About this Recording
8.223476 - TOURNEMIRE: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 5
English 

Charles Tournemire (1870–1939)
Symphonies Nos. 1 & 5

 

Charles Tournemire was born in Bordeaux in 1870 and died at Arcachon in 1939. For some he may seem to have been a slightly mysterious organist with a reputation for improvisation, yet this master of modern organ music was at the same time a powerful symphonist. Between 1900 and 1924 Tournemire wrote no less than eight symphonies differing in dimension and form, without counting the Poème pour orgue of 1910 and various compositions for chorus and orchestra. As he himself made clear, these eight symphonies were only the preparation for an enterprise of greater scope still, conceived for that other orchestra, the organ. The reference was to L’Orgue mystique, written between 1927 and 1932, a great cycle that covers the liturgical year and consists of fifteen hours of music. After the completion of this, Tournemire only returned to the symphony with the organ in his Symphonie-Choral of 1935 and his Symphonie Sacrée the following year.

Tournemire became a pupil of César Franck when that composer was working on his own Symphony in D minor of 1887. The future of this work is well known. It was taken as a model or at least served as an example for Chausson, Magnard, Ropartz, d’Indy, Vierne, Lazzari and others, but none of these composers, not even d’Indy, raised the symphony to the level of importance achieved by Tournemire. It was easy for Debussy to comment ironically on the beaverish activity that dominated these scores constructed on the system of the cyclic transformation of themes. It is true that in France at the turn of the century, parallel to this symphonic fashion, its formalism reinforced by the teaching of the Schola cantorum, orchestral music spread more freely through the ballet, the rhapsody and the symphonic poem.

A pianist and organist by training, organist at the basilica of Sainte-Clotilde with its great Cavaillé-Coll instrument from 1898 until his death, professor of ensemble music at the Paris Conservatoire from 1921, Charles Tournemire, who also left a certain number of chamber music works, nourished his creative flair with a strong religious faith, finding himself in the exalted catholicism that inspired the prose of Ernest Hello and Léon Bloy. Furthermore, he was, through his first marriage, brother-in-law of the Sâr Joséphin Péladan, who re-established the Rosicrucian movement. Tournemire’s musical testament is based on a text by Péladan, a lyric drama with the title II poverello di Assisi, written some weeks before his death. The Franciscan ideal marked above all the last ten years of his creative life, just as the aesthetic mysticism of César Franck dominated the period of his symphonies. This mysticism remained attached to the image of the redemptive process of the Man, who, in the obscurity of his condition, aspires to the accomplishment of his destiny through the revelation of the divine light. In the symphonies of Tournemire the evocation of the presence of nature plays a religious rôle in the etymological sense of the word, binding man to the divine, when it does not represent the divine itself, as in the Fifth Symphony. This appears in the music in a carefully elaborated structure that brings a tonal progression and an antithesis symbolical, as it were, of the progress from darkness to clarity, a progression for which the cyclical process is particularly well suited. From the point of view of expression, properly speaking, the eloquence of the very lyrical symphonic dialogue oscillates between the epic and the tranquilly contemplative. Tournemire was a self-confessed romantic. The hostility that he showed towards the modernising tendencies in the music of his time arose from ethical considerations: for this champion of the Ideal, the only valid work was that which tended to the glory of God. For this reason it is easier to understand how, opposed to Ravel, to the school of Vienna and to Les Six, he encouraged the young Olivier Messiaen. He was led, through his rejection of modern trends, to form a personal musical language, above all in his harmonic writing. This language, imbued with the chromaticism of César Franck, absorbed only very gradually certain elements of the twentieth century, such as atonality, polytonality, Indian modes and so on, while proving more immediately receptive to the art of Debussy. As an orchestrator he was the heir of Berlioz and Wagner, but his attention to detail even with a sonority rich in its bass and its doublings, preserves the transparency that characterizes French music of the period. Tournemire’s orchestral palette was based on a wide scale of timbres, grouped or divided according to the musical ideas in relation to the philosophical argument or the programme that underpins the carefully planned structure of a work. His scoring, therefore, includes instruments seldom used in the orchestra, such as the lute, the oboe d’amore or the saxophone. Although he does not orchestrate like an organist, he still remembers his own instrument, making remarkable use of it in the third, fourth and sixth of his symphonies.

The literary connection, size and particular technical qualities of Tournemire’s symphonies have induced the few that have seen the scores to recall the work of Gustav Mahler. Such a comparison needs justification, but there are certainly points in common, apart from any consideration of the works as a whole. Mahler, after all, found it necessary to support his musical discourse with philosophical argument. We know from his letters that Tournemire knew some of Mahler’s symphonies and that he acknowledged that composer’s lofty aspirations, but the aesthetic and cultural tradition to which he belonged prevented him recognising any personal affinity with this music, although he may have been influenced by it sometimes, principally in orchestration.

