It is something of a mystery why the music of Charles Tournemire is not better known. He is, after all, part of the renowned French organ school, the significant group who composed so much innovative and engaging organ music throughout the twentieth century (a tradition continued today by, among others, Naji Hakim and Olivier Latry). But while the music by many of those organists (particularly Charles-Marie Widor, Jean Langlais and Louis Vierne) is heard regularly, in concerts as well as church services, Tournemire’s music remains relatively unknown, heard only occasionally in more discerning recitals, and even then, usually only his most superficially flamboyant pieces.
Tournemire, like Messiaen after him (who cited Tournemire as a significant influence), took an intense and distinctly mystical approach to composition, a quality captured in the title of his most famous work, L’Orgue Mystique. Made up of three cycles of compositions for use throughout the Church year, L’Orgue Mystique comprises 51 volumes of music, all but one of which contains five separate pieces intended for performance at a certain point during the Mass. Every one of these pieces is based upon the traditional plainsong heard at that point in the service; L’Orgue Mystique is, in fact, a vast celebration of the beauty of plainsong. Tournemire brings to this potent source material an astonishing breadth of imagination and ingenuity, weaving its strands into ever new forms and contexts. Nonetheless, he handles the plainsong with great sensitivity; indeed, many of the compositions within L’Orgue Mystique are extremely delicate and gentle, which may well be a reason why these pieces are ignored by so many organists. Indeed, even Tournemire’s most ‘showy’ compositions—the lengthy final piece in each volume—often contain as many (if not more) quiet passages than those exploiting the sound of the full organ.
For this series of arrangements, i have chosen six pieces from L’Orgue Mystique, drawing on a number of different volumes. As the intention here is to write music for the concert hall, i have not felt obliged to adhere to Tournemire’s functional system of liturgical groupings, but have opted instead for a structure that is more fitting for a suite of instrumental music. Furthermore, while Tournemire gave no titles to the individual compositions (they are simply referred to by the point in the Mass at which they occur, e.g. “elévation”, “offertoire”, “communion”), i have given them titles taken from the text of the original plainsong. Tournemire did, however, give titles to the large-scale final pieces in each set, and i have retained those titles in my arrangements.
i have, i hope, treated Tournemire’s music with the same delicacy and care that he himself had for the original plainsong. It has not been my intention to detract from, or elaborate upon, his music, but simply to translate it into a new medium. To that end, I have attempted to be relatively transparent; the specific choice of instruments—triple woodwind, plus strings—is in sympathy with the organ’s essential timbres of flutes, reeds and celestes.
II. Perfice gressus meos
III. In manu Dei
IV. Ascendit Deus
V. De cælo sonus
3 flutes (1+2=picc, 3=alto)
3 oboes (2=corA)
3 Bb clarinets (1=Eb, 2+3=bass)
3 bassoons (3=contra)
2 double basses (both instruments require low C)