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Part 1: Franck and Widor

ANDREW THOMSON explores the neglected composer Charles Tournemire

A crucial link between César Franck and Olivier Messiaen is the extraordinary French composer and organist Charles Tournemire (1870-1939). Despite this, his prolific oeuvre remains generally obscure, and very little of it is regularly featured in recital programmes, compared with other works of the French school, by such as Widor, Vierne, Dupré, Duruflé, Langlais and Messiaen. Indeed, a recent book by Michael Murray, French Masters of the Organ virtually ignores him. Uninterested in developing an international virtuoso career in the opportunistic style of Dupré, Tournemire's fervent Roman Catholicism impelled him rather to undertake idealistic projects, notably the great Gregorian-based liturgical cycle L'Orgue mystique. Above all, he enjoyed the reputation of being the outstanding service improviser of his time. Many have testified to this, chief among them Messiaen himself; in a letter to the English critic Felix Aprahamian (15 December 1983), he clearly stated:

        My only organ teacher was Marcel Dupré, for whom I had the greatest admiration and a very great and respectful affection. But I went occasionally to hear the improvisations of Charles Tournemire (a composer of genius, and a marvellous improviser). When Tournemire improvised at a concert, it was good. But the improvisations were much more beautiful during Masses at Sainte-Clotilde, when he had the Blessed Sacrement in front of him. I think I resemble him somewhat in this respect. I improvise much better during a service, on my organ at the Trinité. In a concert my gifts desert me, and my imagination disappears.

This reputation as an improviser has, however, unfortunately prejudiced the intrinsic merits of Tournemire's actual compositions. Indeed, his best known and regularly played pieces are the Five Improvisations, as subsequently transcribed from gramophone recordings by his pupil Maurice Duruflé.

Tournemire was born in Bordeaux on 22 January 1870. He showed precocious musical gifts, and at the age of 16 gained the First Prize for piano at the École Sainte-Cécile in that city. This entitled him to a further year of study at the Paris Conservatoire, where he enrolled in the piano class of the celebrated Charles de Bériot. In 1889, however, he joined the legendary organ class of César Franck, who regarded him as 'an excellent pupil, gifted, and a worker.' This class was not confined to instruction in organ playing, for the Catholic liturgy demanded a high degree of competence in improvisation, which was taught on the basis of an actual course of composition, including fugal writing. For Tournemire, Franck was an inspirational figure, endowed with the sublime powers of improvisation and an almost saintly character. Franck's unexpected death in 1890 came as a bitter blow to him and his fellow student Louis Vierne, who were at first considerably daunted by the more austere personality and strict disciplines of his very different successor, Charles-Marie Widor. Nevertheless, it was to Widor that Tournemire owed his magnificent playing technique, and his first prize in 1891.

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Charles Tournemire: César Franck (Paris, 1931)
Joël-Marie Fauquet: Cataalogue des oeuvres de Charles Tournemire (Geneva, 1979)
'Correspondance inédite: lettres d'Olivier Messiaen à Charles Tournemire' in L'Orgue (1989), no.4
Andrew Thomson: 'The mystic organist: Charles Tournemire (1870-1939) in Organists' Review (March-May 1989)
Andrew Thomson: 'Lofty endeavours: a reappraisal of the life and work of Charles Tournemire' in Musical Times (March 1995)

Copyright © Andrew Thomson, September 19th 1999 

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