This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending a concert of choral works by Maurice Duruflé performed by Florilegium Chamber Choir. They sang Duruflé’s Requiem along with his Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégorians (Four motets on Gregorian Themes), and a setting of the Lord’s Prayer. The choir sung beautifully and the intensity of Duruflé’s works were certainly rendered in a compelling manner—especially the end of the Requiem‘s final movement, “In Paradisum”—but the real joy of the afternoon was due to a thunderstorm that rolled in during the Requiem. In fact, the whole concert experience was almost invaded by the sounds of the outside world, not only by the thunderstorm, but also by the busy noises of traffic and people on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
When the concert began, I was annoyed by the sounds of buses and chatter and other noise that was entering the hall. “Why don’t they shut that door,” I thought to myself as I heard the outside sounds interfering with my ability to hear the musicians singing. However once the Requiem began the invading noise began to shift to the sounds of rain and thunder. What was wonderfully appropriate was that some of the more intense and dark sections were punctuated by thunderclaps. During those moments some of the choir members were smiling, and I was captivated by this serendipitous combination of natural and human-made sounds.
The thunderclaps certainly added to the effect of the music. Although I doubt much of the choir and audience speaks Latin, one cannot deny the poignancy of thunder while hearing (or singing) of Christ delivering the souls of the departed from the pains of hell. So this natural coincidence served to enhance the meaning and experience of the concert.
This all highlighted the boundaries of what is considered music and art. Were these sounds part of the work as interpreted today? Certainly it’s easy to say that the thunderclaps were not part of the work as crafted by Duruflé; he didn’t write thunder into the score. On the other hand, since a live performance of music exists only in the moment it’s happening, was this performance of Duruflé’s work something else? Was this performance its own work or art—obviously related to the Requiem—but nonetheless a thing in its own right? Can we even call the sounds of nature interjected into this experience part of an artistic experience? Or was it just coincidence?