Michael Stewart at TGIF, Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, celebrates Tournemire’s L’Orgue mystique

Charles Tournemire’s L’Orgue mystique

The tenth recital
Le cycle après Pentecôte II: Suites XXXVII, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XL, (37, 38, 39, 40). The 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th Sunday after Pentecost

Michael Stewart, on the electronic organ

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Friday 25 September, 12:45 pm

Charles Tournemire is probably one of the less familiar organ composers and performers in France. Though he certainly rates, in terms of his fame as both composer and performer, with some of them: Franck, Guilmant, Saint-Saëns, Widor, Gabriel Pierné, Vierne, Dupré… But bearing composition in mind, Tournemire must be regarded as more interesting and significant than half of those.

There is a singular divergence between this group of French organists, organ and choral composers, and the more famous and well-known composers of opera, chamber and orchestral music and songs. Saint-Saëns is about the only composer who straddled both spheres; César Franck did to a certain extent.

The well-known composers of opera, orchestral, keyboard and chamber music, and songs were almost all uninterested in the organ: Auber, Hérold, Berlioz, Adam, Thomas, Gounod, Offenbach, Franck, Lalo, Bizet, Delibes, Chabrier, Fauré, Massenet, D’Indy, Chausson, Debussy, Dukas, Roussel, Ravel…

Tournemire’s compositional career 
This recital was the tenth in the series that Michael Stewart is playing at St Paul’s Cathedral. Tournemire was born in Bordeaux in 1870 and studied at the Paris Conservatoire, becoming one of Franck’s youngest and most gifted students. In 1898 he succeeded Pierné who had succeeded César Frank as organist at St Clotilde basilica in 1890.

Michael Stewart’s notes on the music were very interesting, rather more that I find about Tournemire on the Internet. More useful is the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. It records that he studied first in Bordeaux and at age 11 became organist at the church of St Pierre and later at St Seurin in Bordeaux. Then he went to the Paris Conservatoire where, in 1891 he won the premier prix for organ in the class of Widor, whose teaching, along with Franck’s, had a lasting effect on him. And he became organist at St Clotilde in 1898, as mentioned above; and he was appointed professor at the Conservatoire in 1919.

Grove continued: “Tournemire was a mystic, horrified at the materialism of his time and proclaiming his faith through his works, of which the greatest is L’orgue mystique. Its duration equals that of the entire organ music of Bach, and in this cycle it was Tournemire’s aim to accomplish for the Catholic liturgy what Bach had achieved for the Lutheran church. L’orgue mystique consists of 51 Offices, each making use of the plainsong melodies appropriate to a particular Sunday…. His organ style left its mark on a generation of composers.”

He died in Arcachon, in the Department of Gironde on the Bay of Biscay in 1939.

Grove lists a large number of compositions in most forms: four operas, eight orchestral symphonies, several choral works and solo vocal works (mostly unpublished), many solo piano pieces, and other chamber pieces for between two and six instruments. And 22 opus numbers for organ. The total opus numbers amount to 76.

The organs of Paris 
I’ve caught organ performances over many years in various Paris churches. For example Gaston Litaize at St François-Xavier, on the organ restored by Cavaillé-Coll, not far from Les Invalides, (because I had an LP of him playing the organ part of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, on the organ of his Paris church, along with Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra).

Then there was St Eustache, a huge church close to the Forum des Halles; where I heard part of an organ concert by Jean Guillon: Variations on several carols by Daquin; a set of pieces by Marcel Dupré; and then an Introit by perhaps (?) Messiaen. On another occasion at St Eustache, Francesco Filidei played Widor’s Second Organ Symphony. Another time there I heard Liszt’s half-hour long Fantasy & Fugue on the chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’, a pretty spectacular affair.

A couple of times at Franck’s and Tournemire’s Basilica of St Clotilde (don’t remember the organist), and at Widor’s St Sulpice with Daniel Roth.  Both great Cavaillé-Coll instruments.

And of course Notre Dame in a typically dark Winter evening recital by Olivier Latry. And more recently a recital by Philippe Lefebvre: Franck’s Three Chorales, Duruflé’s Prélude, adagio et chorale varié sur le Veni Creator, Op 4 and an Improvisation by Lefebvre.

L’Orgue mystique: the 51 ‘offices’ of the Mass 
However, to return to Friday’s music at the cathedral… Tournemire wrote 51 organ ‘offices’, each one devoted to parts of the Mass where organ music is required, apart from Holy Saturday. It took him five years.

Each of the suites, and there were four, in this recital, has five sections. They are named: Prélude à l’introït, Offertoire, Élévation, Communion, Choral. The first four movements are soft and short while the last is lengthier and employs much more of the organ’s resources.

Unfortunately, I was not familiar with this music and soon lost track of the succession of the movements. However, even though the music was unfamiliar, the variety of moods and emotional, as well as religious significance, held the attention and I found myself absorbed. Some were short and fairly plain; there were endless changes of manual and registrations, meanderings and pensive episodes; loud, dense passages and strings of high notes, flutes, and passages that were limited to particular manuals, with or without pedals. I soon realised how sorry I was not to have got to more of the Friday Tournemire recitals this year.

I soon understood that Stewart’s remark that he had been a life-long devotee of Tournemire, was totally credible. Clearly, the only aspect that one might have been disappointed to miss was to have been moved by its performance on the cathedral’s pipe organ itself. One hopes that it will soon be possible to restore so that the opulence of pipe organ sound can return to the cathedral. Furthermore, it’s just as well that Wellington has more or less ceased its puerile claim to be the ‘cultural capital’, especially with a non-existing Central Library and Town Hall, and non-existing organs in both the Town Hall and the Anglican Cathedral.

P.S. After filing the review in which I suggested that there was little about Tournemire on the Internet, I have come across a website that writes quite extensively about L’orgue mystique. In a periodical, Vox Humana, an article by Douglas O’Neill entitled ‘Charles Tournemire’s L’orgue mystique and the Ordinary Form Mass’. 

The website address is http://www.voxhumanajournal.com/oneill2018.html


One thought on “Michael Stewart at TGIF, Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, celebrates Tournemire’s L’Orgue mystique

  1. Sandra Harry says:

    I cannot find anything that tells me what and when the next TGIF concert is online. Can you help please?

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