The Lost Chord: An Experiment in Practical Musicology

Maurice Durufle, in front of an organ, very much like all other organs.
Maurice Durufle, in front of an organ, very much like all other organs.

Like many of you, I have always been struck almost viscerally by the unearthly quality of the organ chord which introduces the forte section of the setting of the ‘Dies Irae’ text in Durufle’s Requiem [at 2’36” inhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSQ14ObHPEE]. In search of the truth behind this mighty chord, I have read avidly about Durufle in English, French and Swahili (by mistake, since I understand not a word). Like most of you, I suppose, I am particularly intrigued by his role in the great Louis Vierne’s last, and indeed fatal, organ recital.

Vierne – as I’m sure you will recall – was a nearly-blind French organist and composer who like many of his ilk (Widor, Durufle and Messiaen to name but three) was adept in the difficult but impressive art of the improvised organ fugue. Before delivering his ultimate performance on 2 June 1937, Vierne had let it be known that he wished to die at the console of the great organ of cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. He had, according to witnesses, completed the main recital, drawn stops, and was about to improvise a fugue on a subject he had just been given, when he collapsed and died at the organ console, as he had wished; his eyes rolling back into his head like those of a exasperated, camp game-show host at a solemn reburial.

At his side in the organ loft, pulling stops, was a young Maurice Durufle.

Vierne, with someone other than Durufle pulling stops and managing not to collapse.
Vierne, with someone other than Durufle pulling stops and managing not to collapse.

It is my contention that the reason Durufle left him to die on the keys, rather than performing emergency first aid, was that Durufle was hurriedly scribbling down the chord that Vierne’s mortal remains had struck, with the intention of using it in a future composition. This was the chord noted above.

In the attempt to prove the plausibility of this hypothesis, I set myself the task of carrying out some experiments on the organ of St Dympna’s the next time I had a chance to play there. So last Thursday I had the chance to try it out.

Firstly, I simulated a heart attack and slumped forward across all three manuals with all stops out, sliding down into a hunched, fetal position on the pedals. The noise was impressively loud – making the whole church shake – but far too disperse to fit the Durufle Requiem chord. Clearly something else was required.

On attempt number 2, I tried twisting to one side and making contact on the Great Organ manual with left elbow and right hand. This was closer, but still contained chromatic clusters which ruled it out.

Finally, I imagined falling face-first on the keys and clawing desperately at the manual either side. This time, the family of the man whose funeral was taking place asked that I be removed from the church.

The organ of St Dympna's, photographed later by the police.
The organ of St Dympna’s, photographed later by the police.

Further research is necessary.

About the author: Jeff de Cuisine is a keen amateur organist. He is currently banned from over 23 churches, 3 town halls, 4 registry offices and an ice hockey rink.

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