Charles Tournemire – Paraphrase-Carillon

by 5:4

Tipping my hat to the fact that this time of year still has, for some people, a connection to things religious, behind today’s Advent Calendar door is a piece from surely the largest cycle of liturgical music ever composed. There are some composers whose music i could write about practically every day, and Charles Tournemire is one of them. In contrast to the other composers of the French organ school that flourished through the first half of the twentieth century – DupréVierne, Langlais, Duruflé, Alain – Tournemire’s name remains somewhat obscure and his music demonstrably underperformed. Though disappointing, it’s not entirely surprising; Tournemire’s use of structure and harmony is exceptionally forward-looking, more radical than the aforementioned composers were usually prepared to be, but perhaps of greater significance was Tournemire’s musical attitude and outlook, steeped in a deeply mystical articulation of his religious beliefs. In this respect, he can be regarded as something of a predecessor of Messiaen (although Messiaen was arguably more theological than mystical), and indeed Tournemire was a keen supporter and advocate of Messiaen in the earliest decades of the latter’s career. His mystical outlook led Tournemire to tap into a breadth of expression that sets him apart from his contemporaries, where convoluted structural elements juxtapose and develop ideas pushed to extremes, reduced to microscopic fibers of gossamer and expanded into mountainous, cacophonous climaxes of awesome power. His music was and remains a force to be reckoned with.

Tournemire’s output was wide and varied – his eight symphonies are well worth checking out – but his skills as a composer are arguably shown to best effect in the work for which he’s most well-known: L’Orgue Mystique. Composed over a five-year period from 1927 to 1932, L’Orgue Mystique is not so much a work as a cycle, comprising music for each of the Sundays and other feast days in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, a total of 15 hours’ music in 51 volumes. For each occasion, Tournemire provided five pieces to be performed at key points during the Eucharist, ensuring a clear musical and spiritual connection by basing his music on the liturgical plainchant that would be sung during the service. Four of these pieces – Prèlude à l’Introït, Offertoire, Elévation and Communion – were usually brief, calm and reflective, but the final piece, performed as a postlude at the end of the service, was where Tournemire really let rip. Here, his passion for improvisation and incredible skill at developing melodic ideas were given free rein to explore, resulting in extended works of around 10 minutes’ duration. Always extremely dramatic, they transform the plainchant into complex weaves of soaring and plunging material, often beyond all recognition, not only showing what Tournemire himself was capable of but also the organ, indulging in wild contrasts and explosions of timbre and colour. Such monumental ambition – foreshadowing the vast cycles Messiaen would subsequently compose – is remarkable enough (and Tournemire originally intended to compose 65 volumes!), but it’s the astonishing skill and imagination of these pieces that makes them as exciting as they are, and they continue to sound surprisingly radical today.

Paraphrase-Carillon, the closing movement of volume 35 (for the feast of the Assumption), is one of Tournemire’s most dazzling finales. It draws on two Marian chants, the hymn Ave maris stella and the antiphon Salve Regina.

Tournemire structures the piece in modified ternary form (A¹ – B – A²). In general, the Ave maris stella (AMS) melody is used on the manuals and Salve Regina (SR) on the pedals; Tournemire also uses the final two descending notes of AMS (“por-ta”) as an oscillating motif (OM) that recurs throughout.

Section A¹ is a robust, playful episode focusing on the intervallic and scalic aspects of AMS. Often it takes the form of filigree but at times the melody comes through clearly, particularly the phrases “Dei Mater alma” (0:35) and “Ave maris stella” (0:45). The latter is presented slower, more chorale-like, transitioning via more filigree to the first climax, where the opening phrase of SR booms out on the pedals. There’s a lovely fast oscillating response to this, like a huge shiver of delight (possibly an early hint of OM), after which Tournemire further deconstructs the openings of AMS and SR. OM makes its first proper appearance in the pedals during this (2:25), pushing towards a repeat of SR in the pedals (2:48), some more filigree – a real sense of play now dominating – and a repeat of the transition that led to the first climax, but this time Tournemire uses the second half of SR, “mater misericordiae” (3:24). A short sequence of high chords (briefly stepping outside the prevailing Dorian modality, suggesting D major) brings the section to a close, ending on the single note D.

Section B explores AMS within a soft, ethereal soundworld, punctuated by brief dancing phrases (4:11) and reappearances of OM (4:30). Here, among the improvisatory treatment, Tournemire gradually makes his way through the whole of AMS one phrase at a time, “Ave maris stella…” (4:19), “…Dei Mater alma, Atque semper…” (4:40), “…Virgo, Felix caeli porta” (5:00). The scales from AMS are toyed with some more, before the placid, harmonic stasis starts to be stretched, first when OM becomes more oblique (6:07), then by the end of “Virgo, Felix caeli porta” descending as a whole tone scale (6:30), triggering OM to go high and strange, bringing the section to a mysterious end.

Section A² begins very similarly to A¹, but askew harmonic twists continue to come (7:32) and the music takes on more of the quality of a toccata (7:48). OM becomes massive, and the whole organ erupts with another appearance of the second half of SR (8:03). The conclusion of the piece brings together more toccata runs and loud revisits of the first half of SR in the pedals covered in a mess of flamboyant ornamentation. The coda returns to the end of A¹, the short sequence of chords now extended into stupendous crashing final blasts of OM.

This performance of Paraphrase-Carillon took place on 8 September 1999 (the feast of the birth of the Virgin Mary) at the end of Choral Vespers at the Brompton Oratory in London, played by Patrick Russill. It’s a special performance for me personally, as this was the very first time that i heard Tournemire’s music, beginning an intensely passionate relationship that continues to this day. i’ve explored his work extensively, but L’Orgue Mystique will probably always remain the epicentre of my enthusiasm for his work. i find it appealing both emotionally, getting caught up on enormous waves of ecstasy and entranced within small-scale regions of intimacy, and intellectually, identifying and trying to keeping track of which melodies are being used, and how they’re being transformed. In his book The Technique of my Musical Language (chapter 12, part 5), Messiaen expressed it very simply: “One can hardly use the themes of plainchant more and better than Charles Tournemire.”

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Chris L

Lovin’ me a good symphony (as you know), I couldn’t resist the suggestion to investigate Tournemire’s, and so far have listened to the first two (No.4 may follow later today). What immediately struck me (apart from the vivid orchestration and obvious cyclical elements) was the tendency of his themes towards a constant state of contrapuntal “becoming”, as opposed to being contrasted and developed more conventionally. Not dissimilar to the methods of a certain 20th-century British symphonist we’ve discussed a fair bit, in fact! It’s clear that, when it came to writing symphonies, from the outset Tournemire had his own approach – and a very compelling one it is too!

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