The 20th century organ





In February 1900, 71-year-old Eugène Sergent fell ill, and Notre-Dame’s Chapter asked Widor to suggest a student as a replacement: he appointed Louis Vierne, who was very familiar with the Notre-Dame organ, where, in 1893 he played the great Cavaillé during a Bach choral recital organised by Widor. Vierne kept a fond memory of the occasion: My surprise was double: I was amazed at the clarity of the recital and the absolute instantaneity of the attack, which gave the impression of percussion.... Notre-Dame’s console was separated from the buffet by nearly two metres, so the sound came directly and spectacularly to the player, a sensation seen in very few other places.


After Sergent passed away, the Chapter decided to organise a competition, in which Vierne won the jury’s unanimous favour. He quickly arranged for the instrument to be dismantled by Charles Mutin, Cavaillé-Coll’s successor, in 1904. Vierne then made a few changes to the organ:

  • he removed the 8 clarinets, the 8 quintaton and the 4 dulciane from the Swell, replacing it with the 8 diapason, 4 octave and IV fourniture rows and moved the Swell flutes to the base pallet box;
  • he added bass zinc pipes on several of the stops (the Swell’s gamba, the Positive’s salicional);
  • he replaced the acoustic basses on the bombarde and the Swell trumpet with actual sizes.

In 1902, after Alexandre Guilmant resigned from the Trinité under unfortunate circumstances—there was work done on the church’s organ without his approval while he was on tour in the United States, Vierne asked the Archbishop and the Chapter for him to be appointed honorary Notre-Dame organist. He advised the composition of the Notre-Dame Swell’s fourniture IV rows, known as the “Guilmant Fourniture”.

In 1910, the Seine flooded, and water got into the presbytery and the crypt: the air was excessively humid, which caused warping and mechanical problems on the great organ. Mutin had to come in to repair the damage.

The following year, there was a heat wave, which caused the wind chests to come unglued, the skins to dry out, the bellows to leak, and the gears to come undone… Mutin had to step in again for “temporary” repairs. The organ was in worse and worse shape, and, despite his requests made to the Cathedral Chapter, Vierne could not obtain the grants necessary to maintaining it since the Church had fewer resources since the separation of church and state in 1905.

From 1914 to 1923, Louis Vierne asked Marcel Dupré to stand in for him. Then he became his de facto replacement from 1916 to 1921, while Louis Vierne was receiving care for his eyes in Switzerland. Dupré played at services on 15 August 1919, and a few months later, he received a letter from Claude Johnson, English industrialist and director of Rolls-Royce Limited):
"Dear Sir, I would like to know if the verses you played at Notre-Dame, at the Vespers service on the Assumption, are published, and if so, by whom? If your compositions have never been published, I would like to have them published for you by Novello, in London. I would pay for all the expenses and leave you the rights. If they were improvisations, would you write ten of them for me, in exchange for which I would pay you 1,500 francs, in addition to publishing them under the same conditions I mentioned above. Best regards"

Dupré wrote back and agreed to write fifteen verses that corresponded to the fifteen antiphonies. The following year, in 1920, his Vespers of the Holy Virgin, opus 18, were published. Claude Johnson was an organ enthusiast and fervent admirer of Dupré, who would return to Notre-Dame’s gallery on several occasions. One Sunday, as Dupré was getting ready to play at the end of the vespers service, Johnson gave the bellows operators a small amount of money and told Dupré, “I gave these men a little money so they could work the bellows properly for your closing number. As Marcel Dupré said: after 20 measures, the bellows were flat, and the people had disappeared. Claude Johnson was outraged and decided to purchase a motor for the great organ, which was installed by Cavaillé-Coll in 1924.

A few years later (1927-1928), after a trip to the United States, in which he tried to attract the interest of American organists and donors, Vierne presented several projects to the organ builder Victor Gonzalez. He asked for the transmission to be electrified (the only way to correct the mechanical difficulties and dispense of intermediary coupling), a new “Anglo-American” console for which he gave a detailed description, stop transfers, additional stops, higher-pitched mixtures, new chamades, and more.

One of these projects planned to make the Great Organ and the Positive expressive and to extend the wind chests to higher pitches towards treble octaves with actual notes. It would seem that Victor Gonzalez made him admit that this work would cause major changes to the instrument (moving the Great Organ’s two wind chests to the high exterior turrets, no room for expanding the wind chests). Finally, in 1931, Louis Vierne got permission to continue with the work, after Widor decried the great organ’s poor state in L’Orgue Moderne magazine. The Fine Arts Administration appointed a commission, but Vierne was not made a member! Vierne admired the young Victor Gonzalez, but wanted to be given the work, however, things had gone too far with Cavaillé-Coll, and Gonzalez was busy restoring Saint-Eustache’s organ.

The work was done by Joseph Beuchet, Cavaillé-Coll’s new director.

The restoration did not fully live up to Louis Vierne’s expectations. Neither the electric transmission nor the new console was installed, which put a considerable damper on the desired changes. In the same vein, some of the stop transfers and most of the new stops were refused.

