Fictional Letter from Maurice Duruflé to Marcel Dupré

12 August, 1935

Dear Marcel,

It has come to my attention that the situation between Louis Vierne and yourself seems to have deteriorated beyond the point of repair, or so it would seem.[1] I know that you received a letter a while ago from the American organ builder Ernest Skinner about this matter.[2] I would like to add my voice to his and propose that you and Vierne move on from this unfortunate incident and resume friendly relations. It is my firm belief that the two of you could return to your friendship from before this incident. If there is any time to resume relations, it is now, especially with the organ restoration project at Notre Dame; you could not only save a friendship, but benefit the restoration of one of France’s finest organs in the process. Your partnership, and a partnership between St. Sulpice[3] and Notre dame, would elevate France’s liturgical music culture in the eyes of the world.

Marcel, I urge you to think of the warmth of your early relationship with Vierne. Think of the time that he first heard you play, when he congratulated you with a kiss,[4] and recognizing your talent, set you on the path of a great organist. Or, think of when he led you to your first prize in improvisation.[5] Vierne was quite influential in helping you get to where you are now, and I don’t think that a little squabble should cause you to forget this. Quite frankly, this seems somewhat childish. By now, I think that Vierne has moved on, and he is able to look back with fondness on his early relationship with you.[6] You must move on too. I think if you reached out to him, he would be receptive.

Vierne has also been an important and influential teacher in my life, and in the lives of many others. When I began lessons with him, I was struck by his calm temper, which was a welcome change from Charles Tournemire. Nevertheless, he was rigorous and disciplined, especially in his teaching of improvisation.[7] He has helped many students, including myself, prepare for the Prix d’Orgue.[8] He taught me the importance of being intentional with my movements, and this helped me learn virtuosic pieces with ease.[9] He is a well respected figure in French organ music, and it is a pity that two influential minds and musicians should be estranged from one another. In many disciplines, great minds together accomplish more than they could alone. This is true at the organ as well. There is so much potential which is currently going unrealized.

I am, of course, aware of the strongly worded letter which Vierne wrote to Canon Delaage regarding this situation.[10] I would agree that some of the things he said in that letter were harsh. However, you must be sympathetic to Vierne’s point of view. Is it not understandable that he should be proud to call himself the “Organist Titulaire of Notre Dame?” Given your publicity on your American tour, and your American manager advertising you as the “Notre Dame Organist,” as well as other title-related issues on your tour,[11] is it not reasonable that Vierne should feel that his post might be in jeopardy? Additionally, I think some of this might have been caused, or at least magnified, by his friends, fueling his jealousy and pouncing on an opportunity to play politics.[12]

Also, do consider the fact that Vierne had quite the hardship to deal with at the time. Remember that the reason for his four year absence was to undergo complex surgical procedures for his eyes in Switzerland. I know that these were long and painful, and required much rest and recuperation. And what misfortune to learn of the slaying of one’s father and brother in the Great War while one is stuck in Switzerland and can do nothing about it.[13] Such despair even makes its way into his music: I can hear it in his Piano Quintet and fourth Symphony, especially with its atonal prelude.[14] I implore you to consider Vierne’s emotional state at the time as you make your judgement on him. Given his life circumstances, we can not place all of the blame for this letter squarely on Vierne’s shoulders.

I am sure you are aware of the repairs that Vierne is attempting to raise funds for on the Notre Dame organ. Indeed, it still lies in a similar, or possibly worse state of disrepair from when you left it.[15] Recently, he gave a recital for that purpose featuring his works and those of Franck.[16] I was there and he played splendidly. Perhaps you might make an appearance at one of the upcoming programs to reacquaint yourself with your old teacher and mentor. Who knows? Maybe you might play a benefit recital yourself for the Notre Dame organ. Indeed, this instrument is one of the jewels of French organ building,
and of French music in general. It would be a shame for such an instrument to remain in the state it is currently in.

More than just the Notre Dame organ, however, your friendship could pave the way for collaboration between St. Sulpice and Notre Dame. I assume that you are familiar with your predecessor Widor’s Mass for Two Organs and Two Choirs. You and Vierne could combine forces to create such a mass, using the two choirs of Notre Dame and St. Sulpice. This would be the envy of liturgical musicians everywhere, and would elevate the position of French liturgical art. Also, the two of you could also do some fantastic work in double organ improvisation which could set a new standard in the French organ school.

However, none of this will be possible if your relationship with Vierne continues as it is now. Such potential would go wasted and unrealized. In light of this, I think it is time that the two of you put this incident behind you, and resume the friendship that has been regretfully neglected for the last fifteen years. The future of French liturgical music, and the prestige it holds in the world, depend on it.

Yours sincerely,

Maurice Duruflé

[1] Vierne and Dupré’s once amicable relationship deteriorated when Dupré substituted for Vierne at Notre Dame from 1916-20. For publicity, Dupré often used questionable titles such as “The Notre Dame Organist,” which were interpreted by Vierne and his friends as an attempt by Dupré to usurp Vierne’s position as Organist Titulaire. See Rollin Smith, Louis Vierne, Organist of Notre Dame Cathedral (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 1999), chapter 8.

[2] Smith 341

[3] Dupré was appointed as Titulaire of St. Sulpice in 1934. See François Sabatier. “Dupré, Marcel.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 23, 2015,

[4] Louis Vierne, Mes Souvenirs. Cahiers et Mémoires de l’Orgue, No. 3 (134bis). Paris, Les Amis de l’Orgue, 1970: 159-161. Reprinted in Smith 6-319.

[5] Vierne, reprinted in Smith 165.

[6] As evidenced by the fact that Vierne speaks fondly of Dupré in Mes Souvenirs. See Smith 342.

[7] Maurice Duruflé, “My Recollections of Tournemire and Vierne,” The American Organist, vol. 14 no. 11 (1980): 54

[8] George Baker, “An Interview with Maurice Duruflé,” The American Organist, vol. 14 no. 11, (1980): 57-58

[9] James E. Frazier, Maurice Duruflé: The Man and His Music (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007), 32.

[10] Louis Vierne, Letter from Louis Vierne to Canon Delaage, reprinted in Smith 335-8. This letter was a strongly worded complaint to Canon Delaage, Archprêtre of Notre Dame, about Dupré’s usage of the title of “Organist of Notre Dame,” and asked Delaage to deliberately specify that Dupré was not authorized to call himself “Organist of Notre Dame.”

[11] Smith 339

[12] Smith 335

[13] Scott Cantrell, “Louis Vierne: His Life and Works,” The American Organist, vol. 14 no. 11 (1980): 46

[14] Thomson, Andrew. 1995. “Vierne and Tournemire.” Choir & Organ 3, no. 5: 23. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed October 6, 2015).

[15] Cantrell 46

[16] La Semaine à Paris, No. 353, (March 8, 1929), 84. In this letter, Duruflé conveniently omits the fact that Madeleine Richepin sang on that recital as well, because Richepin disliked Dupré, and was one of Vierne’s friends who fueled Vierne’s jealousy toward Dupré (see Smith 335).