Before the fire: pipes of the Great Organ of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

Notre Dame’s pipe organ survives fire, actual damage still unknown

Mark Gresham | 16 APR 2019 @ 10:06am ET

Updated 16 APR 2019 @ 11:48am ET
Updated 16 AOR 2019 @ 9:15pm ET

The world watched in disbelief on Monday as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned. The raging fire sparked in the early evening, local time, continued for hours, with hundreds of firefighters struggling to get the flames under control. Hours after the fire had been doused, the exact cause remained unclear, but early reports speculated an accident related to renovation work may have been involved.

Begun in 1163 and first completed in 1345, Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the great icons of western architecture and one of the finest examples of French Gothic style. It is itself a priceless work of art, in addition to the many invaluable artworks and artifacts contained within its walls.

One of the irreplaceable items inside the Cathedral to which the fire posed great risk is the historic Great Organ. Despite the collapse of the the 300-foot spire and a majority of the Cathedral’s roof, according to the Associated Press officials have confirmed that the instrument appears to have survived, but the extent of damage remains to be assessed.

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The current Great Organ at Notre Dame was reconstructed by François Thierry in the 1730s. The number of pipes was doubled in the 1860s by Aristide Cavaille-Coll. In 1924, an electric blower was installed to replace the manual bellows. Electric action was added in the 1960s, replacing the trackers, along with a new console. In the 1990s, digital technology was added to the organ’s system as part of a $2 million renovation. With five manual plus pedal board, 115 stops (156 ranks) and over 8,000 pipes, it is the largest organ in France.

In 2013, Associated Press spoke with Notre Dame Cathedral organist Philippe Lefebvre about the organ, archived in the following YouTube video:

The status of the Cathedral’s smaller, 30-rank choir organ, originally built in the 19th century, is not known at this time. [See UPDATE below.]

The Great Organ was played during the Sunday services by one of the Cathedral’s three titular organists – Vincent Dubois, Latry Olivier and Philippe Lefebre – and on Saturday evenings in recitals given by invited organists from around the world.

The Choir Organ served as the organ for the daily offices of the week. On weekends or in special ceremonies, it would be used alternately with the Great Organ in dialogue between choral and congregational singing.

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UPDATE, 11:48am: The Facebook page Grand-Orgue Magnifique has posted the following statement from Vincent Dubois, one of the three titular organists at Notre Dame de Paris:

Contrary to the rumors that circulated early this morning, the great organ is, a priori, saved. There are a few puddles on the left and right, but nothing dramatic. The case would be spared, as well as the pipe work… It’s miraculous. We were in contact all night with my colleagues Olivier Latry and Philippe Lefebvre and we no longer believed in it. The stone roof slab that connects the two towers saved the instrument: there is no frame there from the roof, so the water sent by the fire brigade flowed on either side and did not fall on the organ loft. On the other hand, if the vaults of the nave, very weakened, are not quickly consolidated, it will probably be necessary to dismantle the organ and find a workshop large enough to shelter it. There is no such system in the Paris region. The challenge is to know very quickly whether the keystones will withstand the weight of the water and molten lead that has been poured into them. The choir organ did not burn either, but it did take on water completely. We’ll have to see what’s left of it… It’ll take years before we can play this instrument again, but the most important thing was that it didn’t end up in ashes. We will be patient and mobilize for its rehabilitation, once it has been closely examined.”

UPDATE, 9:15pm: Concert organist Luca Massaglia, in Italy, has posted publicly on Facebook (privacy setting of “public”) the following letter from Notre Dame titular organist Olivier Latry:

Dear all,

In these tragic moments for the Cathedral, you have been extremely numerous to send kind words of support, all more moving than the others, either by e-mail, SMS, Facebook, Instagram or on the phone.

I will never thank you enough for that. I would have liked to respond personally to each of you, but given the urgency of the situation, it is unfortunately not possible for me, at least for the moment. I hope you’ll understand.

Notre-Dame, who had resisted revolutions and wars, burned in a few moments. 855 years destroyed in four hours… Like you, I feel terribly sad, with contained rage, total sorrow. The images that we have seen are horrible. How not to think that we are in a bad dream? Reality comes back to us, unfortunately.

Despite all the damage in the Cathedral, the organ miraculously escaped the flames, as well as the water supposed to extinguish them. It is very dusty, but will continue to enjoy us as soon as the building will be restored. When? No one knows yet. «Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up» (John, 2). It will surely take more time in Notre-Dame, but I still live with great confidence and hope.

With warmest regards,

Olivier Latry

Earrelevant will post additional updates as information becomes known. ■

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