Choir organs used for accompaniment did not come into use in Parisian churches until around 1840. Before that date, especially before the Revolution, the clergy, of whom there were many in most parishes, sang during services, and no accompaniment was needed.
For example, in 1790 at Notre-Dame de Paris, there were more than 51 chapter canons, 180 ecclesiastics, 14 cantors and 12 children from the choir school. With all of these people around to sing, small, portable organs were only used for rare occasions. The only regular accompaniment came from bass instruments, which would remain the norm until the mid-20th century. The string bass and the bassoon used at the time are still on display at the Musée Notre-Dame.
After the Revolution, cathedral staff was reduced considerably, as was the case in other Paris churches, and choirs had to be backed by suitable accompaniment.
Unfortunately, were are not sure of the location of the first instrument, which was most likely commissioned in 1839 for the cathedral’s choir school. This organ was built by Daublaine and Callinet and quickly became insufficient for the Notre-Dame choir; it was acquired by the Cordes-sur-Ciel parish, in the Tarn, in 1842. This instrument was built in the Eglise Saint Michel’s tribune and included 10 stops on two keyboards of 54 and 44 notes.
It is still in use in the church in Cordes, but it has seen a few changes since it was moved there. In the 1870s and 1880s, notches were added to the base stops and the reeds were recut to tune the instrument. More recently, the organ builder Patrice Bellet adjusted it twice, for the first time in 1972, by adding a 30-note pedalboard and a 16-foot drone pipe to the Pedal, under Xavier Darasse’s supervision. Finally, in 1991, the organ was restored and retuned to its original pitch, with A set to 400 Hz, proving that still in 1839, the Notre-Dame choir school sang in the old key. This instrument was listed on the Historical Monuments register on 11 May 1977.
This first organ may not have been placed in the cathedral, since it was not sent to Cordes until 1842 and a choir organ was set up in the cathedral in 1841. Most likely, it housed two instruments at the same time, and the first organ may have been kept in a room for choir practice.
The 18th century stalls that surround the cathedral’s choir still today did not make it easy to set up such an imposing organ. The new instrument, which, like the first one, was ordered from Daublaine and Callinet, was set up on 30 April 1841, on the Gospel side of the choir, to the left of Nicolas Coustou’s Piéta, in an area as wide as a bay. The organ had a neo-gothic buffet made of three flat sides, the largest of which as topped by a gable, and featured two keyboards and a pedalboard.
The organ was first used in a service on 2 May 1841 for the baptism of the Count of Paris. However, in late 1857, the restoration work on the cathedral had made it to the choir, which put an end to the organ’s use. All of Notre-Dame’s furniture was redesigned by Viollet-le-Duc, so this first accompanist organ had to disappear. It was sold by Merklin to Abbot Dubost, the parish priest of Saint Etienne de Roanne (Loire). This parish’s organ makers approved the acquisition and undertook the construction of a tribune that could house the instrument.
In his first plan for refurbishing the cathedral’s choir, Viollet-le-Duc imagined placing the new choir organ behind the high altar, as a backdrop for Nicolas Coustou’s Piéta. The location provided for the Daublaine organ was not ideal, but the famous architect’s idea made accompaniment very difficult, since the organist was completely isolated from the liturgy and the singers. On 16 August 1859, the drawings were submitted to the Chapter, who did not think that the architect’s plan fit the instrument’s destination.
In the end, they suggested putting the organ in the third bay to the left of the choir, between the bas-reliefs on the edges and the woodwork on the stalls, with the console integrated into the lower stalls. On 16 October 1859, the minister approved the estimate for this accompaniment organ designed in accordance with the Chapter’s observations.
For this instrument, Notre-Dame’s restorer wanted a genuine Gothic buffet—and he provided the sketches for it—that would fit in well with the (Baroque) stalls designed by Robert de Cotte.
The instrument ordered from Merklin was typical of the second half of the 19th century. It was a Romantic organ. It had sixteen full feet, seventeen stops on two keyboards and one pedalboard, with 900 pipes.