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Les claviers de la console de Cavaillé-Coll avec le cartouche de la manufacture


He did, however, obtain authorisation for the acoustic modifications and the changes to the console:
- modification in keyboard order, (1st keyboard: Great Organ, 2nd keyboard:
Positive, 3rd keyboard: Expressive Swell, 4th keyboard: Solo (formerly Bombarde), 5th keyboard: Great Choir); the toespoon expression pedal was replaced by an expression pedal in the centre;
- a Swell/Positive coupler was added (tubular system that never worked correctly and was taken out of use) and a Swell coupler;
- they added six pedals used for controlling and handling the registers’ pneumatic pistons;
- they removed and changed several stops:

  • the Great Organ’s clarion was replaced by a soprano 4 to balance the Bassoons,
  • the piccolo on the Positive was removed and replaced by the Swell nazard, and the Swell’s nazard (now on the positive) was replaced by a three-row treble cymbal,
  • a harmonic flute 8 was added to the Great Choir, Cello 16 and Bourdon 8 were added to the Pedal roof;

- the full stops were touched up, while their harmony and composition were partially modified to give the instrument more clarity. Perhaps this is when the Great Organ cymbal’s third row was removed, since Pierre Cochereau’s 1962 statement makes no mention of it.
- the façade pipes were checked and brakes were added.

The refurbished instrument was inaugurated on 10 June 1932 by Vierne and Widor. Louis Vierne played it until he died during a concert at Notre-Dame on 2 June 1937, while he was preparing an improvisation on the Antiphony Alma Redemptoris Mater.

The Cathedral Chapter chose his replacement, Léonce de Saint-Martin, to succeed him.

The organ was then maintained by Jean Perroux, former harmonist for Cavaillé-Coll, who, with very few resources but great constancy, kept it in playing condition. As Pierre Cochereau observed in his article on Notre-Dame’s organ in Les Monuments Historiques au services des Orgues de France (quarterly bulletin, 1962 – issue 2-3): Jean Perroux, always volunteered to spend his Saturday afternoons on the organs of Saint-Sulpice and Notre-Dame.

In 1955, Pierre Cochereau was appointed tenured organist. Thanks to support from his master, Marcel Dupré, he got the Notre-Dame organ onto the agenda of the Fine Arts Ministry’s Organ Commission. In 1959, Dupré a report that gave the Commission free hand to decide whether the transmission should be electrified or not. Pierre Cochereau specified that, "One of the main reasons general electrification was planned is that Notre-Dame’s great organ was a magnificent instrument that lacked a true acoustic background.” For example, in the mixture set, where all the keyboards are coupled with the Great Organ keyboard, when the organist played the Positive, he felt like he was falling into a hole…
The only way to remedy this without completely reharmonising the organ, which, in my opinion, whatever others think about it, is an incomparable acoustic testament to the last century’s organ-building, was to add mixtures to the Solo keyboard and a coupler to the Solo-Positive. The Positive keyboard was placed on the C side and the Solo on the C-sharp side, with approximately ten metres between them. The horizontal double dog-leg mechanical suspension, which was to be installed to go around the central coupler block, could not be built. Already in Louis Vierne’s day, the organ builders in charge of installing Swell/Positive couplers had to use a tubular mechanism, which, at the time, was very capricious…"

The Commission showed no opposition to electrification, and agreed with the request Louis Vierne had made thirty years earlier.

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La console électrique de Pierre Cochereau

La nouvelle console fut exposée dans une chapelle de la cathédrale peut avant sa mise en place à la tribune. © NDP

Other modifications were accepted, and some of the less satisfactory changes from the previous restoration had to be updated. The work was given to Jean Hermann, who had been in charge of maintaining the cathedral’s organs for several years: once again, a worksite was set up in the South Tower and side galleries. A new console was installed. It featured ivory register buttons, new keyboards and a pedalboard, and many accessories, including a combiner with 8 general pistons, 6 special pistons and 4 coupling pistons. The former console was taken to the Musée de la rue du cloître Notre-Dame.

Still, many things were left unfinished and work was held up since the instrument could not be completely immobilised.

With this challenge before him, Cochereau had the insight to find the great full stop from the 18th century organ, the classical cornets (since the 18th century reeds were still present) and to make Notre-Dame’s organ a monument to the history of French organ building, as it had been on many occasions over the centuries.

Two events would help him in his cause: the cathedral Chapter’s decision to budget additional funds for the restoration, which was already being funded by the State, and Cochereau’s meeting with Robert Boisseau, the “Clicquot de Poitiers organ builder” who would succeed Jean Hermann after his death in 1965. These two men replanned the initial programme based on Boisseau’s experience with the Pithiviers organ (Clicquot-Cavaillé-Coll):
- the Solo’s trumpet set was transferred to the Great Organ, which made room for the 32-foot Great Full Stop (two fournitures and one cymbal) and a cromorne 8;
- the classical Swell was restored with its cornet V top and the Clicquot hautbois top that Cavaillé-Coll had modified;
- two brand new wind chests were placed in the side turrets for additional pedal stops (additions to Cavaillé-Coll’s harmonics from the 31/5 third to piccolo 1, fourniture, cymbal and shortened reeds).

The bases, harmonic flutes, reeds, and translations from Clicquot and Cavaillé-Coll’s were kept, and the great Cavaillé’s structure general, including the wind chests and stop ties, was left unchanged. Several of Clicquot’s stops, which had been modified by Cavaillé-Coll (including Solo montres, hautbois tops), were reharmonised.
The work would last several years until a chamade set was installed, including trumpet 8, clarion 4, régale 2/16.

Pierre Cochereau would flourish in Notre-Dame’s organ loft for 29 years, contributing to the famous instrument’s influence in its field. He opened the loft up to players from all over the world through his Sunday organ recitals (1968).

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Le grand orgue au début des années 1980

© Gérard Boullay

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