Modeling Tournemire: Offertoire

As I prepare to play selections from Tournemire’s L’Orgue mystique for All Saints this weekend, I thought we’d look at the second movement for some improvisation ideas.

Form and Language

The Offertoire for All Saints is based on the chant Justorum animae. The short piece contains five sections: A)harmonized chorale, B) monophonic chant, A’)elaborate harmonized chorale, B’) shorter monophonic chant, C) Coda.

The chant is in Dorian, Mode 1, so though there are no alterations in the key signature, because Tournemire starts the chant on G, every B is flatted except at the final cadences of the A sections. He borrows from closely related modes by including E-flats and A-flats. The chant is presented in half notes in the soprano, but Tournemire suppresses all the repeated notes, making each pitch of the chant equal in duration. While a traditional Bach-style chorale harmonization would include many root position chords, Tournemire rarely uses root position triads. Sevenths, suspensions, and inversions keep the progression unstable even at the cadence in the middle of the section at the end of the first phrase of the chant. The voices move mostly with step-wise motion.

The second section is a monophonic statement of the last two phrases of the chant. The change of registration and texture provide a contrast to the opening chorale. The relative speed of the chant also changes dramatically from half-notes to eighth-notes.

The return to the opening material for the third section is on a slightly softer registration and now includes more motion. While there were occasional eighth-notes in the first harmonization, this repetition keeps to the same harmonies, but includes constant eighth-note motion.

The fourth section is an echo of the second. The registration is softer, and only the second (final) phrase of the chant is cited. The final section seems to be a return to the opening material, but does not cite any of the chant. It is more of an extended harmonic return to an open fifth on the tonic G.

As offertories often take different lengths of time in different places, it strikes me that this piece could be easily shortened if needed by leaving out a section (or two or three). It would also be possible to repeat the longer B section instead of the shorter B’ section in order to lengthen the piece. While I do not know that Tournemire intended a performer to do these things, if we consider these pieces as examples of how we can improvise and fulfill the musical needs of the liturgy, I see no reason not to alter the number of sections we might play.


To summarize, here are ten ways to apply ideas from Tournemire’s Offertoire in our improvisations:

  1. Alternate contrasting sections to create a piece to cover an unknown length of time.
  2. Borrow from closely related modes or keys for harmonic interest.
  3. Use inversions and suspension to keep the piece moving forward.
  4. Suppress repeated notes in the melody.
  5. Standardize the rhythm of the melody into one time value.
  6. Change the unit of standardization for contrasting formal sections.
  7. Use single voice textures.
  8. Plan for repetition. Make sure you can play what you just played again.
  9. Repeat with variation. Keep it the same, but add more motion.
  10. Use registration to help mark formal sections.

As an example, I recorded an improvisation on Veni Veni Emmanuel following the model of this movement which you can watch here. As I recorded it before writing this column, I’m not sure I followed all ten of the above ideas, but hopefully it demonstrates at least some of the ways to apply ideas from Tournemire to a new theme.

Happy Halloween!

Newsletter Issue 52 – 2015 10 31

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Models and Anchors

Composers create music for many different reasons. Occasionally, they write pieces to demonstrate techniques for their students, either as examples of instrumental technique or compositional practices to master. The Orgelbüchlein of Johann Sebastian Bach is a fabulous place to look for simple chorale treatment ideas. L’Orgue Mystique by Charles Tournemire offers a wealth of ideas for how to work with chants. As improvisers (and composers) we need to spend some of our time studying the masters that came before us and learning to use the material (notes, harmonies, and sound colors) that we have available to us.

Paul Manz

One of the great American composers and hymn players of the twentieth century was Paul Manz. He produced countless volumes of pieces based upon familiar hymn tunes. Published with the title of Improvisations, many of these pieces could be models for us to follow, suggesting ideas and techniques for us to learn and apply to other melodies. One of his collections that I’ve had in my library for many years is his Improvisations for the Christmas Season, Set 1. It includes settings of the chorales Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland, Veni Emmanuel, and Wachet Auf along with a few others. Though the volume is labeled for the Christmas season, these are Advent chorales, so I typically will use them in the weeks leading up to Christmas. (That is, if I remember to take my score out of the file cabinet and bring it to church!)

Veni Emmanuel

One of the settings in the collection that fascinated me was a very simple setting of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. It is a short one page piece. The pedal part consists entirely of a single note, the tonic E. The melody is presented on a solo stop and the chordal accompaniment on a softer registration. I found a performance on YouTube that you may hear by following the link here. What fascinates me about this composition is how Manz begins and ends with cluster harmonies and triads from within the mode, but then ventures quite far afield in the middle, using chromaticism might otherwise be out of place in a modal piece.

When evaluating an improvisation (or composition), I like to fall back on the four C’s that I outlined in the first newsletter issues: competent, convincing, coherent, and colorful. The mixture of chromatic and modal harmonic language could make this Manz piece incoherent and perhaps not very competent either, yet our ears accept the chromaticism. Why?


This improvisation gives our ears two anchors to hold on to: the pedal point and the melody. Being a familiar tune, the melody (as the loudest voice) clearly has the strongest pull for our ears. The pedal point also orients us just as the north pole orients a compass. Regardless of which way we may turn, the pedal will enable us to gain our bearings and return home again. The chromaticism also has a direction to it – the chords continue moving up – giving our ear an expected resolution to the dissonance as well. All these together combine to create the color of the piece, enabling it to be coherent, competent, and convincing, in spite of the rather simple and perhaps uninteresting ideas that are combined to make the composition.

Try it for yourself

How can this piece serve as a model for us? What can we practice following this example?

While normally, pedal points can be boring and would often be discouraged, they can be useful in times of very chromatic movement. What sort of harmonic tension can you create over a pedal point? How long can you keep a listener’s attention with only one note in the pedal? Explore chromatic harmonies by changing one note at a time in the accompaniment. Does this work better with the melody in the soprano or tenor range? What difference does it make if the theme is in a major mode? What if the chromatic lines move down instead of up? Here’s a technical challenge for you: play the pedal point with the left (or right!) hand and the melody in the pedal. Choose different themes and try out all the different combinations of pedal point, melody and accompaniment that you can imagine!

May all your improvisations be competent, convincing, coherent and colorful!


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Newsletter Issue 30 – 2014 12 01
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Veni, Veni Emmanuel


The tune ‘Veni, Veni Emmanuel’ was adapted by Thomas Helmore from a fifteenth century French Franciscan Processional. He first published it in The Hymnal Noted in 1854 with a translation by John Neale of the Latin hymn ‘Veni Emmanuel’. The text is a paraphrase of the O Antiphons sung at vespers during the seven days immediately before Christmas.

See a list of other hymn and chorale themes here.

Timothy Howard – Postlude on ‘Veni Emmanuel’ – Pasadena Presbyterian Church
János Pálúr – Improvisation on ‘Veni Emmanuel’ – Óbuda Reformed Church