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8.572347 - TOURNEMIRE, C.: Sagesse / Poeme / Dialogue sacre - 3 Lieder (Bundy, Crayford)
Charles Tournemire (1870–1939)
It is to be regretted that so much of the prolific output of Charles Tournemire (1870–1939) remains unknown and unpublished. Born in Bordeaux, after his initial training he arrived at the Paris Conservatoire: As had been the case with his co-pupil Louis Vierne, who had met the composer César Franck at an early age and fallen under the spell of his musical and personal charisma, so Tournemire found himself drawn to the church of Ste.-Clotilde where he heard the renowned improviser at work. It was to be a turning point in the young man’s musical career: Already a seeker after religious truth, his quixotic, fertile imagination and temperamental character were ideally suited to the creation of spontaneous music. He briefly became a pupil of Franck at the Conservatoire, but the grand maître died a few months later as a result of a traffic accident. Unlike his confrères Tournemire did not take kindly to his successor, Charles-Marie Widor, but it is undeniably true that he owed his considerable playing technique to that virtuoso and composer. After the brief tenure of Gabriel Pierné (Franck’s immediate successor at the tribune of Ste.-Clotilde), having graduated from the Conservatoire, he was himself appointed as his mentor’s successor and, in many ways, also assumed the musical mantle. He remained in this post until his death, although he strangely insisted on spelling the name of the church as Ste.-Clothilde: He was also to become professor of chamber music at the Conservatoire but, to his chagrin and despite the longevity of his tenure and musical achievements, he received neither honour nor recognition for any of his musical activities—unlike his colleagues and contemporaries. As a player, a composer, but above all an improviser he was highly regarded, yet there is so much more to this complex and profoundly religious man.
For a composer universally associated in the public consciousness—if he is associated at all—with the organ, it is ironic that less than half his considerable output involved that instrument. His oeuvre is surprisingly diverse, encompassing Chamber Music (various sonatas for violin, ‘cello, a suite for Viola, sets of piano preludes and the Musique Orante for string quartet), a great number of Operas (including Les Dieux sont Morts, Ninettis, La Legende de Tristan etc.), oratorios (Le Douleureux Passion de Xrist, Apocalypse de Saint Jean etc.) and mélodies. Single opus numbers would often contain a considerable amount of music: Op.52, for example, contains three substantial opera/oratorios—Faust, Don Quichotte and St Francis d’Assisi—and the monumental L’Orgue Mystique (Ops.55–57) contains no less than 253 separate pieces. In all his mature work there is a distinctive harmonic and melodic voice which gradually develops to encompass not just oriental scales but rhythmic modes long before other composers discovered their usefulness and importance. His use of an individual form of hexachord allies him with another composer—Alexander Scriabin, born the same year—who employed a similar technique, although exploited in a different fashion. Although these two composers could hardly be considered as mutually influential, and it is doubtful if they ever met or heard each other’s compositions, they share surprising musical and philosophical conceptions.
Most of the mélodies composed by Tournemire are relatively early works and few begin to describe any of the techniques and influences outlined above. The relatively late Dialogue Sacrée Op.50 (1919) is one such work that does, but there are, nonetheless, intimations of this developing technique in the earlier Triptyque Op.39 (1910). Also, of the works represented here, only two were ever published, and it is doubtful if some of the others were ever performed. The two published works are the monumental Sagesse Op.34 (1908) and the brief and enigmatic Solitude (composed in 1903 but not published until 1923). With the exception of the early Quatre Mélodies Op.25 and Trois Mélodies Op.28 (both sets having been composed 1901–2) all the other songs remain unpublished, as indeed do all but one of his operas…and many of his other works also. Quant à la récompense de cette oeuvre-là, n’en parlez pas, monsieur. Je ne l’attends pas dans ce monde-ci, mais dans l’autre…he once remarked.
