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

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The Second Part: Duos

In the French Classical suite, after the opening Plein jeu which primarily explores interesting harmonies, the second movements are often more contrapuntal in nature. Rather than jump into a Fugue, we’ll stick with the simpler Duo. Out of 55 Magnificat settings surveyed by Jean Saint-Arroman, 41 have a duo as the second verse.


The registration for the Duo varies quite dramatically by the end of the French Classical period. Early registration suggestions include:

  • RH (Pos):  Tierce, Nazard, Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′
  • LH (G.O.): Tierce, Nazard, Quarte de Nazard (2′), Bourdon 8′, Bourdon 16′ Prestant 4′


  • RH (Pos):  Tierce, Nazard, Quarte de Nazard (2′), Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′
  • LH (G.O.): Trompette with a foundation stop

By the end of the 18th century, other reed stops (Hautbois, Basson, Cromorne, Voix humaine) begin to show up as options for both voices. In a modification of the first option, Dom Bedos even offers the choice to use the 32′ stop for the left hand along with the tierces and nazards!



Most Duos are in the form of a gigue, so tend to be faster, lively pieces in triple meter. The following rhythm is very common:DuoRhythm

In order to keep the piece light and active, some composers even double dotted the quarter note.

While most Duos tend to be fast, there are a few, generally in a duple meter, that would be in a more moderated tempo. Somehow, I can’t imagine playing quick double dotted rhythms with the 32′ stop Dom Bedos recommends, so the registration of the piece should also reflect the style and tempo.

Creating a Duo

As hinted above, Duos have a more contrapuntal nature. The left hand generally enters after the right hand in some sort of imitative gesture. Parallel thirds and sixths are very common, and hemiolas often appear at cadences. Any study of counterpoint usually starts with writing for two voices and would be most helpful before improvising a Duo.

The opening right hand gesture typically serves as a thematic motif for the piece and is usually about two measures long. Here are some basic steps to help you move from a motif to a full piece:

  1. Choose a motif with distinct rhythmic and melodic characteristics
  2. Practice the motif in both hands (one at a time) in multiple modes and keys
  3. Choose a tempo and play the motif with alternating hands in tempo (like jazz players trade solos every four bars)
  4. Use sequences of the motif (stepwise or circle of fifths) as you alternate hands
  5. Explore counterpoint for your motif. Can you play it in thirds? Sixths? What makes a good bass line for it?
  6. Repeat the process of alternating the motif between hands, but feel free to add in the second voice using the contrapuntal ideas you have found
  7. After so much exploring, it’s time to improvise a piece from start to finish. Fill in with extra material as needed. Make sure you visit one or two other key centers and bring the piece back to a satisfactory close in the tonic. 

If you have not studied counterpoint, it might be helpful to plot out and notate some of your ideas. Just as an infant learns to walk while holding on to a helping hand or other object, there’s no reason not to write a few things down to serve as our support as we learn to improvise. Even writing an entire piece could be helpful.

Duos are to be lively and fun pieces, so make sure your improvisations are joyful this week!



Newsletter Issue 44 – 2015 08 03

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Franz Josef Stoiber


Franz Josef Stoiber is a renowned organist and teacher of improvisation. He has been organist of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Regensburg since 1996, and was appointed as full-time professor for organ and improvisation at Regensburg University in 2003. He studied with Jon Laukvik in Stuttgart and Peter Planyavsky in Vienna. He is very active as a concert organist and lecturer, and has made many CDs. He was recently involved in the design of the ground-breaking new organ in Regensburg Cathedral.

He will teach courses in improvisation in London and Regensburg during the summer of 2014.


Gehörbildung, Tonsatz, Improvisation
This book is in German.


  • Orgelmusik aus dem Regensburger Dom – Works by Reger, Renner and Improvisations (1999), IFO-records, Mainz
  • Glocken und Orgelimprovisationen im Hohen Dom zu Regensburg – (2002). Motette CD 12561
  • Orgelimprovisationen – Weihnachten. Göckel-Orgel in St. Peter zu Düsseldorf (2005). ORGANpromotion, Sulz am Neckar
  • Die Regensburger Domorgel – Works by Bach, Renner, Dupré and Improvisations – Rieger organ (2010). Motette 13791
  • Die Orgeln der Hochschule für katholische Kirchenmusik und Musikpädagogik Regensburg – Improvisation on “Lobe den Herren” and the Gregorian Antiphon “Cantantibus organis Caecilia Domino decantabat” (2010). HfKM, Regensburg
  • “Alles meinem Gott zu Ehren” – Works by Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Improvisations – Kögler organ in the Stadtpfarrkirche St. Laurentius in Neustadt a.d. Donau (2013). Ambiente Audio
  • Glocken- und Orgelklänge aus dem Regensburger Dom – Improvisations on the Rieger organ (2013). Motette 50931

Franz Josef Stoiber – Suite francaise – Regensburger Domorgel
Hommage à Nicolas de Grigny (Plain jeu – Duo – Trio – Basse de Crommorne – Recit de Nazard – Grands Jeux) on Nun lobet Gott im hohen Thron