Charles Tournemire: master of the organ

Hello, everyone! I’m Pranav, an undergraduate studying classical composition at UC Berkeley. For more information about me and why I started writing, see the “About Me” page.

Today, we’ll take a look at the French composer Charles Tournemire, who is believed to have died on this day in 1939.

Tournemire at the organ (photo:

Tournemire was born in Bordeaux on January 22, 1870. A child prodigy, he was appointed organist at the church of St. Pierre in his hometown at just eleven years of age. In his late teens, Tournemire began studying with César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor at the Conservatoire de Paris, winning first prize in organ there at 21; he also studied at the famed Schola Cantorum with Vincent d’Indy. In 1898, he became the organist of the church of St. Clotilde, where he remained for the rest of his life.

From 1900 to the start of World War I, Tournemire composed his first five of eight symphonies. Although the scores of these works are difficult to obtain, recordings of all of them are available on YouTube. I will focus in particular on two of Tournemire’s symphonies from this period: his second, titled “Ouessant”, and his fourth, “Pages symphoniques.”

Tournemire’s second symphony was inspired by a visit to the island of Ouessant in Brittany. Like most of his other symphonic works, it was written in a Late Romantic idiom, combining the expressiveness and large scale of Romantic music with more chromaticism. (If you’re not familiar with chromaticism, click here for a brief explanation.)

For me, the most powerful aspect of this work (and, indeed, of all of Tournemire’s symphonies) is its ability to transport you to another place. The wave-like motion of the low strings is quite evocative of water, the opening notes of the harp hint at an almost magical landscape, the woodwinds provide a different sonic texture, and the brass add great depth. The fanfare that opens the third movement is joyful and awakening (almost literally so – it serves as my alarm in the mornings!) and provides a contrast to the more somber and mysterious first and second movements.

In my estimation, Tournemire’s second symphony is a well-constructed work which uses the full depth and breadth of the orchestra to create a special atmosphere; it deserves to be heard far more often in concert halls.

Another Tournemire symphony inspired by the landscape of Brittany was his fourth, titled “Pages symphoniques”. Although much shorter than “Ouessant”, it includes many of the same elements and is full of melodies that evoke foreboding, longing, and nostalgia. Another notable aspect of the work is the use of the organ, which plays a beautiful melody around the 13 to 14 minute mark.

Tournemire was drafted into the French army during World War I, during which his country suffered heavy losses. In 1918, in memory of the dead, he composed one of his most intense and moving works: his choral Sixth Symphony. Owing to the composer’s relative lack of fame and the Mahler-size instrumentation required (plus an organ), it is rarely perfomed, but the scale and depth of the symphony is astounding.

Later in his life, Tournemire began focusing more on writing for solo organ. From 1928 to 1936, he composed his masterwork l’Orgue Mystique, an 15-hour-long organ cycle based on the Gregorian chant for each day of the Roman Catholic year. Although the Gregorian chants are over a thousand years old, Tournemire used different rhythms and pedal changes and a variety of different organ stops to create a fresh, warm sound.

While contemporaries like Charles-Marie Widor wrote works for organ that were intended to be performed for both religious and secular purposes, l’Orgue Mystique was written to be used only in liturgy, likely one of the reasons Tournemire is lesser known than other French composers for the organ.

In addition to this monumental work, Tournemire was a well-known improviser on the organ; five of his improvisations were recorded on phonograph in 1930 and later transcribed by Maurice Duruflé.

In 1939, Charles Tournemire died in quite mysterious circumstances. On October 31 (Halloween!) of that year, he left his home to take a walk and never came back; about four days later, his body was found in a bog a fair distance away. Tournemire left behind eighth symphonies, four operas, twelve chamber works and eighteen works for piano solo.

I hope you enjoyed reading this piece! I have several ideas about future composers to write on, but please let me know if you have any suggestions.

(All historical information derived from Wikipedia and AllMusic)

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