Charles Tournemire

French organist and composer (1870, Bordeaux – 1939, Arcachon)

Charles Tournemire was one of the most eminent ambassadors of the French organ school. His strong personality combined with his deep faith left a mark on his work, unique mix of gigantism and subtlety.

Born in Bordeaux, Charles Tournemire started his musical education in his natal city. When he was eleven, he was already managing an organ casing. In 1886, he went to Paris and was admitted at the Paris Conservatoire the following year in piano, harmony and, more importantly, in organ classes. He therefore studied in César Franck’s class (where he met Louis Vierne and Guillaume Lekeu) then under Charles-Marie Widor. He received the first organ prize in 1891. In the composition area, Tournemire turned to the Schola Cantorum of Vincent d’Indy. In 1898, while he had an office at the church of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, he was given tenure at the Basilica of Saint-Clotilde, replacing Gabriel Pierné. His audience counted many personalities, including Olivier Messiaen. Though Messiaen would never be his student, he would become kind of an heir to the composer. Tournemire held his tenure until his death, increasing the organ's size during his office.

Demobilized in 1918 after the war had ended, he went back to the civil life. From 1919 until 1938, he taught ensemble music at the Paris Conservatoire. His growing notoriety brought him to give concerts abroad, like in Spain in 1930 or in England in 1936. In 1931, while giving a concert, he recorded five improvisations on 78 rpm records. Those recordings were reconstituted and transcribed on partitions by Maurice Duruflé in the 1950’s.

Charles Tournemire left us a work that resolves mainly around the organ. But it also includes pieces for piano or for chamber formations. Nonetheless, with 8 symphonies to his name, he remains the most productive of the French symphonists composers of his time. Lover and expert on Gustav Mahler, he used instrumental effects that were almost as impressive but with a bit more of transparency.

Six landmark dates in the life of Charles Tournemire
• 1881: organist at Saint Pierre church in Bordeaux
• 1891: first organ prize at the Paris Conservatoire
• 1898: tenure of the organ of Basilica of Saint-Clotilde
• 1919: ensemble music teacher at the Paris Conservatoire
• 1930: tour in Spain
• 1936: tour in England

Six pieces by Charles Tournemire
• 1908: Poème mystique op 33, for piano
• 1910: Poème op 38, for organ and orchestra
• 1918: Symphonie n° 6, op 48
• 1921: Symphonie n° 8 « Le Triomphe de la mort », op 51
• 1932: L’Orgue mystique, op 55, 56 et 57, collection for organ
• 1935: Symphonie-choral op 69, for organ

Radio France Documentation biography, November 2014