Saturday, January 3, 2009

Charles Tournemire – L’Orgue Mystique

Here is the first installment of what will likely be a reoccurring topic. My interest in the French pipe organ traditions started with hearing Olivier Messiaen’s Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle. To me, it was a shocking and strangely futuristic piece of music that was able to satisfy my aural lusts on so many levels. At the height of my fantasy was the image of Messiaen himself, perched at the helm of this amazing pipe organ, controlling the stops, hitting the buttons, and really pushing this musical beast to it's utter limits. In the 1930s, Messiaen was blowing the congregation away with his pulsing harmonic slabs of noise, radical dynamic shifts, brain-piercing and body-shaking timbral creations, wandering oddball modalities, all composed simply for the glory of God.

Obviously I needed to hear more and quickly discovered the endlessly complex sound worlds of Messiaen, Charles Tournemire, Jean Langlais, Jehan Alain, Naji Hakim, Louis Vierne, Alexandre Gilmant, Marcel Dupre, Charles-Marie Widor, and so many others. French symphonic organ music begins with two gentlemen; Astride Cavaille-Coll and Cesar Franck. Cavaille-Coll was a mad genius who combined the extremes of 19th century Science, Art and Music to design immense pipe organs that could replicate over 100 symphonic sounds and play them all at once. These organs were literally the 19th century equivalent of a modern polyphonic, multi-timbral synthesizer. Cavaille-Coll installed these monster organs into cathedrals all over the world, but his most amazing masterpieces are in France. With nearly a dozen glorious musical monuments in Paris alone.

Cesar Franck was living in France at this time and he took an interest in composing for these new symphonic organs. In 1858, he became organist at the newly-consecrated Sainte Clotilde Basilica in Paris. In 1868 Franck published Grande Piece Symphonique, a 25 minute organ symphony, igniting several generations of French organists who will go on to compose all manner of musical and symphonic innovations specifically designed for performance on this singular instrument. Franck was also an important composition and organist instructor for many of the most influential French composers, including Widor, Dupre, Vierne and Tournemire.

In 1898 Charles Tournemire took over Franck’s former chair as titular organist for Sainte Clotilde. He quickly became famous for his intense improvisations, and despite his ability to easily play any of the common church organ music of the day, he spent every service completely lost in improvisation. In 1932 Tournemire finished L’Orgue Mytique which was a massive work, covering the entire Catholic liturgical year; 51 sets (or Offices, as they are called) of five movements each, based on the Gregorian chant of the day. I can only imagine it to be one of the most exciting and ambitious musical events of the century. What would it be like, returning to Sainte Clotilde each Sunday, for an entire year, and hear every single installment of this wild music?

I have been listening to Sandro Muller’s recording of the 2nd, 17th and 48th Office; volume 14 in this cycle, released on CD by the Cybele label. This is a high quality recording given a very passionate and thoughtful reading by Muller on the “Marienorgel”, Stiftsbasilika Waldsassen. Though not a French organ or a direct student of the French organists, this disc is nonetheless a terrific example of the power of this music. Of course, it is always interesting to hear this music performed by an organist in the French lineage and performed on the organ it was written for. However, there is no reason to discount the inspired performances that this music is finally seeing from young organists around the world. Aside from Muller's cycle on Cybele, recordings of the L’Orgue Mystique are hard to come by. There were only a few releases of the cycle and most of them were expensive boxsets that are now out of print.

Though these pieces are all thoroughly composed, they still have a flowing improvisational feel to them. Tournemire’s obsessive improvisations had thoroughly influenced his composing towards the end of his life. The music is moody and often takes you from graceful beauty through queasy transitions and into uncertain terror, always somehow returning to that dark redemption in those cascading Gregorian melodies. The third movement of the 17th Office is entitled “Elevation” and it is a very tense and unusual combination of dissonant phase cycles with pure tone modulations that are similar to the electronic feedback manipulations heard in Power Electronics. The hammering bass tones and roaring drones of the low end explorations are heavier than most Sunn O))) records. Then how he can write these brilliant gestures, to take him from one end of the frequency spectrum to another is even more mind bending. All the impressive aspects of symphonic pipe organ music are here in spades, but what always stuns me the most is Tournemire’s ceaseless flow of melodic star-searching mystical improv journeys. At the climax of every Office comes a moment when you are forced to sit back in awe at just how consistently inspired Tournemire’s holy reflections are, no matter what the instrument may be.


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