What drove such a talented performer to compose with so little apparent hope of publication or even performance? The answer is deceptively simple, yet is one which, in the eyes of his contemporaries, would have condemned him immediately to the realms of obscurity and irrelevance. He was a truly religious composer; his vocation and duty was to compose music in honour of and to the greater glory of God. Dieu hanté son âme vibrante, tourmentée, insatisfaite…He was composing in an era that had become completely secularised: The nineteenth century, with its succession of wars and revolutions, had completely discredited the establishment, and the church was a powerful and influential hangover from the Ancien Régime. Church and the state were finally separated in 1904. Another phenomenon that had occurred—particularly in Paris—was the notion of the fin-de-siècle: One era, full of war, hardship and revolution was ending and another (hopefully) more peaceful and optimistic epoch was beginning; it was important socially and artistically to be seen to be associated with the new age, in which the church would play no part. Many artists and composers were victims of this neurosis, but none more so than those connected with the organ tribune: Musical positions which at one time were goals to be aimed at, a guarantee of renown, now became something akin to the albatross round the neck of the Ancient Mariner. Widor, Vierne and Tournemire all suffered, as did Saint-Saëns, and, whilst the titulaire of St Sulpice had at least enjoyed a successful career prior to this date both his pupils were on the threshold of their careers. Both reacted in the same way: They composed, they performed…they were frustrated. Vierne, through his blindness, found an advocate in an amanuensis who assisted in the writing down and the performance of his works, and, in addition, persuaded éditeurs to publish: Tournemire had no such assistance, nor was he part of Salon Society which, although on the wane, might have been useful. He composed for God and his bottom-drawer. As Raymond Petit wrote in the Revue Musicale in 1939, as part of a belated tribute…Et toujours le même question qui revient en notre esprit: toute ces oeuvres accumulées dans le silence, le secret, et le dédain de toute réussite extérieure, une gloire posthume attend-il leur auteur? Afin d’en juger vraiment, il me semble que c’est à la Radio qu’il faudrait les entendre.
Sagesse (Op.34)—or to give it its full title Poème pour Voix et Piano (the term Poème being very important to Tournemire)—has been termed by some as a ‘cycle’ but this is erroneous: Although sectional it is not made up of individual mélodies but rather there is a continual development and restatement of ideas giving what is, at first sight, a rather formless work structure and internal cohesion. This is also the first of Tournemire’s mature mélodies to be entirely Christ centred, and, indeed, both it and the original poem are based around a dialogue between the poet/composer, expressing his sense of unworthiness, and his Saviour, recounting the pain and suffering He endured on behalf of the errant soul. Although the original poem stems from the period which marked Verlaine’s return to the faith and respectability following his Rimbaud ‘period’, he was not a poet given to sanctimonious pieties: Thus there is a robustness in these verses that is aptly reflected in the music. This work has been deemed the most important setting of Verlaine in the French vocal repertoire after works by Fauré and Debussy, although in a quite different style and with a much more serious intent.
Seeming to reflect the adage, familiar from the works of Scriabin, that…Harmony is melody furled, melody is harmony unfurled…the opening bars develop to reveal Tournemire’s equivalent of the hexachord of his Russian contemporary, immediately followed by the first vocal line, containing the melodic germ that appears as a leitmotif throughout this work, setting the words Il faut m’aimer. The ensuing dialogue is characterised by passages of density, strident clarion calls, recitative-like agitation before the music itself becomes consoling and somewhat relaxed. The heart of the work, a very simple melody line setting the text which begins…Approche toi de mon oreille…, marks the start of the reconciliation between the poet and Christ; this becomes agitated at times—in terms of filigree rather than tempo (which begins at the very slow tempo of crotchet = 34!)—and curiously the sentiment of the work itself remains a little ambiguous to its very end: The final words of Christ (as is in the original poem) are merely…Pauvre âme, c’est celà!…and the harmony at this point is firmly in the tonic minor, only resolving to the major in the nick of time for the last chord. It is a quite perfunctory ending to what has been an extended composition. This is a quite unique work, one which fits neither salon, church nor concert-hall; a large-scale miniature that is almost an operatic scena. Curiously, despite the sensuality of the text and the passion of the music, it remains a little austere: Although there is a desperate longing on the part of the poet for an embrace with his God, it seems to remain a cerebral rather than a physical yearning on the part of the composer.
