The symphonic organ 1868-1932

Since the architecture work was saturating an entire worksite which began in 1847, Viollet-Le-Duc requested an estimate from Aristide Cavaillé-Coll for an instrument worthy of a cathedral, but simple and free of vanity, made sparingly, using the existing material as much as possible. In March 1860 he presented the architect with a plan for a top instrument that matched the dimensions of the church, with four keyboards and a pedalboard. The budget for this organ was estimated at 115,547.50 francs. The restoration project gave rise to controversy and scheming.

In April of that year, Louis-Paul Dallery, who felt left out, sent a complaint to the Ministry of State Education and Religion, in which he emphasised “The beauties due to Clicquot and [François] Dallery … they will disappear here as they do everywhere else… if I were left out of the work to be done.” However, no doubt in anticipation that the matter would get completely out of his hands, he added, “If, to reconcile the need to preserve Notre-Dame’s organ, the good things that set it apart from all the others and the consideration due to this organ builder [Cavaillé-Coll], I had to accept to work with him, you would receive a favourable response from me.”

No one jumped at the occasion. Viollet-Le-Duc thought the price was too high, and Cavaillé-Coll was busy finishing Saint-Sulpice’s organ. Merklin-Schutze sent in a counter-offer in October 1862, adding fire to flame. Joseph Merklin was a German man living in Belgium…. Cavaillé-Coll had found a loyal following, especially since the construction of Saint-Denis basilica’s organ in 1841, which added to his positive reputation. Just before the Merklin estimate was to be sent, the Ministry was sent a petition in Cavaillé-Coll’s favour, signed by some of the music world’s most notable figures: François Benoist, Hector Berlioz, Gioacchino Rossini, Pauline Viardot, and others.

In the end, Cavaillé-Coll was selected on 23 December 1862, and the organ was commissioned on 15 July 1863, with a two-year completion schedule.
The initial programme planned to keep two buffets. He had plans for a four-keyboard organ with one pedal, breaking down as follows:

  • Back Positive (56 notes) with 15 stops, including 9 existing stops (in particular Clicquot’s montre and reeds);
  • Great Organ (56 notes) with 15 stops, including 4 existing stops;
  • Bombarde (with new wind chests) 12 stops, including 4 existing stops (cornet and 16, 8, 4 reed set);
  • Expressive swell (56 notes): 10 stops including a single existing stop (Vox humana);
  • Pedal (30 notes): 12 stops, including 4 existing ones.
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Le remplissage des réservoirs d’air par les souffleurs.

Gravure XIXème. Collection particulière. © NDP

Cavaillé-Coll planned a brand new system of wind chests, bellows and gears, using “pneumatic motors that we invented,” and several piston pedals (two tie couplers, five couplers, reed calls, and an expression pedal for the Swell).

Work began on-site in July 1863, a few months after the Saint-Sulpice organ was completed; a vast organ workshop was set up in the South Tower and side galleries, as seen in many engravings published in the magazine L’illustration. This gave rise to complaints from the chapter, since these areas could no longer be used by the Church.

But a few months later, Viollet-Le-Duc decided to remove the back positive, whose Louis XVI-style buffet seemed to be incompatible with the rest of the organ, and out of place in a gothic cathedral where he was supposed to “unify the style”… Cavaillé-Coll had to revise all of his plans, and, since he no longer felt tied down to his original estimate, took great creative liberties. He would create an organ that was “revolutionary” in its design, its acoustics and its innovative stops.

Free from restraints and instructions from the architect, the organist and the commissions, he drafted a new plan, and work could begin, on a new foundation.

Cavaillé-Coll wanted to place the organ lower, but Viollet-Le-Duc refused any changes, especially since he was building a large loft above the first nave bay, supported by a beam as wide as the bay. Perhaps this was when the two arcades on either side of the loft, which look directly out onto the two large rooms in the north and south towers, were closed in by a simple brick wall covered in plaster. Given the materials used and the installation of windows that give direct access to the instrument, it is most likely.

