Such is the modern organ: essentially symphonic. A new instrument needs a new language . . .

—Charles-Marie Widor, Foreword to Symphonies pour orgue (1887)

“Behind every exquisite thing that existed,” says Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “there was something tragic.” One such exquisite thing is the body of gorgeous organ music composed by César Franck, Charles-Marie Widor, Alexandre Guilmant, and their pupils. And as for tragedies, there were two: the first which almost killed off French organ music, and a second, which prompted its miraculous renaissance.

During the French Revolution, the government expropriated thousands of churches. Over four hundred organs, some national treasures, were destroyed, some by mobs but more frequently by cool calculation when their pipes were melted down for bullets. Churches that housed these noble instruments were converted into Temples of Theophilanthropy (Notre-Dame), Victory (La Madeleine), the Renaissance (Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois), or Filial Piety (Saint-Étienne-du-Mont). Saint-Sulpice was converted into a Club de la Victoire, where it served as a gaming and banqueting hall in which the Directory toasted their Utopia to medleys played by François Couperin’s grandson. Paris itself lost over twelve dozen instruments, though some were saved—along with the lives of church staff—when their organists played the Marseillaise and the bloodthirsty Ça Ira to calm invading crowds.

With their livelihoods gone, many organ builders left Paris. Some went into other trades, while others eked out livings in the provinces or in Spain. Fifty years after the Revolution, the condition of Paris’s organ stock was so bad that Felix Mendelssohn described Saint-Sulpice’s, once the best of them, as sounding like “a chorus of old women’s voices.”

It was hardly surprising that, by the early 1830s, the foundations of organ literature had all but disappeared from France.

The losses didn’t stop there. In 1802, the Paris Conservatoire dismissed its organ professor on the grounds that “there was no longer any hope that the art of organ playing could be useful.” As older Parisian organists died, retired, or moved, performance standards quickly deteriorated. Younger performers had no idea of pedal technique and played organs as they would pianos. Improvisation, though an important discipline, was pursued to the exclusion of composed music. It was hardly surprising that, by the early 1830s, the foundations of organ literature—the works of Bach, Handel, and the French Baroque masters—had all but disappeared from France, drowned out by songs, dances, military marches, special effects, and show tunes played by celebrity organists.

The second tragedy, as it turned out, occurred just in time.

On March 29, 1832, a short notice appeared in the Journal des Débats, Paris’s newspaper of record:

This morning a rumor was spreading about how the choléra morbus was within our city walls and the rumor has been since confirmed.

Within six months, the cholera had claimed over eighteen thousand lives. Those who could, fled. Alejandro Aguado, banker to the king, Louis-Philippe, and a friend of the arts whose hôtel particulier on the rue Drouot was so large that today it serves as a government building, headed south. He was joined by his wife and some friends, including the composer Gioachino Rossini.

Rossini was soon irritated by provincial life (“Yes, the countryside is very nice, but I like it with a sidewalk, a gaslight, and a policeman”). By coincidence, a touring company from the Paris Opéra was in Toulouse when Aguado’s group arrived. Hearing that the company would be offering Giacomo Meyerbeer’s sensational new Robert le Diable, Aguado and the desperately bored Rossini made their way over to the Théâtre du Capitol.

A quintessential man of the theater, Rossini would have been interested in how the production dealt with a particular difficulty. In Robert’s most spectacular scene, a pipe organ accompanies the graveyard Dance of the Nuns in their ghostly attempts to seduce the eponymous hero. With its liturgical associations, Meyerbeer’s organ music created a haunting, semi-sacrilegious effect that thrilled and scandalized Parisian audiences. In 1832, however, opera houses outside of Paris didn’t have organs. Found only in churches, they were costly to move and even costlier to buy. Indeed, when Robert premiered in Paris a few months before, the independently wealthy Meyerbeer had to buy and install his own at the Opéra. That sort of fix was impossible in Toulouse, and there were no real alternatives: a piano?; an accordion?

But Rossini was delighted by what he heard. The Dance was accompanied by a poïkilorgue, a small reed organ whose sound nicely evoked Meyerbeer’s sepulchral effect. It had been wheeled in for the occasion by a local maker, one Dominique Cavaillé-Coll.

Sixty years after he met Rossini, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll reversed the losses of the Revolution by building hundreds of the finest organs in the world.

The next day, Rossini and Aguado called on Dominique to offer their congratulations and were introduced to his twenty-one-year-old son, Aristide. Dominique explained that, as well as inventing the poïkilorgue, Aristide had also invented a hands-free mechanism for organs permitting the performer to change registration (the tonal qualities of the organ’s manuals), solved a vexing problem that caused organs to wheeze when low on wind, and had even perfected a type of circular saw that made poïkilorgues a little less expensive to make. Aristide then described some of his other innovative ideas to the visitors. The next day, when the Cavaillé-Colls returned Rossini’s visit, the composer was blunt. “What is keeping you here? Go to Paris!,” he said; “Perhaps I can be of some use to you there.”

It was a remarkable offer, and one that produced even more remarkable results. Sixty years after he met Rossini, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll reversed the losses of the Revolution by building hundreds of the finest organs in the world. Those instruments inspired the creation of Widor’s and Vierne’s Symphonies pour orgue, Guilmant’s Huit sonates pour orgue, the later works of Tournemire, Duruflé, Dupré, and Messiaen, and, greatest of all, César Franck’s Six Pièces, Trois Pièces, and Trois Chorales. On the way, those composers helped found the pedagogy that even today produces the instrument’s greatest masters. But without a series of remarkable coincidences, none of this might ever have happened.

The Basilica of Saint-Denis, where dozens of French monarchs are buried, had its organ pipes disappear into a foundry sometime in the 1790s. After Napoleon allowed churches to reopen in 1803 (in return for the Vatican’s recognition that expropriated Church property would stay expropriated), repairs began on Saint-Denis. But it was only in September 1833 that the call for bids for a new organ (“le plus beau et le plus complet possible”) was published. The bid deadline was September 30, a year after Rossini had visited Toulouse. The decision would be made by a jury headed by the composer Henri Berton.

Fresh off the stagecoach from Toulouse, armed with a letter of introduction from Rossini, and oblivious to the deadline, Aristide happened to call on Berton. After chatting with him, Berton said it was a great pity that Aristide had not arrived sooner, as he appeared eminently qualified to compete in the Saint-Denis concours closing in just three days.

Electrified, Aristide burst out of Berton’s rooms, shot up to Saint-Denis, and spent the next two days measuring the Basilica’s interior, calculating the best placement of the console and pipe ranks, and drawing up a design. That his five-manual (plus pedalboard), eighty-four-stop bid, submitted at the deadline, was unanimously accepted two days later by the jury is a measure of how he must have spent his waking hours, even before the competition, thinking about organ design and acoustical issues. Despite the furious lobbying of the other contestants (and the chagrin of the jury when it later realized that its prizewinner had never actually built an organ), the decision was ratified by the Minister of the Interior, Adolphe Thiers, in early 1834. Delivery was scheduled for 1837, giving Aristide and his team three years to address his design’s complex technical issues. In fact, solving them took much longer.

In effect, Aristide’s original design consisted of six organs. Each manual (keyboard) and pedalboard had its own sonic properties due to its being “registered” to create different timbres, done through the combination of “stops” (components that let air into the pipes) selected by the organist. For example, the Positif manual could be registered with (among others) “flute” or “trumpet” stops, the Grand Orgue registered with the cor anglais or voix humane stops, the pedalboard with a variety of flutes.

Much of the appeal of Aristide’s design rested on its ambitious “coupling” of the organ’s manuals. By depressing a pedal, the organist could join two or more manuals, each with its own registration that would sound even when only one manual was played. Coupling creates a fuller sound, increasing in power as more manuals are joined.

Coupling existed in older organs, but to a more limited degree. As more manuals are coupled (or stops added), more air is required. The problem is that additional pressure stiffens the key action so that the organ becomes almost impossible to play. High pressures can also cause keys to stick, making the organ sound even after the key lifts. In truth, the Saint-Denis organ as designed was effectively unplayable. By 1839, Aristide was no closer to a solution. Luckily, other construction problems in the Basilica caused the organ’s delivery date to be pushed back.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles north, a young Englishman named Charles Barker had seen that York Minster’s exhausted organist often had to stop playing because of key stiffness. Barker invented a pneumatic mechanism that fixed the problem, but York Minster and other English churches would have none of it, believing that the tranquility of church music would be marred by organists’ newfound ability to play quickly (“Non in commotione Dominus,” one commentator wrote: “God is not found in agitation”). So Barker traveled to Saint-Denis and demonstrated the device to an amazed and delighted Cavaillé-Coll. Not only did it eliminate the organ’s stiff action, it enabled Aristide to make even more improvements.

Older organs were monotonal because each manual was fed from the same wind source. But with the Barker device, a world of possibilities opened. Aristide could now incorporate a récit-expressif manual allowing the organist to change the volume through the use of shutters, include separate wind-chests enabling different volumes, employ a huge variety of stops creating a new palette of tonal color, and add a hands-free system that allowed groups of stops to be introduced and removed during performance. These innovations empowered the organist to move quickly from ppp to fff and create hitherto unknown orchestral effects. The new Saint-Denis organ was a marvel, and its head organist (organiste-titulaire) spent months after its completion demonstrating its qualities for the musicians, ministers, fonctionnaires, and foreign dignitaries pleading to hear it.

By the end of the 1840s, Aristide had finished several more important instruments in Paris. With the delivery of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette (forty-seven stops), La Madeleine (forty-eight stops), and Saint-Roch (forty-nine stops), the quality of Paris’s organ stock improved enormously. It would be many years, however, before the music played on those Cavaillé-Colls approached the quality of the organs themselves.

The decay started back in the eighteenth century, when organists substituted flamboyant improvisations during services.

French organ music of the time was flashy and trashy. The lack of trained organists and good instruments was part of the problem, but the real culprit was the banality of musical taste, as evidenced by the popularity of tripping tunes, storm effects, bird-calls, and the like, and audiences’ marked preference for the homophonic over the contrapuntal. When Aristide’s Notre-Dame-de-Lorette organ was inaugurated, for example, the Revue et Gazette Musicale complained of “the bits of waltzes and frivolous melodies” on the program, and its reviewer gloomily concluded that “the art of organ playing is in utter decadence today.” In fact, the decay started back in the eighteenth century, when organists substituted flamboyant improvisations during services. Far from being a backdrop to the divine mysteries, some performances were so rousing that the Archbishop of Paris threatened on occasion to bring in la force publique to restore order at Notre-Dame.

For many years, Paris’s reigning organ god was the titulaire at Saint-Roch, the urbane Louis-Alfred-James Lefébure-Wély. He was a crowd-pleaser par excellence—which was why Aristide often used him to demonstrate newly delivered instruments. “Let’s pack them in,” he once wrote to Aristide, “using thunderstorms, bells, birdsongs, tambourines, bagpipes, and the voix humaine [stops].” While this was good for the organ-building business, there were pockets of resistance to Lefébure-Wély’s style, with a few influential critics insisting that the organ was capable of more than galops and hunting choruses. The influential François-Joseph Fétis, for example, who taught at the Brussels Conservatoire, urged Aristide to invite Fétis’ organist colleagues to experience Cavaillé-Coll organs for themselves—and perhaps also to show the French what they were missing.

Inaugurations of new organs were important social, musical, and marketing events. The new one at Saint-Eustache was inaugurated in 1844 by various performers including Lefébure-Wély. Fétis suggested that Adolf Hesse, a Bach specialist with “the most famous feet in Europe,” should also be on the program. But when Hesse closed the inauguration with Bach’s strenuous Toccatain F,the audience blanched, finding the roaring pedal part especially intimidating. “Il semble toujours être le ministre d’un Dieu en colère qui veut punir” (“He seems to be the minister of an angry God who wants to punish us”), one reviewer complained. By contrast, another critic cooed that Lefébure-Wély could “perceive and interpret our prayers through gentle thoughts.”

Cavaillé-Coll, of course, needed to sell organs. Although he cultivated relationships with curates and bishops and the Ministre des Cultes (the bureaucracy charged with building and maintaining churches and organs), even to the extent of marrying the sister of an important ministry figure, he knew it was also important to épater les parroissiens. It served no purpose to have listeners sticking their fingers in their ears, walking out, or bellowing at the organist mid-performance when the next commission depended on the agreement of government, clergy, and parishioners. For years, Aristide subscribed to the “if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em” school and used Lefébure-Wély as his inaugurator. For all of Fétis’ disapproval, equally sober classicists like Camille Saint-Saëns respected Lefébure-Wély, especially for his marvelous improvisations. When played today, Lefébure-Wély’s charming, tuneful music invariably makes audiences smile, just like it did then.

But Fétis was neither humored nor ready to surrender. In 1852, eight years after Hesse’s appearance, Fétis persuaded his colleague Jacques Lemmens to give three recitals that left Aristide in little doubt as to where the future lay. In one all-Bach program, Lemmens mesmerized Franck, Gounod, Alkan, and others crowded around the console with his smooth registration changes, gorgeous legato, novel finger substitution, and prodigious pedal technique (“double octaves, repeated chords, rapid scales, arpeggios, trills . . . [played with] such . . . sureness that more than one organist would be happy if he could do the same with his hands,” wrote one critic). Staggering back home afterwards, Franck commissioned a dummy practice pedalboard from the instrument-makers Erard for home use, while Alkan began work on his athletic pedal études for solo feet.

Awed by Lemmens (“he is the hyphen linking old and new art”), Aristide understood that his music-making was not only the vanguard of the new art, but also would require important modifications to his instruments. To accommodate Bach’s music and Lemmens’s own brand of progressive classicism, Aristide started standardizing his organ specifications by increasing spans for manuals and pedalboard to fifty-four (eventually fifty-six) and thirty keys respectively, and rebalancing the proportions of mixture and foundation stops. And although he still used Lefébure-Wély as his inaugurator, Aristide increasingly asked Lemmens to play for important occasions.

