On the 150 th anniversary of his birth


Performed at St.Mary Magdalene Church
Programme Notes by David Gammie

Charles Tournemire (1970-1939)

L’Orgue Mystique

51 Offices of the liturgical year inspired by Gregorian chant and freely paraphrased
For Charles Tournemire, the only true purpose of music was the expression of
spiritual truth: music that was not written for the glory of God was ‘a body without a
soul’, and everything else was inutile – a betrayal, a waste of time. Organist of
Sainte-Clotilde in Paris for 40 years, Tournemire evolved here a unique style of
rhapsodic liturgical improvisation in which he crystallised his own uncompromising
vision of the organ as ‘the voice of prayer’. Gregorian Chant supplied all the musical
material for his improvisations; inspired by these ageless melodies and by the
fervour of his own faith, he conjured up every Sunday magical evocations of
heavenly bliss and blazing visions of glory. But as a composer, Tournemire
concentrated for most of his career on big orchestral and choral works, all inspired
by grandiose sacred and spiritual themes. He was approaching 60 when he finally
summed up the essence of his improvisations in a vast organ work, L’Orgue
– 51 five-movement Organ Masses or ‘Offices’ for every Sunday and
major Feast of the liturgical year, beginning in Advent and continuing through to the ‘last Sunday of the year’ at the end of November. This monumental project took five
years to complete, begun in 1927 and completed early in 1932.
Each office follows the traditional format of a French Organ Mass, with four short
pieces for Introit, Offertory, Elevation and Communion, followed by a more
extended finale. The comprehensive repertory of chants in the Graduale Romanum
provided Tournemire with the themes for Introit, Offertory and Communion. But the
‘Propers’ for each Sunday also include two more chants, the Gradual and the
Alleluia, which are sung between the readings, and for which there was no place in
his four interludes. For the final sortie or concluding voluntary there was no set
theme, so he often makes use of the Gradual or the Alleluia here, together with
Hymns and Antiphons from the monastic Liturgy of the Hours.
In the music of L’Orgue Mystique Tournemire abandoned the classical tonal system
of recent centuries and returned to the purer world of the old church modes, but
with a contemporary twist. ‘Half medieval, half ultra-modern’, its luminous spirituality
made a deep impression on many younger composers, especially Duruflé and
Messian. He described the work as a great collection of ‘religious poems’, and
stressed that he was inspired, not only by the plainsong melodies, but above all by
their biblical texts, which are often, he said, extraordinary in their depth of emotion.

Triptyque (OM 26/5, Trinity Sunday)

Iam sol recedit igneus (Vesper Hymn)
‘The fiery sun now sinks away;
O Trinity of blessed light,
O Unity of princely might,
Shed thou within our hearts thy ray.’
For his homage to the Holy Trinity, Tournemire chose three themes: the Vesper
hymn Iam sol recedit igneus, the hymn Adesto sancta Trinitas, and the antiphon
Benedicta sit. But it is the sol igneus – the fiery sun – that really fired his imagination
in this majestic tone-poem; beginning with the splendour of the full organ in the full
blaze of a golden sunset, the music gradually fades away into stillness and
darkness. The final pages weave phrases from all three chants into a hushed
evening prayer, ending with a hint of the Te Deum, ‘We praise thee O God, we
acknowledge thee to be the Lord…’ Apart from a few bars in the middle, the whole
of Triptyque is strictly modal, using only the white notes of the keyboard.

Offertoire (OM 48/2, All Saints)

Justorum animae (Wisdom, ch.3)
‘The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch

Alleluia No. 1 (OM 29/5, 4th Sunday after Pentecost)

Praevaluit David (Vesper antiphon)
Alleluia. Deus qui sedet super thronum (Psalm 9)
‘David prevailed against the Philistine with the sling and the stone, in the name of
the Lord.’
‘Alleluia. God that sitteth upon the throne of righteous judgement, be a refuge for
the oppressed in time of trouble.’
The major events or ‘Mysteries’ in the life of Christ are all concentrated in the first
half of the year. In the six-month sequence of Sundays after Pentecost, the Church
meditates on different aspects of faith; to give some shape to this long sequence,
Tournemire organised his finales into groups of five – five Alleluias (based on the
Alleluia chant of the day), five Chorals (based on the Gradual chant) etc. The liturgy
of this 4th Sunday is coloured by the previous evening’s reading of the story of
David and Goliath, which inspired this dramatic battle piece, in the form of a vast
crescendo. The plaintive cry of the Vesper antiphon is soon overwhelmed by the
victorious strains of the Alleluia, ending in a wild barrage of trills for the full organ.
Communion (OM 38/4, 12th Sunday after Pentecost)
De fructu operum tuorum (Psalm 104)
‘The earth is filled with the fruit of thy works…’

Choral no. 3 (OM 38/5)

Benedicam Dominum in omne tempore (Gradual, Psalm 34)
‘I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise will be always on my lips.’
In this exultant hymn of praise, Tournemire constructs a chorale-like melody out of
short fragments of the long Gradual chant. A dramatic prelude of fanfares and
flourishes introduces the chorale, which sings out high in the treble register; after a
brief interlude it is repeated more emphatically, thundering out on the pedal

Offertoire (OM 41/2, 15th Sunday after Pentecost)

Expectans expectavi (Psalm 40)
‘I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.’

Postlude (OM 24, Sunday after Ascension)

Alleluia. Regnavit Dominus super omnes gentes (Psalm 47)
‘Alleluia. God reigneth over the heathen; God sitteth upon the throne of his
Many young organists first encountered Tournemire’s unique musical world through
Office no. 24, when it was recorded by its dedicatee Flor Peeters on the new organ
of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral in 1967. This glorious Postlude celebrates the
Ascension of the risen Christ in music of fiery splendour and rich harmonic

Offertoire (OM 35/2, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

‘Mary has been taken up into heaven; the angels rejoice and join their voices to
bless the Lord.’

Fantaisie sur le Te Deum et Guirlandes Alléluiatiques
(OM 51/5, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost)

Te Deum laudamus (Hymn of thanksgiving)
Liberasti nos, Domine (Gradual, Psalm 44)
‘We praise thee, O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord…’
‘Thou hast saved us from our enemies, and hast put them to shame that hated us.
We praise God all the day long, and trust in thy name for ever.’
For the final piece in L’Orgue Mystique, the sortie for the 23rd Sunday after
Pentecost, Tournemire returned to a theme beloved of all French organists, the
great Hymn of Thanksgiving Te Deum laudamus. In his resplendent Fantaisie
familiar phrases from the Te Deum are interwoven with ‘garlands of Alleluias’
derived from the Gradual of the day. Tournemire has often been unfairly criticised
for failing to recapture the spontaneity of his improvisations in his written music; if
any single piece disposes of that criticism, it must be this exalted explosion of joy
and praise – Tournemire’s very own transports de joie.

Recital performed on St.Mary Magdalene’s John Compton Organ (1933)


The Society is most grateful for generous support from the Barker-Mill Foundation,
from German Khan and from Galina Alabatchka

We gratefully acknowledge assistance from the Churchwardens of St.Mary Magdalene Church, David Gammie, James Paget, Helen Hathorn, Alexander Kirk, the Revd. Canon Graham Rainford and Trini Farrugia.