Cavaillé-Coll totally reimagined the instrument’s internal arrangement:

  • the wide, high space between the back of the instrument and the façade wall made it possible to house the Pedal stops and the Swell’s expressive box without moving the buffet;
  • the wind chests were arranged in different levels (Positive and Solo on two levels, Swell behind the great organ)
  • since there was not a Back Positive, he set up a “Great Choir” keyboard like an Oberwerk at the top of the instrument, under the vault, which encouraged natural acoustic distribution, and where he placed all the treble harmonics (larigot 11/3, seventh 11/7, piccolo 1) and a powerful set of reeds.
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Le nettoyage des tuyaux lors du relevage de 1894

Gravure XIXème. Collection particulière. © NDP

All the progressions and trebles are at the centre of the organ. progressive Fourniture and Cymbal on the Great Organ (first level at the centre), harmonics above that on the Great Choir keyboard. Each keyboard has different-sized base stops, but the organ’s reed sets are characterised: bassoons on the Great Organ, clarinets on the Positive, trumpets on the Bombarde and the Great Choir); the soloist stops are on the Swell.

It was also his only chance to re-establish mixtures and translations, which had been out of style for a half century: his acoustic research led him to establishing several complete harmonic series, including the seventh, to round out the fundamentals. For this reason, the translation sizes were established according to the principals and not the flutes, which is why the term fifth is used rather than nazard.

The extraordinary plan with its 32-foot resultants on the pedalboard (large 102/3 fifth, large 62/5 third, large 44/7 seventh), its 16-foot resultants on the Bombarde keyboard (51/3 fifth, 31/5 third, 22/7 seventh) and 8-foot resultant on the Great-Choir keyboard (11/3 larigot, 11/7 seventh, 1 piccolo). Perhaps the interest in the Middle Ages and medieval art, made popular by Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame inspired the master organ builder when he recreated the full progressive stops that matched the rising harmony created by pressing on the keyboard.

The Great Choir keyboard, in the first position on the console, also serves as a coupler keyboard. However, the complexity of the instrument, the buffet’s restrictions, and Positive and Bombarde wind chests’ arrangement on two levels on either side of the Great Organ made it impossible to include intermediary couplers (there is no Swell/Positive).
The instrument, which was completed in 1867, was played on Christmas, outside competition, during the World’s Fair. A twenty-person commission, whose members included François Benoist, Hector Berlioz, Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens, Le Bron Séguier, Ambroise Thomas and Viollet-Le-Duc, visited the instrument from 20 to 28 February 1868, and the commission’s secretary, Abbot Lamazou, wrote a complete and detailed report that sang its praises and gave homage to the skilful organ builder’s science and to the fine arrangement and perfect completion of work.

The organ was inaugurated the evening of 6 March and was played by a multitude of organists, including Alexis Chauvet, Auguste Durand, César Franck, Alexandre Guilmant, Clément Loret, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Charles-Marie Widor. The chapter registers tell how Monsignor Darboy blessed the new organ from his seat while a choir vicar cast holy water onto the instrument from the organ loft.

At the time, Notre-Dame’s great organ had 86 stops on five 56-note keyboards and a 30-note pedalboard. The twenty pedals are used to control couplers, deep octaves, reed calls, tremolo, and the storm pedal. Finally, the organ was fit with a pneumatic double registration system controlled using two series of six buttons.

Starting in 1882, Cavaillé-Coll was commissioned to dismantle the organ to adjust the mechanical works after the new gallery began to sag by 10 cm. This work would not be done for another 12 years. It was Félix Reinburg’s nephew, Gabriel, who performed general tuning and touched up the equalisation with strict respect for the primitive harmony. There was a concert to celebrate the end of work in 1894. Eugène Gigout, Alexandre Guilmant, Charles-Marie Widor and Eugène Sergent, still tenured organist, participated.

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L’atelier installé dans la tribune Nord de la nef lors du relevage de 1894.

Gravure XIXème. Collection particulière. © NDP

One day, Cavaillé-Coll confided in Louis Vierne, who was, at the time Widor’s replacement at Saint Sulpice: “Notre-Dame’s organ is my favourite of all the great instruments I’ve built, and, as you can see, I never hear it! Sergent despises four-foot stops and only uses half of the translations in the Great Choir. He prefers eight- and sixteen-foot base stops played in medium registers. Except for the hautbois, the Swell trumpet and the clarinet on the same keyboard, he never plays anything else solo; this perpetual buzz, without level, without breath, without coloration, simply cannot be heard.”

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