There were doubtlessly organs at Notre-Dame Paris from the time it was built in the 12th century, but Léonin, organ composer, founder of the Ecole Notre-Dame and optimus organista, then Pérotin the Great(1160-1220), most probably only played on small instruments in the choir. Still, a “great organ” was definitely built at Notre-Dame in the 13th century. In 1330, the cathedral’s accounts mention paying an organist’s fees. A few years later, these accounts mention Jean de Bruges, an organist and possibly organ maker. It was suspended like a swallow’s nest under an upper window in the nave: it was a modest 6-foot montre organ with a single keyboard with 4 to 6 pipes per note. In 1401, a new organ was built in the stone organ loft above the large west portal. Since then, 50 organists have sat at the keyboard of the great organ suspended under the west rosette.
One of these first organists was Arnoul Gréban, the famous author of the Vrai Mystère de la Passion, who started in 1450. Over the centuries, the great organ was expanded, restored and reconstructed before taking on its current proportions in the 18th century. With each new era, Notre-Dame’s organ underwent attentive care and was fitted with new stops and technical improvements, although the organ builders tried to keep the best of previous equipment, which is why the organ still features a few medieval pipes today.
The great organ survived the tumultuous revolution, most likely thanks to the patriotic music played on it, including 1792 compositions by the organist Balbastre, the author of variations on La Marseillaise and L’Air Ca Ira. In 1868, after organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll’s work initiated by the architect Viollet-Le-Duc , it would become a full symphonic organ with 86 stops on 5 keyboards and a pedalboard.
Louis Vierne , organist from 1900 to 1937, made two sets of modifications to the organ, and Pierre Cochereau, organist from 1955 to 1984, added to it and modernised it between 1963 and 1975. Then, in 1992, the organ was completely restored, which made it possible to regain the symphonic sounds of the Cavaillé-Coll organ while preserving strata from the 17th and 18th centuries, with the undeniable benefit of contemporary technology.
The great organ of Notre-Dame de Paris is a monument to several centuries of French music and organ building, and is one of the rare instruments in France that can be used to play many different repertories with sincerity and emotion and to encourage creation through composition and improvisation.
The great organ is used in Sunday services, played by one of the three tenured organists, Olivier Latry, Philippe Lefebvreand Jean-Pierre Leguay. On Sunday afternoons before the Vespers service (except on Sundays during Lent) guest organists from all over the world play recitals on this prestigious instrument, and on holidays, the tenured organists give recitals. These performances have featured thousands of organists from every continent. In addition to these organ recitals, Notre-Dame de Paris’s holy music association plans a series of evening concerts featuring the great organ.