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Help us fund our new film on the organs' of Aristide Cavaille-Coll.

:The Genius of Cavaillé-Coll


Cavaille-Coll c1894Filming The Genius of Cavaillé-Coll


This article by Will Fraser appeared in the December 2011 edition of The Organists' Review.


2011 is the 200th anniversary of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll’s birth. 2012 is the 150th anniversary of the completion of his organ at St Sulpice, an instrument that the late Stephen Bicknell described as the best organ in the world. Whether or not one thinks that Cavaillé-Coll is the greatest of all organ builders, or that one or other of his instruments is the greatest organ ever built, there is no doubt that he is a figure of monumental importance in the history of the organ and its music. As such, we decided to make a documentary about him to mark the anniversaries of 2011 and 2012. We raised the money to do this by pre-selling DVDs, which are still available on our website. The project went into production on September 12, filming at St Ouen in Rouen, and will continue with filming and recording in October and November. This article describes the project and the exacting but exciting challenge of filming and recording at St Ouen, where history looks over your shoulder as you work.


It may be best first to establish a few brief facts about Cavaillé-Coll. He was from a family of organ builders, and so it was natural for him to assume that trade. However, he came of age in the 1830s, a period which was not a good time for organ building in France. The secularisation and upheaval of the revolutionary period had stopped organ music in its tracks, especially as the eighteenth century style of French organ music was very much a style of the ancien regime. Therefore Cavaillé-Coll had two great challenges – to develop a new kind of organ, and to ensure that music would be written for and performed on these instruments.

With his background and education in organ building and his technical aptitude, the first of these challenges was relatively easy for him. His first major commission at the age of only thirty was the organ of St Denis in Paris. When he finished the organ some years later he had emerged as a fully-fledged master. There are some conservative aspects to this instrument. It was originally tuned in meantone and retained some elements of the French classical organ such as a small recit division. But essentially it was a bold step in a new direction. Through the use of pneumatic Barker levers that assist the tracker action, he was able to make a three manual mechanical action organ with a very large number of stops – 69 in total. He introduced his groundbreaking system of divided windchests controlled by ventils. He divided manual divisions over more than one windchest, with the reeds and mixtures on one and the foundations on another. Above the pedalboard are ventils, very like composition pedals, and by depressing these the organist is able to switch on, as it were, different wind chests. Therefore one can draw stops – the reeds and mixtures say – but only activate them when you want to by pressing the pedal. As such, this system is a precursor to the pistons with which we are all familiar, and meant that the organist could control the dynamics of what he played without an assistant.

Between 1840 and 1870 Cavaillé-Coll’s style went through various changes as his career developed. He turned the French classical recit into a full swell division based on 16-foot reeds. He moved away from having two different choruses on the grand orgue – a grand jeu and a plan jeu – and created a single chorus with progressive mixtures. He developed colourful stops that inspired the comment of Franck – “my organ is an orchestra.” After the Franco-Prussian War he returned to using classically inspired repeating mixtures, but combined this with designing the organ as one monumental block, rather than a collection of manual divisions, and adding new colour stops – quintatons and clarinets for instance – to create the symphonic organ. These instruments, built in the 1880s and 90s, include St Etienne, Caen, Orleans Cathedral, and St Ouen, Rouen.

The second of Cavaillé-Coll’s challenges, overcoming the fact that no organ music was being written that matched his organs – took longer. It is a testimony to his character that he allowed years for the completion of this goal. He took young composers under his wing – principally Franck, Widor and Guilmant – and arranged educational and professional opportunities for them as organists. They, captivated by the sound and resources of his instruments, went on to create a new and vibrant school of organ music.

It is worth stating that none of them may have written their famous organ works if it wasn’t for the inspiration of Cavaillé-Coll’s organs. Widor said as much. They all had plenty of other fields in which they worked – only ten percent of Widor’s compositions were for the organ – and could have had perfectly fulfilled careers without writing a note of organ music.

As a result of this patronage, Cavaillé-Coll can claim not only to have revitalised and revolutionised organ design, but also to have started a new school of organ music composition. What other organ builder can claim this?

The Film

The goal of the project The Organs of Cavaillé-Coll is to make the first documentary film about the life of Cavaillé-Coll, and to augment this with both recordings and filmed performances of the music directly related to him and his organs on about ten of his best instruments. These will include both famous organs such as St Sulpice and less famous but important organs such as St Louis D’Antin. The resulting CDs and DVD will be packaged together with a detailed booklet. The resulting boxed set will aim to do justice to this remarkable and important man.

