The history of Notre-Dame de Paris’s organs began in the 13th century. The first instrument was mentioned as early as 1357. It was suspended like a swallow’s nest under an upper window in the nave, where it was most likely kept for almost one hundred years. It is without a doubt this organ that Pierre de La Croix, Notre-Dame’s Organista, used in 1299.
It was a modest instrument with a small keyboard, perhaps with 36 keys, and a full progressive stop. Its largest pipe was probably six feet tall. In 1392, the Chapter named Renaud de Reims organist, and the following year, he requested a visit from experts who concluded that considerable repair work was needed. The organ was restored in 1394 thanks to the generosity of King Charles VI, but it was later considered too small to fill the cathedral’s vast nave with music. The canons found a generous donor, the Duke of Berry, and commissioned a new instrument from the organ builder Frédéric Schambantz.
In 1401, the new instrument was placed on a high, narrow stone tribune above the large west portal, but the former organ remained in use. For several years, there were two instruments in the cathedral’s large nave. On 25 October 1403, the new organ was completed. A drawing of the cathedral’s choir by Israël Sylvestre gives us a glimpse of the buffet the back of the nave.
Three turrets measuring 12 to 15 feet high, with the highest in the centre measuring 18 feet, surround four flat sides. The entire buffet is twenty feet wide. The instrument’s wind comes from 12 small bellows behind the buffet. The lower part is decorated with fixed and moving parts (a rotating sun and a figuring of a man playing). It has a 46-note keyboard and a pedalboard. With this equipment, organist Renaud de Reims had a large blockwerk that was still more modest than the organs in the cathedrals of Amiens and Reims. This organ had around 600 pipes, with 8 pipes per note for lower notes and 15 to 18 for upper registers.
Three years later, to protect the buffet, which did not have shutters, a curtain was added. In 1415, the instrument was repaired, and a new organist, Henri de Saxe, was appointed following a contest. The obligations of his position were also specified: he would perform at 23 holidays during the year, at the first Vespers and during mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Séquence, Sanctus, Agnus) and he would maintain the organ. In addition to these ordinary services, he participated in exceptional events, such as the coronation of the young King Henry VI of England, held at Notre-Dame in 1430.
During this time, the old 13th century organ, which was still suspended from the nave, was neglected. Finally, in 1425, it was sold off for its metal (800 pounds of tin). Several organists played on this organ within a short timeframe: Jacques Lemol (1436-1440), Arnoul Gréban, organist and children’s music master (1440-1453), Jean Bailly (1453-1458), and Jean Campana.
The latter organist, who was appointed in 1458, asked for the organ to be reviewed by organ builder Jean Bourdon from Laon. In 1463, they called upon Sainte Chapelle’s organist and the instrument was dismantled by Jean Robelin, an organ builder from Troyes, under the patronage of the bishop of Troyes. In the decades that followed, four organists would serve in succession at the keyboard: Jean Hannyn (1475), Etienne Farcilly (1477), Jean Peu (1504), and Jean Regnault (1515). The last organist was criticised by the canons for being too modern, since he changed the tones of the Antiphonies, but on 14 March 1527, he was thanked for it! For two years, he was replaced by Pierre Mouton (1527-1529) before taking back his functions and having the instrument dismantled by organ builder Pasquier Bauldry. He would not witness the completion of this considerable work (new wind chests, protection against dust, gentler harmonisation upon the Chapter Dean’s request, pipe replacement). Loys Regnault succeeded his uncle, and, in 1564, had the organ dismantled again, this time by Nicolas Dabenet, who extended the keyboard, repaired the pipes, checked the bellows, and fit the coupler with a roller.
After that, many pipes were replaced, most often with identical replacements. In 1619, organ builder Valéran de Héman replaced 300 pipes that had been eaten away by rust. The wind chests and general arrangement remained intact, and would stay that way until 1730. New organists would take over at the keyboard, including Henri Bérenger (1568), Jean D’Oisy (1570) who was granted permission from the chapter to purchase a small organ for training children from the choir school, then Pierre Chabanceau de la Barre (1579). Finally, in 1600 Guillaume Maingot became the last tenured organist on the medieval organ, which is still intact today.