Tournemire Conference at Duquesne – Wrap Up

From Heavens to Hands: A Student’s Perspective on the Music of Charles Tournemire

Report from “The Aesthetics and Pedagogy of Charles Tournemire: Chant andImprovisation in the Liturgy,” October 22–24, 2012, Sponsored by the Church Music Association of America, the Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, and Duquesne University

By Becky Yoder and Stephanie Sloan


Charles Tournemire and his music must be summarized with none other than the word genius. Pious metaphysician, organist-theologian, and musical preacher, Tournemire’s consistently incorporated Gregorian chant libretto in his improvisations and sacred music performed mnemonic exegesis of the Roman Mass. His mystical organ style directly shaped the works of Olivier Messiaen, Ermend-Bonnal, Joseph Bonnet, Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur, Jehan Alain, Maurice Duruflé, and Jean Langlais. Within a sacred music context, his music should be studied as a spiritually enriching experience motivating greater musical competence and meditation. This conference on one of the seminal yet recondite influences of twentieth century organ music sought to explore and promulgate the ethereal dimensions that so inspired this brilliant musician.

Charles Tournemire, born January 22, 1870, in Bordeaux, France, commenced piano and harmony studies at the Paris Conservatoire in 1886. In 1889, he became a pupil of César Franck at the Conservatoire, studying organ, counterpoint, and composition. Upon the death of Franck in 1890, Tournemire continued his organ studies under Charles-Marie Widor. After winning a first prize in organ and improvisation in 1892, Tournemire took up Franck’s former position as organist of Ste. Clotilde in 1898. He held this position until his death in 1939. In 1919, Tournemire was appointed professor of an ensemble class at the Paris Conservatoire with the expectation that he would eventually succeed Eugène Gigout as the professor of organ. However, when the decisive time was at hand, this position was instead granted to one of his greatest rivals, Marcel Dupré, in 1926. After this great disappointment and with the encouragement of Joseph Bonnet, Tournemire channeled his creative energy towards the composition of L’Orgue Mystique from 1927 to 1932. This great work for organ encompasses fifty-one offices for the entire liturgical year based on the proper chants of each liturgy. Every office, excluding the one for Holy Saturday, consists of five movements: Prélude à L’Introït, Offertoire, Élévation, Communion, and Pièce Terminale. Tournemire did not write L’Orgue Mystique for a particular organ, such as St. Clotilde, but rather for a non-existent organ of his imagination.[i] In addition to works for organ, Tournemire’s compositional output includes chamber music, symphonies, operas, piano works, and vocal works. However, Tournemire was most renowned as a great liturgical improviser during his lifetime. In 1930, he recorded the Cinq Choral Improvisationsat St. Clotilde, which Maurice Duruflé later transcribed after Tournemire’s death. These recordings are a testimony to the improvisatory genius of Charles Tournemire. The circumstances concerning his death are mysterious and not factually known. Tournemire was declared to have been dead for approximately twenty-four hours when his body was found on November 4, 1939.[ii] He was buried without a funeral on November 5 of the same year.

The events that took place during the first half of this conference focused on the aesthetics of Charles Tournemire’s music. The conference opened with a Duquesne University alumni recital consisting of works by Tournemire, Langlais, and Duruflé in addition to a piece by Robert Luft inspired by Tournemire and Langlais’ works. Luft’s piece, in particular, was entitled St. Ann Suite, based on the name Ann Labounsky. The recital was followed by an evening Compline Service given at the same venue, Heinz Memorial Chapel. Rev. John Cannon, III’s performance of Ave maris stella from Tournemire’s Cinq Improvisations introduced conference attendees to the plethora of Gregorian chant themes that are immediately recognizable in much of Tournemire’s music. Gregorian chant melodies provided the basis from which Tournemire, as a French Roman Catholic organist, improviser, and composer, drew most of his mystical, musical inspiration.

Duquesne University Alumni Recital

Tournemire is best known in the organ world today for his great L’Orgue Mystique and for the recording that produced his popular Cinq Choral Improvisations, which both heavily reflect his inspiration from Gregorian chant. Ron Prowse, Associate Professor and Director of Music at Sacred Heart Major Seminary of Detroit ,and Adjunct Faculty at Wayne State University, presented the conference’s first lecture on the subject of Tournemire’s improvisations, titled The Art of Improvisation and L’Orgue Mystique.”