In the 22 June 1863 report, Notre-Dame’s choir organ was described as a model instrument of superior crafting, characterised by its sweet yet powerful harmony and its broad, soft base stops that inspire great, sincere admiration in all who hear it. The delivery statement points out that it offered the main traits of a great organ.
However, after 27 years of daily service, the instrument began to show signs of fatigue and it became apparent that it needed to be restored. For this reason, following a decision by the French Organ Makers Council, Cardinal Richard, Archbishop of Paris, asked Merklin to do the work. It would involved more than just a simple restoration. The instrument had to be transformed into an electro-pneumatic organ. Merklin held exclusive rights to this system, which was invented by Philadelphia firm Schmœle and Mols and won many awards at the 1889 World’s Fair, and applied it to the organ during restoration.
This work modernised its transmission and fit the organ with electric pistons, which makes it possible to continuously change the instrument’s volume to match the nuances of the choir. The pistons, listed below, were controlled by buttons as sensitive as electric bells placed under the keyboards:
Upon the request of Cardinal Richard, an appraisers’ commission met on 6 June 1890, to study the instrument’s restoration and transformation. This commission was chaired by Mr. Wolf from the Academy of Sciences, and included several clergy representatives, Abbot Bergès (archpriest of the cathedral), Abbot Bonniot (singing master) and Abbot Geispitz (chapel master and recording secretary). The organists were represented by César Franck (organist at Sainte Clotilde and professor at the Conservatoire de Paris), Eugène Sergent (Notre-Dame great organ organist), Wintzweiller (Notre-Dame choir organist), Mr. Dallier (organist at Saint Eustache).
The commission had nothing but praise for Merklin’s work; the appraisers acknowledged the instrument’s magnificent sound quality, the variety of its timbres, the character of each stop and the equalisation of its harmony. They all admired the workings of each part of the organ, in particular its stop pistons. According to Abbot Geispitz’s report, the cathedral’s choir organ was more successful and closer to perfection than any of the other instruments built by Merklin.
This satisfaction with the electric instrument would not last. After many functional problems, Mutin, Cavaillé-Coll’s successor, did a complete restoration of the organ in 1911.
The electric motor was not installed until 1928, and this new addition provided enough air for all the instrument’s resources to be used.
In 1938, Beuchet did some repair work, but due to poor maintenance and a lack of heating during the war, as well as the organ builders’ tendency to repair the great organ using pipes from the choir organ, the instrument was in a miserable state.
In 1953, it was dismantled by Jean Hermann, who also changed the blower motor and modified its wind distribution. Unfortunately, this work was not a success. Very little else was done. The same organ builder suggested making the instrument electric in 1960, and, after the proposal was accepted by the chapter, the work was done in 1961. This final series of work only helped toll the knell of the Merklin organ.
Robert Boisseau replaced Jean Hermann and took over maintenance of the great organ. In 1966, he observed that the last restoration had been unsuccessful because its material was in poor condition. Since the old material could not be used, he suggested building a new organ in Viollet-le-Duc’s buffet.
The canon Jehan Revert, who was the cathedral’s chapel master at the time, studied four proposals, finally selecting an instrument with two keyboards and a pedalboard. The instrument would feature 28 stops and mechanical traction for the notes and electric traction for the stop ties.
Construction was completed in May 1969, with only the tremolant remaining, since the organists could not reach an agreement on it. They also had differences in opinion on the composition of five set pistons, which would be left unused until 1984.
The stops were changed a few times since its construction; in 1970, a 16 Flute stop was added to the pedal, which was placed horizontally above the stalls to preserve the choir’s aesthetic value and keep the organ interior as neat as possible. A 16 bourdon was added 1978.
The choir organ was regularly maintained by Jean-Loup Boisseau, the organ designer’s son, and was entirely cleaned after the vaults were restored in 1981 and right before the great organ was restored in 1989. While this work was being done, the tremolant was installed and the pedal chanter was replaced with a clarion stop. The instrument was fit with a new motor and an 5,000-piston electronic combiner. Today, the choir organ has 30 stops and around 1,800 pipes. The last work done on the organ was in summer of 2005, when Philippe Guyonnet, the cathedral’s dedicated organ builder, performed dust removal, which was followed by general tuning by Bertrand CATTIAUX.