In that part of the Atlantic Ocean known as the “Celtic Sea” lies the island of Ouessant, a good eleven miles from mainland Brittany. It is the westernmost point of France. The composer and organist Charles Tournemire owned a house here. He called it “Iseut”, after the French form of Isolde. Born in Bordeaux in 1870, he was mesmerized by the landscape and legends of this region. When he was still a child, he went to Paris to study in César Franck’s class, where the students were bound together by their fascination for Richard Wagner’s harmonics and for the legends of the Celts. Ernest Chausson composed the opera “Le Roi Arthus” and Vincent d’Indy the opera “Fervaal”. Much later, namely in 1926, Tournemire followed with his opera “La Légende de Tristan” – meanwhile he had risen to the rank of organist of the first rank. She was never listed. Until now.
The premiere, which the Ulm Theater dared to put on, will have consequences for our view of the music history of the twentieth century. For it draws attention to an author far more original than most music historians realize, and who anticipated much of what the post-war avant-garde attributed to Olivier Messiaen, who had cleverly taken advantage of the fact that the Tournemire, who died in 1939 and was apparently an irascible, unpredictable misanthrope, was quickly forgotten. The modern suitability of Catholic intelligentsia in music was by no means a unique feature of Messiaen. Of course later.
Kay Metzger, the director of the Ulm Theater and director of the current premiere, was made aware of Tournemire’s “Tristan legend” by the composer and church musician Alexander Muno during his time at the Detmold theater. He had a digital copy of the handwritten score sent to him, which is in the National Library in Paris, consulted with various musicians and decided with the general music director in Ulm at the time, Timo Handschuh, to plan the premiere for Tournemire’s 150th birthday in 2020. The pandemic caused a delay.
In the meantime, Michael Weiger, former director of studies in Ulm, has self-published the score, including parts and piano reduction. Like the libretto by the medievalist Albert Pauphilet, who belonged to the Resistance during World War II, the music is in the public domain.
Tristan, unlike Wagner
Tournemire takes a very different approach to the Tristan story than Richard Wagner, whom he admired. It follows the Tristan novel by Joseph Bédier, which was also to inspire Frank Martin’s 1940 Tristan adaptation “Le vin herbé” and which stays closer to the medieval sources. Tournemire’s opera is short at around two and a half hours. The choir, which Hendrik Haas and Nikolaus Henseler excellently prepared for the demanding tasks in Ulm, repeatedly intervenes in the action as a collective subject. The dialogue between the characters – Tristan, Iseut, her servant Brangien, King Marc and his court dwarf Frocin – is also more detailed and lively.
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