Marie-Madeleine Duruflé; A Model for Today’s Women Organists
by Sarah Jane Starcher
As the tide of time flows continually on, it is easy for figures who have passed on, however famous they may have been in their own day, to fade into the objectively impersonal pages of history. Histories are in reality rarely impersonal however, and the field of music, where so much is based on developments occurring over the course of centuries, is no exception. They are instead a connection of intertwined threads which serve as links from the past to the present. Furthermore, the stories of the lives of the great musicians of the past may serve as an abundant source of inspiration to those living now, whose lives are in reality very similar to those who have lived before them. Several of the finest organists of the twentieth century were women, who although having died in the past few decades, are rarely today spoken of today, particularly among the younger generation of organists. One of these women, Jeanne Marie-Madeleine Duruflé Chevalier, is often only mentioned in connection with the accomplishments of her husband, the eminent Maurice Duruflé. Marie-Madeleine, as she was called, was herself a distinguished organist as well, however, and her rise to prominence in spite of adversity deserves memory.
Marie-Madeleine Chevalier was born on May 8th, 1921 in Marseille, France. A precocious child, she began piano study early on with her grandmother and progressed rapidly in her musical studies. Her family took note of her quickly developing talents and decided to relocate to Paris to provide her with the finest teachers available. This idyllic arrangement was interrupted however, by her father’s loss of employment resulting in the necessity of returning to their former residence in Southern France. This seeming setback was not entirely negative. Marie-Madeleine’s obvious talent and Paris training were soon recognized and she was named titular organist of the cathedral of Cavaillon in 1933. The foundation for her future professional life as a church organist was laid in this post and her sister, Elaine Chevalier stated that, “she was nourished by this intense liturgical life of Masses, Vespers, and other ceremonies, to which she adapted, and which she, in turn, elevated by her talent”. In addition to benefitting from early professional experience, Marie-Madeleine also took this opportunity to study with the best teachers available in the area and continued formal studies at the Avignon Conservatory.
As her studies progressed, she began preparations for a return to Paris for the continuation of her musical studies. This included an audition with Marcel Dupre, professor of organ at the Paris Conservatory, in 1939. Greatly impressed, Dupre stated that she would join his class at the conservatory that fall.  Life circumstance again intervened however, and her relocation was prevented by the outbreak of World War II. During this period, Marie-Madeleine spent her time teaching and learning new repertoire. Her sister, Elaine reflected later that although this time was frustrating to Marie-Madeleine, the additional years of practice and extra repertoire learned placed her in good stead when she finally reached the Paris Conservatory in 1946.
Marie-Madeleine excelled at the Conservatory, as would be expected. A student, of Dupre, she also studied with Maurice Duruflé who filled in for Dupre on occasion. Duruflé recognized Marie-Madeleine’s talents and she was appointed to assist him at Saint Étienne –du-Mont, in Paris, in 1947. She continued to serve as organist there until shortly before her death. As her time at the Conservatory drew to a close, she won the premier prix in organ in 1949. In addition to becoming established and recognized professionally, she was also developing her personal life. In 1953, she married Duruflé. Although he was nineteen years her senior, their partnership was successful and enduring, and they supported each other on both professional and personal levels.
Following her time at the Paris Conservatory, Marie-Madeleine began a career as a recitalist concurrently with her liturgical functions. She played numerous joint recitals with her husband, Maurice, who highly esteemed her playing. When interviewed by the New York Times in 1989, she stated, “My husband was a very great virtuoso at the organ, but once he became my husband, I worked at it more than he did. Often he would say to me, “You play the most difficult pieces, and I play the ‘interpretation pieces’.” The couple’s concert alliance was highly regarded and they were invited multiple times for American and Russian recital tours.
In 1975, Marie-Madeleine again faced a major setback due to uncontrollable circumstances. She and her husband were injured so seriously in an automobile accident that the future of their careers was placed in jeopardy. Their recovery included multiple surgeries and was never fully complete. Although they were able to resume musical activities in time, the effects of the accident were still present and they were unable to make any further join American recital tours despite continuing invitations. Towards the end of his life in 1986, Maurice was cared for by his wife as he became increasingly debilitated. After her husband’s death, Marie-Madeleine continued to play both as a liturgical and concert organist, and to teach. She traveled to America to perform and taught for a semester at the University of North Texas in 1992. During her American tours she concertized in numerous cities across the country and made a Canadian appearance as well.
During the course of her life, Marie-Madeleine faced numerous challenges to establishing herself professionally. She overcame each of them and often what appeared on the surface to be major setbacks became fortuitous growing experiences. One personal and professional setback which deeply pained both her and her husband and for which she did not live to see a resolution was the liturgical changes of the 1960s. For Marie-Madeleine, work as a church organist had a highly personal dimension and she was deeply religious. She referred to liturgical playing as “musical incense”, a commentary on the interaction between the liturgical action of the traditional Catholic liturgy and the music appropriate for it. The French tradition of church organ playing was deeply rooted in the liturgy and during the tumultuous times of experimentation and changes, many organists spoke out regarding their distress at what appeared to be crumbling centuries of tradition. Their struggles were not in vain however, and could they have lived for another half a century following the period of change, they would have witnessed the gradual returning to tradition within the Catholic Church particularly among the younger generation. Women like Marie-Madeleine, who dedicated so much of her life and energies to continuing the traditions of liturgical playing and improvisation are a source of great inspiration to those now reclaiming these traditions.
Before her death on October 5, 1999, at the age of 78, Marie-Madeleine, received honors for her dedication including being named an Officer of Arts and Literature by the French Cultural Minister and receiving the Medaille de Vermeil from the City of Paris. Her liturgical contributions were recognized upon the fiftieth anniversary of her appointment to Saint-Éntienne-du-Mont in 1997. Now just over a decade since her death, Marie-Madeleine Duruflé still serves as a model for today’s women organists of a modern woman who successfully balanced professional and personal life with grace and elegance. Holding fast to her belief in her abilities and to what was important to her, she built her career through continual hard work and perseverance even in the face of adversity and difficulties. Her reward was holding one of the most prominent church positions in Paris for half a century and achieving an internationally recognized performing and teaching career.
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