form of each of the movements, it is dictated by the form of the liturgy itself. The ensemble effect between voices and orchestra serves to emphasize the idea of comfort, faith and hope."
Tonight’s performance of the Requiem of Maurice Duruflé is dedicated to the memory of Roger Wagner. The entire 1992-93 season was dedicated to the memory of the Founder and Music Director Laureate of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The late conductor had a particular affinity for the Duruflé Requiem as he was a personal friend of the composer.