Such a project needs a very good team of people to be involved. The presenter of the film, and the organist for much of the recording, is Gerard Brooks, a superb player and authority on the repertoire and history. Our main scholarly contributor is Kurt Leuders, an American based in Paris who is in charge of the Cavaillé-Coll Association and is the foremost scholar on the subject. We also will involve where possible some of the best French organists, including Daniel Roth and others.

St Ouen, Rouen

The first location for filming and recording was St Ouen, Rouen. I had never been to Rouen before, so I was entranced by the lovely medieval cobbled streets filled with characterful half-timbered houses. The spire of the city’s large cathedral dominates these streets, but Rouen also boasts a cathedral-sized abbatial church – St Ouen. The building is massive – 137 metres long and with a vault 33 metres high. To put that in perspective, it’s a couple of metres longer and the roof is some eight metres higher than Salisbury Cathedral. As you enter into the south transept, your eye is immediately drawn upwards towards a lovely rose window with multi-coloured glass. The church is flooded with light from dozens of other stained glass windows twenty metres in the air, and the sun projects multi-coloured pools of light from these that move around the walls and floor as the day goes by.

However, the place is rather neglected. Every surface is dusty. The altars in the side chapels are decaying. Pigeons and bats live inside the building – if you looked up at more or less any point one or two pigeons would usually be flying the length of the nave, and they were replaced by bats as darkness fell. Unfortunately there are obvious results – you find dead bats all over the place and the organ is covered in pigeon droppings. Perhaps if it was in England the church would be cleaner, and would be filled with volunteers, tourists, brass-rubbing enthusiasts, and would have a teashop, choral foundation and such. But in its present state it is nothing if not atmospheric.

At the west end, beneath another bright blue rose window, sits the organ built by Cavaillé-Coll in 1890. This instrument is from the final period of his career, when he built organs in a symphonic style, and was immediately recognised as a masterpiece. Widor described it as ‘a Michelangelo of an organ’ and dedicated his ninth symphony, the Gothique, to it. It is an instrument that combines awesome power with heart and a beautiful array of colour. All of these are amplified by the cavernous acoustic of the building.

The organ has a number of peculiarities. The lowest keyboard is the positif, not the grand orgue as one might expect, and there is no recit to positif coupler; instead there is the rather more idiosyncratic positif to recit coupler. The grand orgue is divided over two manuals – the two foot, mixtures and reeds are playable from the fourth manual. The windchests of these two divisions are next to each other, and the divisions work together as a unit. Effectively it is a three manual organ with four keyboards.

Cavaillé-Coll was always happy to reuse good quality older material in his organs. Here, the case dates from 1630, and many of the pipes date from between 1630 and 1890. However Cavaillé-Coll did add the curved mouldings at the top of the grand orgue and positif, which give the case much of its character.

The sound of the organ is staggering. The tutti, complete with en chamade reeds, is vast and complex, and combines to beautiful effect with the acoustic. The recit is enclosed in an enormous swell box, and the huge area of shutters allows for a vast dynamic range from ppp to fff.


The organ has a reputation for being difficult to record. This is because the acoustic of St Ouen is so huge that the sound of the organ quickly loses focus and, at its worst, becomes something of a mush. As a listener in the building, one’s powers of perception can overcome this to some degree. For instance you actually feel the vibrations caused by the music. Therefore you can perceive greater clarity than a microphone can pick up. The challenge of making a recording in such a church is to keep the monumental acoustic and sense of scale, to retain the enormous power of the organ, but also to keep clarity so that the music always shines through.

One of our goals with this project is to record these organs to a standard that has not been achieved before. As such we said to our engineer, Dave Hinitt, that earth-shattering, cataclysmic or titanic sound would not be good enough. We wanted results that would be truly apocalyptic.

Dave’s approach to audio is refreshing and very sophisticated. Many engineers simply throw up one mic-stand with a pair of microphones, on the basis that people have two ears, therefore two mics will do, and on the assumption that there is one optimum place to hear the organ from.

However, microphones are not very much like ears, and crucially, mics do not have a brain – we are able to perceive sound in a far more complicated way than any audio equipment can reproduce it. Also, there are many optimum places to listen to an organ from, and what may be the best place to hear the colossal 32-foot bombarde is perhaps not the best place to hear the high sounds of the mixtures. Furthermore, a person hears an organ in surround sound, and to achieve a surround sound mix you need more than a pair of mics.

