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Part 3: Tournemire and Messiaen

ANDREW THOMSON explores the neglected composer Charles Tournemire

<< Continued from part 2 

With the 90th anniversary of Messiaen's birth just passed, it would seem most appropriate in this brief article to approach the vast bulk of the L'Orgue mystique very selectively, in terms of its potent influence on his stylistic and spiritual development. In 1930, the young Messiaen wrote admiringly to Tournemire: 'I have played, or rather tried to play on my pedal-piano [two offices] nos. 3 and 35 of L'Orgue mystique, trying to imagine the timbres. I admire them more and more. I've noticed with pleasure that the start of 'Paraphrase-Carillon' is taken from an antienne of Quasimodo, which I admire especially for the almost theatrical beauty of its words and music.' Undoubtedly, 'Paraphrase-Carillon' (the finale of the office of the Assumption) proved a seminal influence in the creation of Messiaen's own musical language with its far reaching neo-impressionist idiom - above all the complex added-note harmonies and bird calls. Remarkable, too, are the powerful quasi-medieval organum effects in parallel fourths and fifths, surely influenced by Debussy's La Cathédrale engloutie; the incandescent trills à la Scriabin; and the sections of almost free-floating two part counterpoint which look ahead to the movement 'Les Anges' in Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur and 'L'Ange aux parfums' in Les Corps Glorieux.

Yet one must not ignore the differences between the two composers. Tournemire, originally trained as a concert pianist, engaged more directly with Debussy's more mercurial improvisatory style, as we hear in the spontaneous and flexible arabesque invention found throughout L'Orgue mystique. There's a freedom in his handling of textures, and in his wilful juxtapositions of utterly dissimilar musical ideas. Though Messiaen's music likewise juxtaposes contrasting material, it is nevertheless highly organized and much more hard-focused in its complex, intellectually conceived melodic, harmonic and rhythmic systems. Messiaen, it must be remembered, was a pupil of Marcel Dupré, utterly strict in his pedagogical methods. Moreover, his composition professor, Paul Dukas, was the epitomy of fastidiousness and self-criticism - to the point of creative self-destruction. At the same time, I would suggest that it was the uninhibited, almost anarchic elements in Tournemire's creative personality - reflecting his notoriously explosive character - which acted as a seismatic force and catalyst on the disciplined and submissive younger man.

Tournemire's fervent Roman Catholic faith was consistent with an unusually wide vision of music and breadth of culture. A pioneer of the early music revival, he regularly included in his recital programmes composers from the Catholic and Lutheran traditions. Franck, however, remained at the core of his repertoire; in fact he wrote a very peculiar book on his master, which goes well beyond Vincent d'Indy's in hagiography and mysticism. Indeed, the sheer bulk of his massive, sprawling output - by comparison with the more compact, manageable oeuvre of Vierne and Duruflé - has proved daunting to performers in general, and despite much of it now being available in recordings. Although his reputation still remains primarily that of an inspired extemporiser, I trust that, in the words of Messiaen, 'one day justice will be done to Tournemire'.


Charles Tournemire: César Franck (Paris, 1931)
Joël-Marie Fauquet: Catalogue 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, October 3rd 1999 

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