The transformation of taste had begun. Though it would be a decades-long affair, there were early indications of where things were heading. After the young Saint-Saëns was appointed (with Aristide’s behind-the-scenes support) titulaire at the ultra-fashionable Madeleine, he was scolded by a priest for not playing in more of the light, Opéra-Comique vein so popular with the parishioners. Saint-Saëns gave as good as he got: “When I hear dialogue from the Opéra-Comique spoken from the pulpit, mon Père, I will play music appropriate to it—until then, I will continue in my current fashion.”

Without Aristide’s instruments France’s organ renaissance would not have come about.

Aristide used his connections to help promising young performers become titulaires in the churches where he had installed his instruments. In 1838, when Aristide was finishing up at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, he was impressed by the playing of the young sub-organist there, César Franck. By 1851, Franck moved to Saint Jean-Saint François au Marais, with its own Cavaillé-Coll, and when Franck was asked his opinion, he famously replied, “My new organ? It’s an orchestra!” By the time of his final move to the exquisite Sainte-Clotilde organ in 1858, the Cavaillé-Coll sound was at the core of Franck’s musical vocabulary.

Franck’s Six Pièces, published in 1868, were revolutionary. Sonically, all the works in the set, but especially the second, the Grande pièce symphonique, show the influence of the coupled manuals, registrations, crescendos and diminuendos, divisions and extended manuals, and pedalboard of the Cavaillé-Coll organ. Franck used these features to give his music an orchestral effect never previously heard and an emotional impact seldom experienced. His originality grew even more pronounced with the Trois Pièces (1878), including the anguished Pièce heroique, and his Trois Chorales (1890). When Franck’s own organ professor at the Conservatoire retired in 1872, Franck replaced him—again with Cavaillé-Coll’s backstage support.

The greatest of Aristide’s Parisian installations was the colossal five-manual, hundred-stop, forty-rank, seven-thousand-pipe organ in Saint-Sulpice. It had so many stops that Aristide arched the console around the performer to keep them all in reach. Aristide hoped to bring Lemmens in as titulaire, but, when the latter proved unwilling, recommended Lefébure-Wély (who, not having seen the writing on the wall, asked Aristide to add thunder, nightingale, and hailstorm stops to the organ).

But if Aristide could not have Lemmens, he would have to settle for the next best thing—Lemmens’s star pupils. As a young man, Aristide traveled around studying organs in France’s various départements. He met a number of builders and performers on his journeys, including the fathers of two prodigy organists, Alexandre Guilmant (in Boulogne) and Charles-Marie Widor (in Lyons), and encouraged the young men’s interest in performance. Aristide eventually recommended that the two study with Lemmens and Fétis, and thereafter arranged for their placement at La Trinité (for Guilmant) and Saint-Sulpice (for Widor, after Lefébure-Wély’s sudden death in 1871). Both men remained at their consoles for decades while contributing to the new Cavaillé-Coll-based musical language.

Like Franck’s works, Guilmant’s Huit sonates pour orgue (along with much of his other enormous output) were written with the Cavaillé-Coll organ in mind. Charles-Marie Widor’s Symphonies pour orgue, especially the first five (the Fifth Symphony finishing with the famous Toccata in F), even more effectively show the coloristic and tonal resources of Cavaillé-Colls. Though his later symphonies, in particular the Symphonie gothique and the Symphonie romane, are more subtle, Widor insisted to the end of his life that without Aristide’s instruments France’s organ renaissance would not have come about:

What a difference between the organ of former times and the one of today! It is the same as between the harpsichord and the modern . . . piano. Never would Beethoven have written Opus 111 if he had only the metallic clinking of the harpsichord of our fathers to interpret it!

It took years for the music of Franck, Guilmant, and Widor to establish itself. In 1880, even after Lemmens’s legendary performances, many Parisians preferred their organ music light and dancy. When Guilmant played Bach’s most popular work for organ, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, in a recital on Aristide’s concert organ at the Palais du Trocadéro, half the audience walked out. But after Franck’s death in 1890, Widor, and then Guilmant, succeeded him at the Conservatoire and taught a generation of pupils formed by the music that those three men played. That, in the end, was what it took to complete the transformation of taste—a new generation of performers and listeners accustomed to the new music.

Though there are still hundreds of Aristide’s instruments in France, few of them would be recognized by their maker today. After his death in 1898, other builders started to rework them, compromising or even losing their lovely characteristics. Nevertheless, on many Sundays, one can hear Aristide’s organs played in Paris by great-great-grandpupils of his protégés. At eleven o’clock at La Madeleine, the titulaire often plays before Mass; then it’s quickly down to Sainte-Clotilde for twenty minutes before heading over to Saint-Sulpice for the noon recital. On a good day, listeners may feel the same way as Widor did when, a little overcome by the sublime performance he finished moments before, he leaned over to Albert Schweitzer, seated nearby, and whispered that, “organ playing is the manifestation of a . . . vision of eternity.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 6, on page 16
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