The Liturgical Suite 200 Years Later

While the 200 years between François Couperin and Charles Tournemire offered a substantial contribution to organ repertoire (with pieces of both great and dubious quality), after the French Classical suite, the next substantial collection of liturgical suites for organ is L’Orgue mystique of Charles Tournemire.

Charles Tournemire

Tournemire2Charles Tournemire served as the organiste titulaire at the Basilique Ste-Clotilde in Paris and taught Chamber Music at the Paris Conservatoire. He has been described as a mystic with a deep faith in the Catholic Church. L’Orgue mystique is a series of 51 suites covering all the Sundays and major Feasts when it was permissible to use the organ. Most suites contain five movements as follows:

  1. Prélude à l’Introït
  2. Offertoire
  3. Élévation
  4. Communion
  5. Pièce terminale

While the French Classical movements were named by their registration, Tournemire identifies each movement only with its location in the liturgy. Virtually every movement references at least one Gregorian chant that was sung if not immediately before or after the organ piece at some other point during the celebration of the day. These chants were probably known by many organists of Tournemire’s time, but as he does not identify the chants in the composition, we are dependent upon researchers like Robert Sutherland Lord who have spent time identifying the chants included in each movement. Many can be found easily, but changes in liturgical books over the years have made some harder to identify than others.

Teaching Models

Just as the Orgelbüchlein and some other collections of J.S. Bach were written for teaching purposes, I believe Tournemire’s L’orgue mystique also had a teaching application. This collection is a catalog of compositional ideas and demonstration manual for improvisation in the Mass. Though still under copyright in the US, the collection is in the public domain in Canada, the EU, and in those countries where the copyright term is life+70 years or less, and thus may be found on IMSLP. Because I had an employee discount while working at a music store when I was a student and had plenty of cash to build my music library (and well before a resource like IMSLP had even been dreamed of), I actually purchased hard copies of almost every volume of the series. (I have two copies of one volume and am missing another because I tried to order the one I was missing but mistakenly ordered the wrong one.) I encourage you to purchase (or download where legal) several of the volumes so that you may study the way Tournemire treats chant. Over the next few weeks, I plan to take different movements from the suites as models for improvisations and suggest ways that we can build new pieces following what Tournemire has shown us.

For a head start on Tournemire’s style, beyond actually studying the scores, I will point you to a handout that David McCarthy prepared on the Five Improvisations of Tournemire available at David identifies lots of keyboard figuration which will be helpful to know as we seek to model Tournemire’s style.

Thank you

This newsletter marks number 50 that I have written, so I want to thank all of you who have subscribed, continue to read and share your feedback with me. I started this website and newsletter to try and accumulate the seemingly few resources on improvisation into one location. Thanks to help from readers like David, my own knowledge continues to grow, and I have located many other resources to share with you. I look forward to finding, creating, and sharing more resources with you in the future so that you too may continue to become better improvisers.

Hoping your improvisation skills are improving,


Newsletter Issue 50 – 2015 09 28

See the complete list of past newsletter issues here.

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Agnus Dei XVIII


Lamb of God, you take a way the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take a way the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take a way the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Probably the best known chant setting of the Agnus Dei, this setting from Mass XVIII in the Graduale Romanum is indicated for use on the ferias of Advent and Lent as well as for Vigils, Ember Days and Rogation Days.

See a list of other popular chant themes here.

Kyrie Orbis Factor

KyrieOrbisFactorThe Missa Orbis Factor is Mass XI in the Graduale Romanum and is intended for use on Sundays throughout the year. The name for this Kyrie comes from the text of the trope Orbis factor, rex aeternae.

See a list of other popular chant themes here.

Pierre Cochereau – Kyrie XI ‘Orbis Factor’ – Introit, Chant and Sortie
Marcel Dupré – Improvised Double Fugue on Kyrie XI ‘Orbis Factor – Recorded 1957


Having served as the music of the Roman Catholic Church for hundreds of years, chant has been the subject of improvisations throughout many different stylistic periods and in many different forms.
Some popular chant themes include:

Gerre Hancock – Improvised versets on the Magnificat Solemn Tone – April 4, 2004 – St. Thomas
Otto Maria Krämer – Improvisation in Memoriam Marcel Dupré on “Ave maris stella”
Loïc Mallié Improvisation sur deux thèmes grégoriens
Olivier Messiaen – Puer Natus Est – La Trinité
Pierre Pincemaille – Conditor Alme Siderum – St. Denis
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: I (Theme and Plein jeu)
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: II (Scherzo)
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: III (Meditation)
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: IV (Introduction and Passacaglia)

French Classical Style

The French classical style runs parallel with the German baroque. The organ had a highly standardized stoplist, in line with its (almost exclusively) liturgical use. The compositions were highly standardized too, generally named by the stops that were to be used (e.g Plein jeu, Basse de Trompette, Tierce en Taille) and the function within mass or the chant theme (e.g Kyrie, Gloria, Ave Maria Stella).

A series in the newsletter covered the style and the different movements and registrations often used during the period:


Michel Chapuis – Grand Jeu Classique – St. Ouen
Michel Chapuis – Improvisations in French classical style – Chapelle Royale, Paris
Otto Maria Krämer – Suite Francaise – Plein jeu
Otto Maria Krämer – Suite Francaise – Fugue
Otto Maria Krämer – Suite Francaise – Récit
Otto Maria Krämer – Suite Francaise – Basse de trompette
Otto Maria Krämer – Suite Francaise – Quatuor
Otto Maria Krämer – Suite Francaise – Duo
Otto Maria Krämer – Suite Francaise – Tierce en taille
Otto Maria Krämer – Suite Francaise – Dialogue sur les grands jeux
Wolfgang Seifen – Suite in French Style – Marienbasilika – Kevelaer


Example videos:
Pierre Cochereau – Sortie – Notre Dame – Audio only
Johann Vexo – Vêpres 07.04.2013 – Sortie
Daniel Roth – Sortie – 7 February 1999 – St. Sulpice
Pincemaille – Sortie – St. Denis
Olivier Penin – Sortie – St. Clotilde
Philippe Lefebvre – Sortie – 19.04.2009 – Notre Dame
Philippe Lefebvre – Sortie – 01.05.2011 – Notre Dame
Latry – Sortie – 18.09.2011 – Notre Dame
Latry – Sortie – 10-09-2011 – Notre Dame
David Briggs – Sortie at St. Sulpice

David Briggs

DavidBriggsDavid Briggs is organist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Previously he served as Artist in Residence at St. James Cathedral, Toronto.
Complete bio.

David Briggs has a YouTube Channel. You can also hear him on Spotify.


Sounds French – David Briggs Plays the Organ of Blackburn Cathedral
Includes an improvised symphony by David Briggs as well as two improvisations by Pierre Cochereau transcribed and played by David Briggs.

Sounds Artistic
Includes an improvised suite of dances and Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky.

Organ Spectacular
Includes improvised Prelude, Adagio and Chorale Variations on Ein Feste Burg.

Briggs: Mass for Notre Dame
In addition to the choral music of David Briggs sung by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge under the direction of Stephen Layton, David Briggs improvised other parts of the traditional mass when the organ would play without the choir singing.

Hommage à Pierre Cochereau
Improvisations by George Baker, David Briggs, Thierry Escaich and Loïc Mallié.

Fugue at St. Sulpice
Sortie at St. Sulpice
Offertoire at St. Sulpice
Sarabande Improvisée – St Wenzelkirche, Naumburg