Ron Prowse

Prowse first compared the three chant-based improvisational schools of Franck, Tournemire, Langlais, and Hakim; Lemmens, Widor, and Dupré; and Flor Peeters. Charles Tournemire used modality for his harmonic basis, Marcel Dupré leaned more towards tonality, and Flor Peeters modeled his compositions in a Bach-Baroque style. Prowse then compared the musical influences in Tournemire’s “Ave Maris Stella” postlude from L’Orgue Mystique Office No. 2 to Tournemire’s recorded improvisation Ave Maris Stella. For example, it is fascinatingly evident in Tournemire’s improvisations where sheer physical humanness affected the performance. A “restless rhetorical drama” denotes the rush of adrenaline. Extreme tempi, dynamic changes, and intense climactic moments reflected his psychological temperament. Ostinatos in harmonically static passages even suggested Tournemire “treading water,” pondering his next idea. In contrast, the postlude from L’Orgue Mystique has a “calm sense of purpose and organization,” subtler contrasts, subtler climactic surges, and no sense of “treading water”—every note has a crucial role. Prowse’s lecture revealed two practical and crucial forces acting on an organist’s improvisational prowess: training and humanness. The emphasis of training was exemplified in Dr. Crista Miller’s excellent organ recital, which featured works by the successor to the Franck-Tournemire-Langlais legacy, Naji Hakim. Hakim embellished the techniques he learned from his musical heritage with personal cultural influences, such as Arabic maqamat, characteristics of Lebanese instruments, and Maronite chant.

Crista Miller

Further into the conference, concert organist Richard Spotts demonstrated Tournemire’s use of chant in the liturgy with a performance of various movements from L’Orgue Mystique at the Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Guild of Organists’ October meeting. At the Church of the Epiphany, with its ample acoustics, each movement was introduced with its corresponding Gregorian chant melody, sung by the Duquesne University Schola Cantorum Gregorianum under the direction of Sr. Marie Agatha Ozah, HHCJ. The schola also sang chant for the liturgy of the noon Chapel Mass at Duquesne University. During this liturgy, Adjunct Professor of Music, Benjamin Cornelius-Bates from Duquesne University, improvised in the classic French tradition for the prelude, offertory, and postlude.

Sr. Marie Agatha Ozah and Some Members of Her Schola
Richard Spotts Recital

A lecture titled “‘Whose Music Is It, Anyway?’ Perceptions of Authenticity in the Tournemire-Duruflé Five Improvisations” was given by Kirsten Rutschman, ­­­a James B. Duke doctoral Fellow studying at Duke University. Rutschman discussed discrepancies in Duruflé’s transcription of Tournemire’s Cinq Choral Improvisations as revealed from modern digital dissection of the original 78rpm record discs and how the discrepancies affect performances today. Most notably, the question of authenticity arises for a present-day performer over whether to defer to Duruflé’s transcription or Tournemire’s recording when a discrepancy arises. Myriad differences have been found concerning correct rhythm, pitch accuracy, and registration usage between the remastered audio recording and Duruflé’s notation of Ave Maris Stella. There is even a possible additional measure existing that Duruflé omitted!

Kirsten Rutschmann

In order to make a decision about authenticity, one must consider both the qualities of improvisation and notation. Firstly, Tournemire never intended his impromptu improvisations to be transcribed; L’Orgue Mystique was his gift to posterity. Secondly, the acts of transcription and improvisation are virtually incompatible. Improvisation utilizes the creativeright side of the brain, generally lacking the purity and formal coherence of a written work. Written compositions use the other encephalic door, the logical left brain, and therefore all performers of a notated improvisation must go through it. The performer has thusly, from the very start, placed him or herself outside of the context of Tournemire’s improvisations. Recording technology has opened up a whole new world of questions over composer’s intent and whether or not recordings diminish or enhance the creative potential and purpose of a composition outside of its context. Duruflé would say that one never plays the same piece (or improvisation) the same way twice. Mickey Thomas Terry, Ph. D., Director of Music and Organist of St. Mary’s Church at Piscataway, subsequently played two selections from Tournemire’s Cinq Choral Improvisations, Ave maris stellaand Victimae paschali, from memory with lively tempos, based upon Duruflé’s transcription. Rev. John Cannon, III’s interpretation of Ave maris stella, which he played at the Sunday night Compline service at Heinz Memorial Chapel, was a slower performance with a masterful incorporation of the beautiful colors available on the chapel’s three-manual Reuter organ. These differences veritably illustrate the interpretive discretions of the individual performer.