Contrary to what might be supposed, Charles Tournemire was not completely unknown as a symphonist in his life-time, although he himself never heard all of his symphonies. In Holland in particular, before 1930, they enjoyed some real if ephemeral success, supported by his reputation as an organist and master of improvisation. The relative social isolation in which Tournemire spent the last years of his life, the fact that he died at the beginning of the war in 1939 and musical tendencies after 1945 tended to disregard the Wagner-Franck tradition, brought Tournemire, as it were, a second death.

Tournemire’s Second Symphony “Ouessant” in B-flat major, Opus 36, begun in 1908 and completed in February 1909, may be considered as marking the start of the composer’s symphonic cycle in the spiritual perspective described above. Eight years separate this from the First Symphony, Opus 18, a period during which Tournemire’s orchestral technique had developed. The Second Symphony may thus sometimes appear dense in texture and there may be detected in the use of lower woodwind, a high-pitched trumpet and two off-stage French horns in addition to the four horns in the orchestra, the influence of Richard Strauss, who had conducted his own music in Paris during the first decade of the century. Furthermore it may be added that the first performance of Debussy’s La mer in 1905 had opened new perspectives for symphonic music. Finally it might be said that Tournemire’s score was completed and performed a few months before he heard the first performance in Paris of a symphony by Mahler, the First, a performance described by Tournemire as trahison (betrayal). In fact in his Second Symphony he uses the evocative power of the orchestra for a religious purpose. As the title of the work suggests, the symphony was inspired by the fantastic landscape of the Isle of Ouessant. The composer adds that his work tends to the glorification of the Eternal. He owed to his first wife the revelation of Brittany and the possibility of spending each summer on the Isle of Ouessant. Like other pupils of Franck, Tournemire was influenced not only by the landscape of Brittany but by Celtic culture in general, from which, through medieval literature, he had borrowed several subjects. The Second Symphony echoes, moreover, the spirit of popular song and the writing is marked by chromaticism that gives several of its episodes a tormented expression. The thematic material seems to suggest the jagged outline of the rocks of Ouessant, constantly beaten by the waves, an impression accentuated by clear-cut rhythms, variations in the density of the polyphony and in dynamics and the occasionally violent contrasts of sonority that mark the work. The three movements of the symphony seem to follow the upward trajectory of the theme that in the Prélude, marked Très modéré, rises step by step. This introduction leads to an Allegro moderato of great expressive intensity, interrupted by the following episode, marked Très calme. The apotheosis of the final Allegro is preceded by a chorale that is intended to give the work its spiritual dimension.

The symphony was first performed under Louis Hasseimans at the concerts that bore his name on 3rd April 1909 at the Salle Gaveau in Paris.

Brittany was once more the source of inspiration of the Fourth Symphony, “Pages Symphoniques”, Opus 44. This was written and orchestrated quickly by Tournemire in the summer of 1912, near Perros-Guirec, since the surviving sketches date from 6th July, with the piano reduction of the orchestral score carrying the dates 15th July–12th September 1912. Of all the symphonies of Tournemire the Fourth, which has also been given the subtitle “Symphonietta”, is, from a formal point of view, the freest. This is perhaps due to the fact that, unlike the other symphonies, it appears as a pure work of music, with five movements that have no reference to any literary or precise philosophical argument. The composer is content simply to indicate that the work “exalts the poetry of Brittany”. The thematic structure is more diversified, the cyclical procedure applied with more flexibility in a sound context of less dramatic tension. The orchestration, with its use of solo instruments, particularly in the lower woodwind, and its remarkable use of the harps, brings several surprises, not least the presence of the organ in the central movement of the score.

The first theme is played by viola solo, accompanied by a cello solo, in a movement marked Assez lent, with a second theme allocated to the cor anglais. The fluidity of the orchestration of this introductory “page” is noticeable, leading to an Allegro marked avec du mouvement, of which the principal idea is derived from the first theme. The structure of this movement alternates three times the Allegro with slower episodes, the first re-appearance of the Allegro leading to a development that unwinds little by little to introduce mysteriously the second section of the symphony, marked Modéré. A change of climate is brought about by the entry of the organ which, at the sound of the bell, engages in a dialogue with the strings, in a harmonisation of the second theme. This lyrical episode leads, with the bass clarinet, to a sort of scherzo, marked Vif, also derived from the second theme. The last “symphonic page” is slow, moved by a feeling of contemplative joy.

The Fourth Symphony was first performed on 12th March 1916 in Paris at the Châtelet by the orchestra of the Concerts Colonne together with that of the Concerts Lamoureux under the direction of Camille Chevillard with the organist Eugène Gigout.

Joël-Marie Fauquet
Translated by Keith Anderson


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