The Language of Transcendence: the French Organ School in the Twentieth Century

Vincent Rone

Monday, June 20, 9 AM

In 1932, Charles Tournemire (1870–1939) completed his monumental L’Orgue Mystique—fifty one, five-movement suites based on Gregorian melodies proper to the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. Despite a lackluster reception, the work demonstrated an important moment within the French organ-composing tradition.On the one hand, Tournemire wedded the opulence and breadth of the nineteenth-century French organ symphony to his liturgical disposition, reflective of the worship reforms afoot at the turn of the century. On the other hand, he combined harmonic languages of two worlds, the modality of Gregorian chant and the post-tonal chromaticism of fin-de-siècle art music. In doing so, Tournemire achieved a “mystical” or “transcendent” sound within a French Catholic liturgical purview. Yet he was not the only composer to have used such techniques.

This presentation examines how Tournemire’s music codified a “transcendent harmonic language” that the French Organ School adopted throughout the twentieth century. Tournemire’s harmonies, which he associated with the otherworldly dimensions of the Catholic liturgy, appealed to composers like Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986), Jean Langlais (1907–1991), and Jehan Alain (1911–1940). I first extrapolate compositional features from Tournemire’s L’Orgue Mystique, which are based on principles of intervallic symmetry. I then show how such features appear in the works of the other three composers after the 1930s. The “transcendent harmonic language” has become a defining feature in the compositional style of the French Organ School’s sacred music. It is what makes the music “sound mystical.”

Dr. Vincent Rone’s research focuses on the intersection of French organists and the Second Vatican Council, using the compositions of Duruflé and Langlais to rescript the history of Catholic reform since the 1960s. He has presented papers at local, national, and international conferences and also has publications appearing in Notes, The Church Music Association of America, and TAO. Vincent also researches film/video-game music, including The Lord of the Rings and The Legend of Zelda, and eroticism in late-16th century madrigals. An active organist, Vincent has compositions published by the American Guild of Organists and also released on Raven records. 

You may download the handout for this workshop here.