Weedon’s Wanderings: 18th April 2019

The Cavaille-Col at Notre-Dame, Paris

Holding our breath in hope...

Hearing news of the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame rates as one of those ‘never to be forgotten’ moments for me, and many other organists I expect. In addition to the shock of seeing such a huge, iconic and ancient building going up in flames there was the sick-to-the-stomach fear for the organ it housed. The glorious Cavaille-Col is the stuff of organists’ dreams. Something about the awakening of its enormous lungs when it’s switched on, the background thrum of its circulation, and then the unique beauty of its singing voice. It seemed impossible that it would live through an inferno and flooding such as we witnessed. And yet it also seemed impossible that it would die so horribly and we’d never hear it alive again.

Aristide Cavaillé-Col (1811-1899) single-handedly changed the future of organ music through his highly individual instruments. At a time when pipe organs were thought to have had their day, he built huge pipe orchestras and then used them to entice young musicians to play and write for them. We can thank him for inspiring so many composers: Charles Camille Saint-Saens, César Franck, Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor to name just a few. And, in a sort of ‘apostolic succession’, we have each of them to thank for the next generation of organ players and composers: Widor, for example, taught Albert Schweitzer and Marcel Duprés

Almost miraculously, it seems, the organ in Notre-Dame has survived, protected from flame and water by the one surviving part of the roof. It will doubtless be a little poorly after the experience, but as long as the building can be stabilised then work on its restoration can begin. What better way to celebrate that than to listen to Olivier Latry playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue on this wondrous instrument here!

There is a sumptuous Cavaille-Col in Manchester Town Hall, although that edifice is closed till 2024 for restoration. But enjoy a tour of the building and organ in the capable hands of Jonathan Scott here

Other interesting videos here: