Charles Tournemire was born in Bordeaux on 22 January 1870 and was appointed organist of the church of St. Pierre in Bordeaux at the age of 11. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire with César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor,and later with Vincent d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum. In 1898 Tournemire succeeded Gabriel Pierné as organist in St.
Clotilde, a post he held for the rest of his life.
Tournemire was appointed Professor of chamber music at the Paris Conservatoire, but the Great War had brought about cultural and musical changes and he soon found himself out of step with the times of Les Six and Stravinsky. His masterpiece was surely ‘L’orgue mystique’ which includes about 15 hours of music, longer than the complete organ works of J.S. Bach, and took five years to complete. He was also known for his magnificent organ improvisations and several were recorded and later transcribed by Maurice Duruflé.
Todd McComb succinctly describes his musical style as “…always deeply serious, making use of the chorale as did Franck, and extended ideas on sonority originating with Claude Debussy. He was among the first composers to begin looking at modes from other cultures (notably India), and his music makes effective use of this polymodality. His music is thoroughly French in idiom, though he continued Franck’s efforts to incorporate harmonic ideas from the great German composers of the period.”
Charles Tournemire died on 3 or 4 November 1939 in mysterious circumstances. Rovi Staff writes: ” …he left his home to take a walk on October 31, 1939 and never returned; four days later his body was found in a bog outside of Archachon, quite some distance from where he started out. The suggestion that he may have committed suicide seemed impossible for such a staunchly Catholic mystic, and the latest information suggests that Tournemire may have become disoriented, lost his way and drowned by accident.”