Both Poème Op.32 and Sagesse Op.34 were composed in the same year (1908); the latter is a substantial piece, setting verses of Verlaine (a selection from the much longer poem of the same name), whilst the former is, in fact, three separate songs linked by short interludes and completed with a short postlude for piano, recapitulating various themes for earlier. The verses are unrelated to each other and are extracted from various volumes of the works of Albert Samain, a poet who held a great interest for Tournemire. This rather obscure poet - plus encore de Baudelaire…le poète des parfums—seems to have been rather an ephemeral figure of French poetry: Heavily influenced by Verlaine, although stylistically dissimilar, he belonged to no ‘school’ and, indeed, seemed to have few friends in the salons, both aspects being rather reminiscent of the composer. However, his verses contain certain elements that struck immediate chords with Tournemire—bells, love of nature, a quest for God—all these and more were combined in verses of great style and (occasionally) depth. It is no coincidence that this ‘poet of perfumes’ should so appeal to Tournemire for, as has been recorded by many of his pupils, his starting point for any improvisation or composition was to…crée une atmosphère…The voluptuousness of the poetry is reflected in an austere sensuality that only rarely allows itself expression in the other works from this same period.
The quest for the Holy is present in most of Tournemire’s compositions: In Sagesse it is obvious but is more veiled in the Poème, although it is not untrue to say that each of its three linked mélodies (linked—enchainez—by short interludes) represents this search in three different ways—through anguish, animated exaltation and serene reverie.
The first song of Poème commences enigmatically, emerging from the very depths of the piano, its lowest note: There are immediate tonal dissonances, major versus minor, semitone clashes and a confusion of the general tonality Exploiting extremes of the piano keyboard there is a gentle, sobbing accompaniment which only becomes rhetorically demonstrative in the last few pages, as the poem itself becomes more personal. This is the same poem as set by Fauré as the duet (Pleurs d’Or Op.xx) although here it is treated in quite differently. These…larmes…are plaintive and there is a general atmosphere of unreality, bordering on numb ennui. The highly contrasted Réveil is itself a mélodie of contrasts: Hymn-like at its outset, then animated with sparser textures leading to an exultant conclusion, are all aspects of an impassioned search for Christ and the rededication of an individual life. As often with Tournemire the animation is achieved through increased figurations rather than through any acceleration of the general pulse which, although it changes continually (often by very slight degrees) remains uniformly slow. The final bars of fanfare exploit the full range of the piano keyboard once again. Le Repos en Egypte is the most forward-looking of the three mélodies: A very slow pulse coupled with impressionistic harmonies, moments of bitonality and quasi-polyphonic filigree reflect the stillness of the poem—Le ciel est bleu et calme et le calme infini—and there is a delightful moment when the piano imitates the gentle breathing of the Christ-child, almost indistinguishable from the surrounding ppp harmonies and textures. This reverie melts into the piano postlude, recapitulating themes from the two earlier mélodies,but making no clever attempt to combine them, a mere reminder to the listener and a means of indicating their relevance.
This was Tournemire’s first attempt at an integrated cycle, a work where aspects of each component combine to reveal a wider vision: This type of work would see its fruition in the later Tryptyque (Op.39), although without the interludes, each of the three mélodies running seamlessly from one to another. This form was not to be without its inherent problems as, in this later work, the contrasts were to prove less obvious and the intense perfume of the music at times suffocating.
The Tryptyque (Op.39) of 1910 brought Tournemire back to the poetry of Samain and it is on the manuscript of this work that he claimed…j’ai Christianisé Samain…ce délicieux paën. Quite an arrogant assertion (although Tournemire was more than capable of such statements…and worse), and one which is almost completely without foundation. However, rather like his opera Les Dieux sonts Morts (Op.42) of 1911, the first two sections do deal with the transformation of the classical world into a more contemporary Christian culture—yet the last shows the earth itself in tune with the Christian world. These three mélodies are joined one to another to such an extent that the links are almost imperceptible, given that they all have a slow tempo (crotchet = 40) and that their tonalities are not so different. However, each mélodie does have its own character, with distinct melodic ideas and, although the whole work ends with a piano postlude, this is merely a restatement of the main theme of the last mélodie rather than any attempt at a summation of the whole.