Mickey Thomas Terry

A double feature consisting of a lecture and recital demonstrating the improvisational style of Charles Tournemire was presented by Dr. Bogusław Raba, organist of Wrocław University Church and Professor at the Institute of History of Silesian Music in Poland. “Existential Act of Creative Freedom; or Striving for Organic Masterpiece. Charles Tournemire’s Improvisations and Written Works: A Comparative Existential and Transcendental Analysis” examined improvisation as either an imitation of a written work or an independent act of pure inspiration. In his analysis, Raba contrasted Tournemire’s chant-inspired improvisations to some of the last offices and postludes in L’Orgue Mystique. Raba argued, as Rutschman and Prowse alluded to, that improvisation and written works cannot be equally compared because they draw from “different teleological sources.” Chant in Tournemire’s improvisations is used as a source for short motivic material, simply from the standpoint that human memory can retain only so much information. Conversely, chant in Tournemire’s written works appears in longer phrase quotations. Improvisational dynamics in the style of Tournemire rely on being in the moment and often contain declamatory blasts of extreme contrast, whereas his compositional dynamics possess the finesse of subtlety and purpose. Interestingly, Tournemire’s improvisational and written formal structures were similar: they followed “microformal syntactical order, theme exposition, commentary, then motivic variants derived from theme and development.”  Such basic triple order occurs in a more complex form in his written works, but the structural foundation between his compositions and improvisations is the same. Following his lecture, Raba very successfully demonstrated both Tournemire’s improvisational technique (derived from his Five Improvisations) and his compositional style (derived from Pieces terminales ­from L’Orgue Mystique) using Polish liturgical chant. The first theme was Bogurodzica (the Mother of God), the oldest Polish hymn. Composed somewhere between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, it was sung as an anthem before battles and also accompanied the coronation ceremonies of the first Jagiellonian kings. The second theme was “Carmen patrium” (the hymn of the Motherland). Raba successfully put into practice his academic analyses of the aesthetics of Tournemire’s music.

Ann Labounsky moderates questions after the paper and recital by Boguslaw Raba

The last lecture dealing with the aesthetics of Tournemire’s music was presented by Vincent Rone, a Ph. D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Master’s graduate of Duquesne University. How Tournemire’s mystical legacy can be found in the music of Jean Langlais and Maurice Duruflé in an examination of their reaction to the liturgical repercussions of Vatican II was examined in “­­­La Musique Mystique et Vatican II: Charles Tournemire’s Legacy as Post-Conciliar Correctives in the Music of Maurice Duruflé and Jean Langlais.” Mysticism is the primary objective of “theocentric liturgical music.” the ability to elevate the congregation into heavenly stasis and transcend worship into timelessness. Harmonic symmetry is one measurable musical characteristic that evokes mystical expression. Sonorities produced by the whole tone and octatonic scales “destabilize aural predictability and tonal trajectory,” yet effectively induce a mystical aura. Another tool commonly used by Duruflé and Langlais was the “Tournemire chord”. This chord is created from two triads spaced a tritone apart; C#-major 5/3 and a G-major 6/3.  Duruflé and Langlais used elements such as these in their post-conciliar compositions, Sanctus of the Messe “Cum Jubilo” and Imploration pour Croyance for organ, respectively. Each composer tried through his compositions to express his stance on the importance of the retention of vertical, theocentric liturgical worship, and to contextualize its inherent ethereal beauty drawn from Tournemire’s mystical legacy.

Vincent Rone

In order to better equip today’s organists in the pursuit of improvising in the style of Charles Tournemire, David McCarthy, FAGO, presented a workshop titled, “Using the Five Improvisations as a Source for Improvisation Pedagogy.” McCarthy, professor at St. John Fisher College and Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, studied the Rupert Gough transcription of Tournemire’s Cinq Choral Improvisations and selected for his presentation certain reccurring improvisational techniques contained within this work. McCarthy organized these skills in practical sequential exercises to facilitate the retention of key improvisational concepts. He spoke of the improviser’s initial tendency to use certain improvisational methods that he or she is comfortable with and then of the necessity to expand this comfort zone with alternative techniques of improvisation. McCarthy’s workshop provided the attendees of this conference with some of Tournemire’s techniques in order to help them enlarge and develop their respective improvisational horizons.

Demonstrating and expanding upon the subject of improvisation, David J. Hughes, organist and choirmaster at St. Mary Church in Norwalk, Connecticut, performed a recital consisting solely of improvisations in addition to co-presenting an advanced improvisation workshop with Dr. Ann Labounsky. Hughes improvised on Gregorian chant themes chosen by members of the audience from the Mass Propers of the feast of St. Anthony Mary Claret, Mass VII chants for the Ordinary of the Mass, and the solemn tone of Salve Regina in his recital at Calvary Episcopal Church. This improvisatory performance gave the audience a taste of the themes Charles Tournemire used during weekly Mass at Ste. Clotilde and how these timeless chants could still be applied in present-day improvisations. During the advanced improvisation master class at Epiphany Catholic Church, Hughes spoke about the role of Tournemire as an organist improvising for the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. Hughes said that the role of the organist improviser playing for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is to help “build substance” in the Mass rather than just eliminating silences. Hughes continued by listing the sections of the Mass for which the organist would improvise and their respective elements. He focused specifically on the offertory of the Mass, especially the mystical aspects of the ritual of incensing. Subsequently, participants of the master class took turns improvising for an imaginary Offertory, using a chant for the theme. Hughes guided these participants as to what the priest and servers would be doing during these improvisations and on how to musically respond to these actions. Thus, all those who came to the advanced improvisation master class had a clearer understanding of Charles Tournemire’s improvisational duties for Sunday Masses.

