Maurice Duruflé once said about his improvisation lessons with Tournemire that he felt like "sitting on a volcano about to erupt!" This colorful image gives a perfect description of the Victimae, one of five improvisations that Tournemire recorded in 1930 on the legendary 1859 Cavaillé-Coll organ at St. Clotilde (where César Franck had served as the first titular organist). Clearly, Tournemire's "poetical, capricious, and tumultuous imagination" was in full swing during this recording session.
The recordings also allow us a rare insight into the ways how one of the great masters of the
Sudden Dynamic Changes
Whenever possible, Tournemire’s right foot would be on the pedal of the extremely sensitive swell box, ready to use it for the "jerks of his nervous and impulsive temperament". This created a particularly stunning effect when he played on the foundation stops 16, 8, and 4 on the Great and Positive, and the foundation stops and reeds on the Swell (all manuals coupled together), as the "violent contrasts of the box would suddenly capitulate the reeds onto the foreground, and then suddenly make them disappear again" (see mm. 42ff and 68ff).
Tournemire relished poetic registrations such as Bourdon 8+Vox Humana+Tremolo on the Swell, combined with a solo on the Positive's Flute or the Great's Bourdon (which was almost like a Flute on his organ). The calm oasis created by these gentle stops (mm. 73ff) contrasts marvelously with the tempestuous outer sections. These sections are dominated by frequent and sometimes drastic stop and manual changes, which make use of the resources of the entire instrument (mm. 34ff, 59ff and 121f).
While the Victimae closes with a glorious tutti, Tournemire usually finished his Sorties (Postludes) quietly. One Sunday, after he had finished playing on the Bourdon on the closed Swell, one of his guests approached him and said "Maître, this is the sortie!", to which Tournemire responded "Ah well, my dear friend, then leave."
J.Korndörfer, Organ (St. Louis Cathedral Basilica - July 25, 2013)
When Tournemire played a decrescendo on the Swell, he "closed his eyes at the same time as the swell box"; in a crescendo, "one could see him getting more animated"; and during the tutti, he would sometimes even "stand [!] on his pedal board while improvising". Once he had begun, “he could no longer control his reflexes”, and “was somewhere else.” It is no wonder, therefore, that those who witnessed Tournemire's magisterial improvisations on Sunday mornings in the organ loft would never forget the "intense emotions that they experienced" and "stayed until the very last note had ended".
Music for the Liturgy
His Victimae and the other four improvisations are probably the closest we can get to experiencing what Tournemire's ingenious and gripping playing during the mass would have been like, as his compositions (as beautiful as they are), tend to be more learned and planned than his spontaneous improvisations.
Personally, I am struck by the intensity of the musical language and the emotions in the Victimae, which seem to be coming straight from Tournemire's heart. The visceral power with which he states the opening motive of the Gregorian Easter Sequence throughout his improvisation makes it an unmistaken and triumphant fanfare to the risen Christ—a truly brilliant "musical commentary on the liturgy"!