Therefore we adopted a plan to use many mics – 22 in total. In addition to a boom that was close to the organ, several mics were placed close to it on the organ gallery. A good battery of mics were placed in the nave, midfield as it were, and a final pair in the far distance completed the room ambiance that a building this size requires. Therefore mics covered every valuable position that you would want to hear the organ from. We can therefore create a mix that properly represents the organ in all its complexity. There will be the option of 5.1 surround sound on the DVD.


We arrived in Rouen just after Gerard had given a recital at St Ouen. He has also recorded on the organ before. He was as always inspired by the wonderful expressive and musical possibilities of the instrument, but was aware of the difficulties involved in playing it. It has never been restored, so anything can go wrong mechanically at any moment. Luckily, the organ builder who maintains the instrument would be present for all of the recording. But it is also a difficult instrument to control – Gerard would need two registrands, one on each side. We needed to adopt a workflow that would take account of the challenges of performing on the organ, but would allow Gerard to produce the best performances he could. We decided that we would record everything first as a straightforward CD session, and then perform everything a second time on camera as a separate live performance. This means that the CD and DVD will have two different and distinct performances of the works.

The CD would aim for Gerard’s fullest interpretation of the piece, with editing available to allow the very best takes to be cut together. The DVD would capture the drama and verve of a live performance.


Albert Schweitzer wrote in his memoirs the following about Widor’s feelings about the role of the organist: ‘Organ playing,’ Widor once said to me on the organ bench at Notre-Dame as the rays of the setting sun streamed through the dusk of the nave in transfigured peace, ‘is the manifestation of a will filled with a vision of eternity. All organ instruction, both technical and artistic, has as its aim only to educate a man to this pure manifestation of the higher will. This will, expressed by the organist in the objectivity of his organ, should overwhelm the hearer. He who cannot master the great, concentrated will in the theme of a Bach fugue – so that even the thoughtless hearer cannot escape from it, but even after the second measure grasps and comprehends it whether he will or not-he who cannot command this concentrated, peaceful will imparting itself so powerfully, may be a great artist in spite of this but is not a born organist. He has mistaken his instrument; for the organ represents the rapprochement of the human spirit to the eternal, imperishable spirit, and it is estranged from its nature and its place as soon as it becomes the expression of the subjective spirit.’

In this context, it is not quite enough to say that Cavaillé-Coll’s symphonic organs are particularly suitable for the music of Widor. With the above quote in mind, we wanted to find an organ and acoustic where we could record Widor’s fifth symphony with the aim of making time stand still and imbuing his music with a sense of the eternal. St Ouen is the perfect location. To take just one example, the broken chord figuration in the famous Toccata produces the most beautiful ripples in the acoustic as if the music and acoustic are in perfect harmony. We also recorded the Trois Pièces by Franck, published within a year of the Widor and a very interesting comparison. The final section of the Pièce Heroique sounds truly monumental in St Ouen. In the pauses between the chordal statements the echo of the music goes on and on. Time really does seem to stand still.

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous?

Cavaillé-Coll built upwards of 500 organs, and maintained an extraordinarily consistent level of high quality. The small organs he built are built to the same standards as the huge organs. The day after finishing recording and filming at St Ouen we drove to Elbeuf, a town just south of Rouen, to film and record an orgue de choeur with just one manual and seven stops, built in 1882. This was an example of a type of mass-produced organ that you could buy from a catalogue with a choice of facades. Cavaillé-Coll built about sixty of them.

It was rather odd to go from a cathedral sized building and an organ on which anything is seemingly possible to a modest church with an organ of the smallest size. But we wanted to take this organ as seriously as the larger instruments, so we duly set up a large battery of microphones to capture the sound of the organ absolutely at its best for a performance of some miniatures by Boëllmann. The music sounded charming, and the performances revealed an organ that although small, was complete. The montre was mature, and with prestant and octavin formed a full chorus. It had both a trompette and hautbois, and a divided keyboard allowed the use of solo stops. The tone of the organ filled the church – there was nothing small about its sound.

As a conclusion, it is wonderful to be impressed by superb works of art such as the organ at St Ouen. However, the reality for most people is that their parish will only have a modest church and a modest organ. I find it very impressive that Cavaillé-Coll put so much care into the production of tiny instruments for insignificant parishes, because it says something about his humanity. He was not a man who was only interested in big projects for important clients. He maintained his standards for all of his commissions. He created the instruments and inspired the composition of music that allowed high quality music-making to be present everywhere from the smallest parish to the largest cathedral. It is no surprise that 200 years after his birth we are still inspired by this great man. I look forward to discovering more about him as we continue filming and recording The Organs of Cavaillé-Coll.



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