This little-known composer of almost
six hundred works was also a poet
writer, folklorist, chronicler, photographer
and painter, and an enthusiast for
astronomy, archaeology, cycling and
motor cars . . .
An encounter with a Romantic humanist.

After Théodore Gouvy, Benjamin Godard and Théodore Dubois, the Palazzetto Bru Zane continues its rediscovery of French Romantic personalities of the 1880s who – having opted neither for Wagnerism nor for the French modernism of figures like Debussy – are today regarded as academic and, for that reason, completely forgotten. Fernand de La Tombelle was one of them. Fiercely independent – yet by no means revolutionary – by temperament, he is an interesting figure in more than one respect. He frequented Grieg, Gounod, d’Indy, Massenet and Saint-Saëns (to whom he was very close) and left a substantial œuvre, protean, stylistically eclectic, even atypical, that deserves reassessment not only for its own merits, but also because it illustrates a certain form of social and artistic activity in France at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His catalogue ranges over every genre, and is complemented by photographs, drawings, paintings, and writings on theoretical and literary subjects as well as works dealing with astronomy and the culinary art (including a brief study entitled Les Pâtés de Périgueux). The whole constitutes the fruits of the work of an artist with an outstandingly wide culture, worthy of an honnête homme who also did a great deal for the musical education of the working classes.

‘This is inspired, even mystical music,
sometimes cheerful, often melancholy,
but always elegant.’ Antonia de Peretti Orsini

Key Dates

Biographical outline

Fernand de La Tombelle was born in a house on the rue de Tivoli in Paris. While studying the piano with his mother (herself a brilliant pupil of Thalberg and for a time of Liszt), he obtained a range of qualifications in science, literature and law without feeling any real enthusiasm for the career paths they opened up. At the age of eighteen, he decided to undertake advanced studies in music, initially with Guilmant, then with Théodore Dubois, who remained a faithful friend, as is demonstrated by the dedication of several works. In 1880 Fernand de La Tombelle married Henriette Delacoux de Marivault, a woman of letters who published under the pseudonym of Camille Bruno numerous plays and poems, some of which were set to music by Massenet. One imagines the refined spirit that must have presided over the discussions of the couple, who had two children. Although he won several major prizes in Paris (the Prix Pleyel in 1887 and 1894, the Prix Chartier in 1896), La Tombelle spent a large part of his time at Fayrac Castle (his property in the Dordogne village of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle) and in Sarlat, where he took a keen interest in the local Périgourdin folklore.

‘As soon as they have escaped us,
our ideas belong to the public that
judges them.’ Fernand de La Tombelle

The chamber music

La Tombelle’s catalogue is traditional in several respects. First of all, in the large output of mélodies that punctuates it at regular intervals, including the cycle Pages d’amour (1912), whose spellbinding harmonies recall Chausson; and also in its recourse to the ‘classical’ genres, sonata, trio and quartet, advocated by the Société Nationale de Musique since the 1870s in an attempt to revive the French spirit after the defeat of Sedan. La Tombelle, however, identified with the Beethovenian model as reinterpreted through the prism of Mendelssohn and Schumann, in his Piano Trio and Piano Quartet. But the spirit of Franck (even though La Tombelle denied the fact) is perceptible in the violin and cello sonatas, and still more in his single String Quartet of 1895. The composer’s catalogue also contains many works that are less ambitious but still typical of his eclecticism and his sensibility: the Andante espressivo for cello, the Berceuse for violin, the Fantaisie-ballade for harp or the original Suite for three solo cellos. Finally, he left us a number of innovative curiosities: the salon opera Gargouillado (1884), Le Réveil du Poète (an orchestral work with speaker), and several scores intended to accompany magic lantern shows.

Landmark Works

La Tombelle the organist

The organ offered La Tombelle an expressive palette that interested him throughout his life. Because he travelled frequently, he was never able to accept a post as resident organist in a Parisian church, but for many years he deputised for his teachers and friends Dubois (at La Madeleine) and Guilmant (at La Trinité). He did not perform only his own music: on the contrary, he played Bach, such Romantic precursors as Mendelssohn and Alkan, and the modern school of Guilmant, Ropartz, Franck and Bréville. The variety of his repertory and his virtuosity made him a prestigious guest artist both in France and abroad. His catalogue of organ works covers more or less all the forms suitable for the large symphonic instruments invented by Cavaillé-Coll. The most ambitious of them is unquestionably the suite of symphonic episodes entitled Jeanne d’Arc, while the most widely performed was the Final in F sharp major. Mention should also be made of the ‘symphonies’, a genre typical of French post-Romanticism, in some of which La Tombelle makes forays into modality and the neo-medieval style. The organ also appears, combined with voices, in some of the Baron’s sacred music. Les Sept Paroles de notre Seigneur Jésus Christ (The Seven Last Words of Christ), for example, alternates between sung passages and a series of highly effective instrumental meditations.

‘He invests his soul in what
he does, and when an artist’s
soul is stirred, it rarely produces
anything but tears.’ Adolphe Yvon

Teaching and educational activities

The mission La Tombelle set himself at the end of his life was to expand musical activity outside Paris (notably in his cherished Périgord); but he toiled no less fervently in the French capital as a teacher and concert organiser. The creation of the season of organ concerts at the Trocadéro (with Guilmant) in 1878 was a landmark event, and the concerts continued for more than twenty years. But it was above all the foundation of the Schola Cantorum in 1894, with d’Indy, Guilmant and Bordes, that marked a turning point in La Tombelle’s pedagogical career: he went on to teach harmony for more than ten years in this institution, which set itself up as a competitor to the Conservatoire, basing its instruction on the practice of sacred music and the return to the past. Setting an example for his fellow professors, he produced a prodigiously varied catalogue of religious music, dominated by three oratorios of which he was particularly proud: Crux, L’Abbaye and Les Sept Paroles de notre Sauveur Jésus Christ. Alongside this, La Tombelle distinguished himself in the then fashionable genre of music for the Orphéons, choral societies of the popular classes. This repertory provided a secular counterbalance to his production of religious music in the vein of the Schola Cantorum. The composer himself thought that the sixty or so choruses he wrote for equal or mixed voices were his finest achievement.