David Hughes

Dr. Zvonimir Nagy, Assistant Professor of Musicianship Studies at Duquesne University, gave a lecture titled “Performance as Ritual; Creativity as Prayer.” Nagy discussed the relationship of performance and liturgical ritual with the spiritual and musical experiences of the human soul. He said that music provides a medium through which people may see God, since humans cannot see Him with their eyes. He related this spirituality of music to the mysticism and creative energy expressed in Charles Tournemire’s compositions. These spiritual qualities of music continue to be used in present-day compositions, such as in Dr. Nagy’s own works. He uses his personal relationship with God to draw creative inspiration for musical expression in his compositions, as Tournemire similarly did. Dr. Nagy demonstrated a culmination of this practice in a performance of his own Preludes for a Prayer.

At the end of the third day of this conference, a High Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite was offered at Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. The Mass immersed those attending the conference into the atmosphere in which Charles Tournemire improvised and for which he composed L’Orgue Mystique. Paul M. Weber, Associate Professor of Music at Franciscian University of Steubenville, composed the musical setting of the Ordinary of the Mass used for the evening, Missa Orbis Factor for Women’s Voices & Strings. Weber also served as the organist for the Mass. The setting served as a lovely contemporary counterpart to the Mass settings composed by French organists which were presented in recital on the day previous by Dr. Edward Schaefer of the University of Florida and The Florida Schola Cantorum. The reflective atmosphere of the High Mass and choral Mass settings allowed everyone present to participate in an essential inspirational source for Tournemire’s works and improvisations.

High Mass at St. Eliabeth Ann Seton, Carnegie, PA

The final event of the conference was a panel discussion followed by a recital of Tournemire chamber works. The chamber works featured were Musique orante pour quatour à cordes, Op. 61, La Salutation Angélique, Op. 9, Morceau de concours du Conservatoire de Paris, (1935) for Trumpet and Piano, the Largo movement from his Suite for viola and piano, Op. 11, and a Sonata for violin and piano, Op. 1. The panel tenants consisted of Dr. Ann Labounsky, organist Richard Spotts, and CMAA Academic Liaison Dr. Jennifer Donelson. Topics covered in the panel discussion included Tournemire’s legacy, the average person’s perspective on Tournemire’s music, a summation of what was learned about his improvisational style, and reasons why his other works besides L’Orgue Mystiqueare not as well known. An important concept gleaned from the panel discussion was the idea that in order to promulgate the music of Charles Tournemire, sacred musicians must make it accessible to the public. Accessibility could include categorizing his music from easy to difficult, making a deliberate effort to perform his works regularly, to improvise in the Tournemire tradition, and to elevate and inspire congregation members through sacred music as did he. In the spirit of this idea, Duquesne University Sacred Music and Organ Performance students contributed to the process of propagating Tournemire’s legacy by performing his and his students’ compositions in an afternoon recital on Tuesday of the conference.

Recital of Chamber Works by Tournemire, Musique orante pour quatour à cordes, Op. 61, played by Rômulo Sprung, Dante Coutinho, Katie Kroko, and Lian Ciao

If Bach is said to be the Newton of the eighteenth century, Charles Tournemire could be considered the Einstein of the twentieth century. L’Orgue Mystique, a timeless tapestry woven from ancient threads, is a monumental work of pious ingenuity. His improvisations too reflect both his expert musicality and religious devotion. In profound religious sensibility, Tournemire was known to occasionally conclude a Mass at a pianissimo, not at a sforzando. Sacred musicians should always make an effort tospiritually elevate and inspire those who listen as they attempt to express the immaculate immaterial through the imperfect material. They seek to communicate musically what it means to be human and point this aching world to its Creator. The name Charles Tournemire should become synonymous with the raw vitality of transcendence. Through his inspiration, organ music can transmit dreams from heavens to hands and into the heart.

[i] Alan Hobbs, Charles Tournemire 1870–1939; L’Orgue Mystique, Op. 55, 56, and 57, 51 Offices of the Liturgical Year based on the freely paraphrased Gregorian chants (Calgary, Canada: Lissett Publications, 1992), 16.

[ii] Ibid., 19.