A precocious child, Charles Tournemire was appointed organist of the church of St. Pierre in Bordeaux at the age of 11. He studied at the Conservatoire de Paris with César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor, winning in 1891 the first prize in organ; he also studied with 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. As organist, Tournemire touredRead more Germany, Holland, and Russia before the Great War. Between 1900 and 1914 he composed his first five symphonies , all of which were performed at the time. In 1904, Tournemire's cantata Le sang de la sirène won the concours musicale de las ville de Paris.
The Franck-inspired idiom that had sustained Tournemire to that time began to give way to a more complex harmonic texture that incorporated some degree of impressionistic harmony. This style began to deepen in 1908 after Tournemire married the sister of the wife of Josephin "Sâr" Péladan, a French mystic who was the founder of the Ordre de Rose-Croix in Paris. Tournemire also began to read the works of Joris-Karl Huysmans, and through Péladan, took an interest in Madame Blavatsky. Tournemire's music reflected these discoveries through his arrival at a distinct "mystical" organ style, which had a decisive impact on the French organ school exemplified by such figures as Messaien, Jehan Alain, Duruflé and Jean Langlais. As he got older, Tournemire became more inflexible in his views about spiritual matters and later found reason to repudiate every one of his colleagues who expressed admiration for him or depended on his counsel.
The First World War caused a break in Tournemire's creative life. He was mobilized and, although he had projected a Sixth Symphony in 1915, he could only start to work on it in 1917. This symphony, in addition to two more that followed it, were never performed in his lifetime. In 1919, he was appointed a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, but the Great War had brought about a cultural and musical change of ambience; Tournemire found himself out of step with the times of Les Six and Stravinsky.
From 1921 he devoted his best compositional efforts to the church. His great oratorios came after the last of his symphonies: La Quête du Saint-Graal (1926-1927), l'Apocalypse de Saint-Jean (1932-1936), and La douloureuse Passion du Christ (1936-1937). Between 1927 and 1932 he worked on the colossal L'orgue mystique. This work comprises 51 Offices, sets of five pieces for the Holy Mass, for every Sunday of the year. The complete work would last about 15 hours of music, longer than the complete organ works of J.S. Bach. Tournemire was highly valued as an improviser on the organ, and in 1930 recorded five improvisations at St. Clotilde on phonograph records that were later painstakingly transcribed by Maurice Duruflé; these pieces are among Tournemire's best known works. Tournemire's last composition was the opera Il poverello di Assisi (1937-1938), based on a text by Sar Péladan.
The circumstances of Tournemire's death are among the most mysterious and controversial to be found for any classical composer. 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. A series of documents that are expected to clear up this matter are sealed until 2015; the long held story that Tournemire's body was found in the street is nothing more than an urban legend. Read less