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Part 2: L'Orgue mystique

ANDREW THOMSON explores the neglected composer Charles Tournemire

<< Continued from part 1 

On graduating, Tournemire acted as Widor's assistant at the prestigious church of Saint-Sulpice for a year, followed by short appointments at Saint-Médard and Saint-Nicholas du Chardonnet. In 1898 he obtained the great prize of the church of Sainte-Clotilde, where Franck himself, from 1859 to 1890, had played the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ of three manuals and 46 stops. The Gothic revivalist church itself served the aristocratic and royalist Faubourg Saint-Germain - so fascinating to Marcel Proust!

Charles Tournemire at the organ of Sainte-Clotilde
Charles Tournemire at Saint-Clotilde in June 1939

His early organ compositions, heavily indebted to Franck and Widor, represent a comparatively modest achievement in comparison with those of Vierne, but it should be realised that at this period in his life, from 1900 to 1927, Tournemire's ambitions lay principally in the fields of opera and orchestral composition. Like the redoubtable Vincent d'Indy, Franck's chief disciple and propagandist, he felt the artistic need to project his essentially religious inspirations into the wider public domain, yet he entirely lacked the ability to promote himself in the secular musical world. This somewhat disappointed man nevertheless went on to rediscover himself through a renewal of liturgical organ music, on the grandest scale with the valuable experience of extended symphonic writing behind him. He now found himself able at last to integrate the freedom of his acclaimed improvisatory powers into the processes of composition itself. Moreover, his undeniable command of the orchestra, gained from Widor's treatise L'orchestre moderne, had enhanced his sense of the colouristic possibilities of the organ.

The result was L'Orgue mystique, composed between 1927 and 1932; this Roman Catholic reply to J.S. Bach's cantatas consists of 51 offices, or suites, for every Sunday of the church's year. Its distinctive neo-Gothic character is created by an all-pervading use of Gregorian themes, freely and most inventively paraphrased; indeed, Messiaen, in his treatise Technique de mon langage musical wrote that 'One can hardly use the themes of plainchant more and better than Charles Tournemire in his L'Orgue mystique.' And the astonishing range and breadth of his musical sympathies is revealed in his creation of a modern eclectic style, employing loose sectional structures rather than organic symphonic forms. On one hand, we find him drawing on the earlier liturgical organ tradition of Titelouze, Frescobaldi, de Grigny, Buxtehude and Bach, with their baroque forms and textures - fantasias, toccatas, chorales and fugues. But these are juxtaposed with most striking and innovative sections of impressionist writing, influenced by Debussy, in which he expressed his love of nature and its sounds - notably sea music and birdcalls.

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Copyright © Andrew Thomson, September 26th 1999 

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