Blockbuster is an overworked description, but it can be applied with confidence to the extraordinary L'Orgue Mystique composed by Charles Tournemire. This cycle of organ compositions covers the entire Catholic liturgical year, and took five years to compose (1927-1932), It contains more than twelve hours of music, and is one of the largest compositions in western music - running to 1300 pages in the published edition.
Charles Tournemire (below) was born in Bordeaux, and lived from 1870 to 1939. He was a pupil of César Franck, and his influence was acknowledged by Messiaen, who wrote: 'My only organ teacher was Marcel Dupré, for whom I had the greatest admiration and a very great and respectful affection. But I went occasionally to hear the improvisations of Charles Tournemire (a composer of genius, and a marvellous improviser). When Tournemire improvised at a concert, it was good. But the improvisations were much more beautiful during Masses at Sainte-Clotilde, when he had the Blessed Sacrement in front of him. I think I resemble him somewhat in this respect. I improvise much better during a service, on my organ at the Trinité. In a concert my gifts desert me, and my imagination disappears.'
L'Orgue Mystique was composed as functional music. Not all organists are skilled improvisers, and the cycle was composed to provide Roman Catholic organists with suitable music to play during the Sunday Masses and feast days along with the parish choir. All the musical themes are based on Gregorian chants, more than three hundred chants are used in the cycle, with the chants linked to the function of the music (introit, offertory etc).
Although L'Orgue Mystique is functional music, it is also technically brilliant. It shares with Bartok the use of polymodality (Tournemire went on to explore expanded modality, and used techniques from Indian music). The virtuoso writing sounds like genuine improvisations on chant themes despite being contained by a conventional score. The dynamic range suggests Messiaen's monumental organ works from the same period, ranging from the mystical sounds of the quietest stops to resounding Sorties- the postlude played at the end of the service (literally meaning exit music).
Clearly L'Orgue Mystique is inextricably linked to the Catholic offices it was composed to accompany, but this has unfortunately stereotyped it simply as liturgical music. This is unfortunate and the cycle deserves to be heard in a wider context, just as Messiaen's organ music now is. With the current enthusiasm for all things Gregorian the chant origins of L'Orgue Mystique must surely be of interest to a wider audience. There have been examples of the cycle being played in its entirety, including in 1989 and 1990 when some 50 different organists played the pieces in their liturgical context at the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis.
Fortunately Tournemire's blockbuster is well served by recordings. George Delvallee's excellent complete cycle is available on Accord, and the set is also available as individual 2 CD boxes. For anyone wanting to sample this remarkable, and rewarding, 20th century homage to Gregorian chant Marie-Bernadette Duforcet's 2 CD set of extracts recorded on the organs of La Sainte Trinité (photo above) and La Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre in Paris is also highly recommended.
PC speakers are not going to do L'Orgue Mystique justice, but here as a taster is the Choral Postlude Dimanche Dans L'octave De Noël (N°4) played by George Delvallee -
Now read about L'Orgue Mystique - the images
Picture credits - the lead image is from artist Tom Walker's cycle of 51 5-part pastel triptychs inspired by L'Orgue Mystique. Charles Tournemire - Classical Composers Database
Organ of La Sainte Trinité - University of Quebec
Music stream - Amazon.fr
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