Who was Baron Fernand de La Tombelle ? An astonishing dabbler who was a composer, a pianist and an organist, a teacher and a lecturer, a poet and a writer, a folklorist, a photographer, with a real talent for painting, a man very keen on astronomy, archeology and cars, and even a distinguished cyclist.
As a composer, he was concerned with the form and the clarity of ideas as a worthy representative of the French romantic classicism, thus following the example of his masters and friends Alexandre Guilmant, Théodore Dubois or Camille Saint-Saëns. La Tombelle wrote a lot and for most of musical genres (he left almost 500 opus numbers). Specially recognised for his chamber music (he won the Chartier prize of the Institut in 1896) and his choral music, La Tombelle undoubtly was one of the major composers of male choral music (“orphéon” choral societies) in the “Belle Époque” in France. With the years, religious music took an ever more important place in his production, with oratorios and majestic cantatas. Furthermore he was determined to democratize and decentralize the great music from the Parisian scene and wrote many canticles, motets and other masses often accessible to all.
But La Tombelle was also an instrumentalist, first taught by his mother (who studied with Thalberg and Liszt) then by Guilmant. With Guilmant, he took part as an organist and mainly as a pianist to the famous Trocadéro concerts launched in 1878 during the Universal Exhibition. He discovered the organ around 1870 at St-Stephen’s Cathedral in Toulouse thanks to the local organist Ignace-Xavier-Joseph Leybach. Later on, diligent studies with Guilmant reinforced his interest for this instrument. Many times La Tombelle substituted his friends and masters Guilmant and Dubois, at the Trinité as well as at the Madeleine where he was an assistant organist from 1885 to 1898. He furthermore inaugurated many instruments and was a concertist of great talent.
He was at the origins of the creation of the Schola cantorum in 1896 with Charles Bordes, Vincent d’Indy and Alexandre Guilmant. There he taught harmony for about ten years. A sought-after speaker, he was often called to talk about the most varied musical topics.
La Tombelle had a fluid style of writing notes and also words. He wrote many poems—that he sometimes set in music—, theatrical scenes in verse or in prose, articles and books related to musical topics, but also much developed travel stories and, more surprisingly, a little culinary booklet: Les Pâtés de Périgueux!
Though he was born in Paris, La Tombelle was deeply attached to his roots in Périgord, where he spent most of his life in his castle of Fayrac. An advocate of the local folklore, he wrote down and harmonised many popular themes of this region, as Julien Tiersot, Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, Vincent d’Indy, Joseph Canteloube or Maurice Emmanuel did elsewhere in France. He skilfully inserted popular music in many pieces, such as the Fantaisie Ballade for pedal harp.
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