Fictional Letter from Charles Tournemire to Marcel Dupré

By Isaac Drewes

5 June, 1935

Dear Marcel,

I am writing about the possibility of writing a double choir, double organ mass for St. Sulpice. In the past, we have seen developed a great variety of liturgical works in the protestant tradition, especially in the German Lutheran tradition. I would like for the Parisian musical community to explore its sacred music in the same way. We must further develop the French school of liturgical music to match that of J. S. Bach and his contemporaries in Germany. In writing a mass after the style of Widor’s, we can continue this tradition of creating a sacred canon of French musical works, placing the work of French composers alongside those of the great liturgical musicians past.

I think that composing and premiering a double organ mass at St. Sulpice could weave together some of the quintessential elements of French music and liturgy, and could begin creating a sort of sacred canon of French music, analogous to what many of our fellow composers are trying to accomplish on the secular side of things. The organs and churches in Paris are considerably different those found in other countries or regions. Our setup, with a choir organ in front, and a grand orgue in back, as well as the reverberant acoustics, is something we can use to our advantage.[1]

Widor, your predecessor, was very inspired by his resources, and in particular instrument, which served as the genesis his organ symphonies. He even goes so far as to say that Cavillé-Coll, the great organ builder, was responsible for the creation of his compositions.[2] I’m sure you are familiar with Widor’s mass for two organs and two choirs. He made use of these resources, which is why the mass is so effective. In addition to the two organs, these resources included two choirs, one from the seminary and the other from the church, and some orchestral instruments.[3] His mass was very well received, especially, the Agnus Dei, which Le Ménestrel described as “exquisite. One of the most delicate and inspired works of Mr. Widor.”[4] I think that we could replicate the same type of situation now as Widor was able to create then. You have the inspiration at your fingertips, and it would be well received in the same way.

I see this very much as a continuation of what I set out to do in L’Orgue Mystique.[5] In that work, I was attempting to emulate the concept behind J. S. Bach’s liturgical writing, except in our early 20th century France setting. Instead of using German chorale tunes, as Bach did in Lutheran Germany, I used Gregorian tunes, which are quite appropriate for a French Catholic setting.[6] This is very much in line with French musical thought today, specifically the emphasis on J. S. Bach, such as we find in the writings of Cocteau.[7] Cocteau recognized that Bach was someone worth emulating for French composers, and I agree with him on that. I think that it is important for French composers to build on the past. The Socité National de Musique has been encouraging this since the 1870s.[8] Even Cavillé-Coll built on the great works of the past: about 40% of the pipework in your St. Sulpice organ was originally Clicquot’s work,[9] and yet that the organ is known today as one of the foremost masterpieces of modern French organ building. I am working to see this logic applied to the liturgical arts.

I have talked much in general terms about the value of such a work, but now I think I ought to address how one would accomplish such a work, and such a premier. The premier would, of course, take place at St. Sulpice, making full use of the resources available there, as noted earlier. However, as for a commission, I am aware of St. Sulpice’s spotty record on how they pay their musicians.[10] I am not expecting much, if any. Perhaps such a work would encourage Parisian churches to take their musicians a little more seriously and raise their salaries. This is unlikely though, since Widor already made that appeal in 1924.[11]

Also, it would be interesting to consider what other choirs from around the area might be involved in this work. I would like to encourage you to think about possibly collaborating with the choir of Notre Dame. I am aware of the situation between you and Vierne, but I think that this would be a good opportunity for the both of you to resume relations. Duruflé recently sent you a letter on this matter as well, as I understand.[12] I agree with him, Ernest Skinner, and, I’m sure, countless other Parisiens who would like to see this farce ended. I’ll leave that to your consideration, especially because it is not essential to the content of my proposal. I just think that it would be a nice addition, especially since I believe Vierne to be one of the great contributors to our new French sacred music canon.

A new mass composed for St. Sulpice would benefit the French music scene by adding to the growing repertoire of French sacred music which already exists. Since St. Sulpice is a rather visible church among the community of organists and musicians, premiering a mass there would be make the mass visible to the larger community. It would also begin to establish a French tradition of double organ masses, which could perhaps be analogous to Bach’s tradition of sacred music, such as cantatas and chorales. This would be an important step for French identity and French music. I hope that you will be in favor of it.

Yours Sincerely,

Charles Tournemire

[1] Henderson, A. M.. 1921. “Organs and Organists at Paris”. The Musical Times 62 (943). Musical Times Publications Ltd.: 631–33. doi:10.2307/909233.
[2] Near 66-68. The author quotes Widor saying “If I had not felt the seduction of these timbres (of St. Sulpice), I would not have written any organ music.” He goes on to describe why Cavillé-Coll’s instruments were superior to those of the past, especially out of the French classical (ie French baroque) tradition.
[3] John R. Near, Widor: A Life Beyond the Toccata (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2011), 104-8. In addition to the church, St. Sulpice had a seminary for priests to receive training (page 498, note 370).
[4] Henry Eymieu. Le Ménestrel, A56, N4 (1890): 32. “…puis par l’Agnus Dei, cette page exquise, une des plus delicates et inspireées de l’œuvre de M. Widor.”
[5] L’Orgue Mystique is a cycle of 255 pieces for organ, each attached to a particular office. See Beechey, Gwilym. 1970. “The Organist’s Repertory. 3: Charles Tournemire, 1870-1939”. The Musical Times 111 (1527). Musical Times Publications Ltd.: 543–45. doi:10.2307/956065.
[6] Norbert Dufourcq. La Musique d’Orgue Français de Jehan Titelouze à Jehan Alain. Paris, 1949: 218
[7] Jean Cocteau, The Cock and the Harlequin, 2nd ed., (Paris: Éditions de la Sirène, 1918), 16.
[8] Taruskin, “Back to Whom? Neoclassicism as Ideology,” Nineteenth-Century Music 16, no. 3 (Spring 1993), 290.
[9] Grueber, Michael. (2008). Interview with daniel roth. The American Organist, 42(12), 111-113. Retrieved from
[10] St. Sulpice reduced Widor’s salary many times after he was initially appointed there. See Near 482, note 101.
[11] Near 331. In 1924, Widor, as head of the Association of Choirmasters and Organists sent letters to priests requesting salary increases for its members.