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In praise of Notre-Dame’s 8,000-pipe organ

The 8,000-pipe organ at Notre-Dame somehow survived the fire unscathed (Getty)

Devastation and disbelief was our response when we watched the Gothic cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris ablaze, shorn of its collapsed spire and hungry flames consuming the roof and truss. Because I am wired a certain way, my immediate thoughts went to Notre-Dame’s 1868 organ, a masterpiece of romantic organ-building and, alongside his instrument at Paris’s Saint-Sulpice, the crowning glory of its builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll’s career. Almost miraculously, the 8,000-plus pipe instrument has survived, damaged neither by fire nor water.

Notre-Dame is a cradle of Western church music, with the likes of Léonin (c1150 – c1201) and Pérotin (c1200) establishing the Notre-Dame school of polyphony. With their names having been passed on to posterity, “they mark the earliest transition where composers stepped out of anonymity to become artist-individuals”, according to the music journalist Bernhard Neuhoff.

But Notre-Dame is just as associated with music written for and on its organ – specifically the romantic organ school that centered around the Cavaillé-Coll instrument that replaced the medieval Friedrich Schambantz instrument (1403–1730) and its classical François Thierry successor (1730–1838).

Perhaps no composer’s music is more closely associated with that organ than that of Louis Vierne, titular organist at Notre-Dame from 1900 until 1937 – not the least because he died on the console’s bench, performing on his beloved organ. Three days later his funeral was held at Notre-Dame – the organ, covered in black, remained quiet throughout. Curiously, there are exceedingly few recordings of his many organ works on “his” instrument – and his beautiful if introverted Messe Solennelle for two organs and choir was composed for and premiered at Saint-Sulpice.

This is why we’ll look to one of Vierne’s successors as titular organist at Notre-Dame, Olivier Latry. He has recorded the complete organ works by Messiaen on this instrument (Deutsche Grammophon); a disc celebrating his composer-organist predecessors at Notre-Dame: Daquin, Balbastre, Beauvarlet-Charpentier, Vierne and Cochereau (Naïve, out of print); a disc of transcriptions (Midnight at Notre Dame, also DG); and most recently Bach on the smart La Dolce Volta label.

Bach is not a natural composer for a grand romantic French instrument which has as much to do with Bach’s organs as a spit-roast with a microwave. But Latry performs these “key works of Protestantism in one of the most emblematic centres of Catholicism” without smudging the polyphony that gives Bach its super-added quality, despite a whopping seven seconds reverb at Notre-Dame. The way the great Passacaglia BWV 582 slowly swells from the lowest depth is at once fascinatingly true to Bach’s music and reminiscent of the openings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Wagner’s Rheingold. When it rises to full glory before the fugue, the effect is one of breathtaking splendour. Bach to the Future is the last sound-document of that magnificent organ: hearing it will give gladness that the instrument still stands – even if it shall take a decade or two to ring out again in all its glory.

Jens F Laurson is a classical critic-at-large