From the bell-like opening of the first mélodie, through the exquisite delicacy of the second and the ringing of the Angelus that ends the last, what is remarkable about this work is not just the harmonic and melodic invention, the near-suffocating atmosphere and the almost hypnotic tempi, but the way in which the surrounding filigree becomes in itself a theme worthy of development and expansion: The textures are, at times, almost orchestral in their attempted colouration and are constrained by the limitations of the keyboard—there was never any attempt to orchestrate any of these later mélodies. Occasionally they anticipate the birdsong paraphrases that were to become the hallmark of his (private) pupil Olivier Messiaen.
The Trois Lieder (Op. 46) of 1912 set texts from a variety of Samain’s published works, yet nowhere is there an explanation of the Germanic title: It is a conundrum, more so when one considers that these pieces were composed at the same time as his Fourth Symphony, which, like the earlier Second Symphony (Ouessant) was a celebration of the culture of Tournemire’s adopted home in Brittany. Further, there is a very poignant dedication on the manuscript wherein both the composer and his first wife have written words of tribute to each other, curiously dated 1903 (the year of their marriage) and then 1913: There is then a further dedication from Tournemire, eloquently expressing his grief at the death of his wife, added somewhat later (she did not die until 1920). These short mélodies show further developments in Tournemire’s harmonic language: The first gradually unfurls itself, as had Sagesse, and, after dense progressions ends simply, if ambiguously on a bare octave. The second is more impressionistic, with descending chords of unrelated harmonies balanced by more profound chords, and the last is quite simple—almost nostalgic—in its melodic and harmonic structure. Whatever their other attributes, the greatest difference between these three mélodies and others is that they are true love-songs and it must be for this reason that the dedications appeared.
Le Désir qui palpite a travers la nature (1912) is a very curious mélodie (included here for completeness) and again sets words by Samain: The impression is of a collection of melodic, harmonic and structural tricks that lack inspiration and the short mélodie is, in many ways, more reminiscent of Tournemire’s earliest vocal works—alas it is one of the last, and is quite a disappointment. The same could not be said of Solitude, composed in 1903 but not published for another twenty years: Whether it was reworked by the composer for publication or not is impossible to say, but it contains many characteristics of the mature artist, with its strange harmonies, folk-like melody, unexpected filigree and desolate ending, reminiscent of the end of Silence (Op. 46 No. 1).
The Dialogue Sacrée for Soprano and Baritone dates from 1919 and was the last work for voice(s) and piano that Tournemire was to compose: He was already heavily involved with the writing of major works for the stage, symphony orchestra and also oratorios, and this work has its origins in the projected Poème/Symphonie (Tournemire was initially undecided which it should be) Les Chants de la Vie. The introduction, the most extended in this genre, demonstrates the gradual blossoming of both harmony and melody from the same source and, as with Sagesse, there is a great deal of thematic and harmonic cross-referencing throughout this setting of verses from the Cantique des Cantiques. Whilst there is a heavy sensuality in the music, combined with the usual lightness of filigree, the voices never sing together and the passion, although evident, is restrained and the whole ends on an ethereal chord containing both a sharpened fourth and a flattened supertonic…and no third of any kind. Obviously any type of fulfilling resolution was reserved for the limitless confines of eternity.
It is often said that all Tournemire’s music sounds the same and, at first acquaintance, there is a good deal of truth in this statement: There is a similarity of intent, harmonic motion, even of melodic construction which tends towards sameness. The English critic once wrote in a review of an organ recital that Tournemire gave in London (1936)…there is no end to the admirable music he can produce; and conversely, in all he produces we find the same materials. The weakness of the Tournemire pieces…is their alikeness. It is true that examination reveals the consistent use of a theme; but the themes themselves are alike, having first been flattened out to the same degree of timelessness. […] To me his pieces are indistinguishable from one another, and they might be taken as expressing anything equally as well as their accredited programme. Harsh. However, below the surface lies the art of a composer who, although always seeming to start from the same position, was sensitive to words, with a keen sense of prosody, possessed of a great melodic gift and a sure sense of texture. he had a message to convey and did so with an easy grace and poise. The atmosphère that he created is an inclusive, approachable, one: It is easy to allow the sounds to become a wash of mystical, lush harmony, but within this can be found the craft of a true melodist, one whose contribution to the development of this genre of French music is sadly overlooked and under-rated.
Michael R. Bundy
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