A history of the organs of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris

In the evening of 15 April 2019, a fire broke out in the heart of Paris, in the famous Notre-Dame cathedral. Amongst the countless wonders and artefacts preserved within the UNESCO World Heritage Site are three organs, in particular one monumental organ of great historical importance.

A history of the organs of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris
A history of the organs of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, © Radio France / A.de Laleu

The organ is certainly not the first thing that catches the eye upon entering the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. And yet, the grand organ is unquestionably an imposing instrument, towering over the hall 16 meters above the ground. With approximately 8000 pipes, five keyboards, pedals and 109 stops, the instrument is one of the greatest in France and undoubtedly one of the most famous in the world.

Every Sunday afternoon, the organ can be played by any and all who wish to do so, however the waiting list for such a privilege is almost two to three years long. Those authorised to play on the legendary organ whenever they wish are the three "titulaires", or "named" head organists: Olivier Latry, Philippe Lefebvre and Vincent Dubois. The three organists each take turns playing for the Sunday services and performances on Saturday evenings, occasionally by invited guests.

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The most recent renovations

The "grand orgue" has been repeatedly silenced recently for renovation, from September 2011 to December 2012, and again from 2013 to 2014, the year of its inauguration. Firstly, the air compressor was updated, the several thousand pipes were cleaned, the organ's computer system was updated, 21 new stops were added (each stop corresponds to the collection of pipes of the same timbre), along with a new console.

The renovation project also included the instrument's facade, called the buffet, a wooden panelling from the 1730s, greatly exposed to everyday dust, dirt, and attrition. Unsurprisingly, the Notre-Dame cathedral is one of the most visited sites in the world with open and free entry to approximately 30 000 visitors each day, resulting in frequent changes in temperature humidity which leads to a gradual build-up of dirt and dust in and around the pipes. 

This is not the first time that the instrument underwent major renovations. The most significant transformation took place during the 19th century, led by the French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Col, a master of his craft both in France and the world. Alongside the architect Viollet-le-Duc, Cavaillé-Col modernised and expanded the instrument significantly. Work began in 1863 and finished in December 1867, and the new organ was played to celebrate the Christmas season. It was now made of 86 stops, 5 keyboards of 56 notes, and a 30-note pedal keyboard. 

The instrument has not stopped growing since, with the help of Louis Vierne, head organist in the early 20th century, and that of Pierre Cochereau, who modernised the instrument in the 1960s and 70s. Finally, the grand orgue was entirely restored in 1992 before the most recent renovations in the 21st century. 

From the Middle Ages to today

These most recent changes are representative of this grand organ. Since the first centuries of the cathedral's existence until today, the organ has always evolved. Very little is known about the instruments that may have occupied the cathedral between the beginning of the monument's construction and its inauguration in the 14th century, though there exist various references to an organ in 1357, gradually abandoned following the arrival, several years later, of a new and more modern instrument. 

This new instrument became highly favoured and was frequently upgraded and restored over the centuries, until 1600 when Guillaume Maingot played on the medieval instrument for the last time.

In 1730, Antoine Calvière undertook a complete reconstruction of the cathedral's organ, whose Baroque wooden casing was preserved and placed higher up in front of the rosette window, still there to this day. Access to this antique piece is only possible by passing through the instrument, between the pipes. For over 50 years, the instrument was played without any new modifications or renovations.

At the end of the 18th century, the instrument began to deteriorate, requiring a new wave of renovations: the casing was enlarged, new stops were added and new keyboards were installed. This lasted until 1833 when the organ was upgraded and renovated yet again, before the great transformation by Cavaillé-Col

More recently, during the 20th century, renovations were often the result of strong or sudden changes in the weather and other environmental factors: an overflowing of the Seine, heat waves… Fortunately, the organ was largely spared by the fire that started in the cathedral in the evening of 15 April 2019. However, the dust, soot, and intense heat from the fire will undoubtedly have had an impact upon the instrument. Not to mention the site's exceptional acoustic with a seven-second echo. Its roof largely destroyed, it will be a while before we are able to hear the organ rumble once more... As for the second instrument held in the building, a small chorus organ from 1969, the assessment is far less positive since the instrument was directly flooded during the work by firefighters.