HIS MORNING I SETTLED INTO THE CHOIR LOFT at 6:48 and unlocked the organ. After a few minutes of prayer, I sat down at the organ bench. I like to precede the 7:00 AM Mass with a short prelude, usually improvised. But this morning, the church was deliciously silent—and, as has so often been the case with me lately, I was reluctant to break the silence (more on that another time).
What could I play that would seem to emerge gracefully from the silence? Then it hit me: Tournemire.
Before both of my Sunday Masses, I played the prelude for Trinity Sunday from L’Orgue Mystique by Charles Tournemire (1870-1939). It is strange, haunting, and ethereal. And if this Monday didn’t happen to fall on May 31—the Feast of the Queenship of Mary in the Extraordinary Form—it would be observed simply as the Monday after Trinity Sunday.
This prelude was the perfect bridge between silence and liturgy. Listen to this rendition by an excellent organist, and I think you’ll agree:
Chant-Based Compositions for the Entire Liturgical Year
Seasoned organists may find it hard to believe, but I had only heard of Tournemire in passing until last fall. To be fair, I’ve only been playing the organ for not quite three years. I didn’t encounter any Tournemire in music school because I was a clarinet major and his orchestral works are not often performed. My first real exposure to Tournemire was second-hand: I bought Jeffrey Brillhart’s fantastic improvisation guide, Breaking Free, which includes a chapter on Tournemire’s compositional style.
I began searching the internet for Tournemire’s compositions and eventually found L’Orgue Mystique. This massive series consists of chant-based pieces for every Sunday—and many feast days—of the liturgical year. These compositions often sound like improvisations, which makes sense because Tournemire was a brilliant improviser at the organ. They’re free-flowing and vivid, often with penetrating melodic lines taken straight from the chant propers.
How I Benefit from Music I (Mostly) Can’t Play
Now, for an organist at my level, most of L’Orgue Mystique is out of reach. I was able to sight-read the prelude for Trinity Sunday in a practice session last week, but that’s a rare occurrence. Much of L’Orgue will require practice for even fairly accomplished organists, and some of it is highly challenging.
Still, I benefit greatly from this cycle of pieces. As I’ve mentioned before, I mostly improvise when I play Masses. But even for a guy who loves to do it, improvising can become a grind. How do you keep coming up with ideas so that you’re not simply playing through the chant propers with simple, functional harmonies? By listening to Tournemire!
My new ritual is to find the L’Orgue Mystique pieces for the upcoming Sunday Mass on YouTube and binge-listen to them for several days. I’ll then use Tournemire’s compositions as a template for my improvisations. I’ll notice things such as a solo in the pedals, a chant motif that Tournemire emphasized, or an intriguing texture that he created around the chant melody. I’ll then “translate” these elements into something manageable for an organist at my level. This process often includes “dumbing down” the more complex chords into a harmonic framework that sounds more like me. My results seldom sound anything like Tournemire, but that’s not my goal anyway; I’m simply looking for inspiration.
Sometimes a particular movement of L’Orgue Mystique won’t resonate with me, and I’ll go in my own direction with my improvisation. But most of the time, I’ll borrow at least one element from Tournemire. If you’re an advanced organist, you’ve probably already played Tournemire’s work. If you’re still learning like me, I hope this article has introduced you to a valuable resource for your improvisation.