Restoring a Cherished Part of Notre Dame

The cathedral's 19th-century organ comes into the 20th with a high-tech upgrade

ORGANIST Jean-Pierre Leguay pauses in the middle of rehearsing for an upcoming recital he is to give at Notre Dame Cathedral. As he lifts his fingers from the five-tier keyboard he asks that the passage he has just performed be played back. The organ obliges.

That is, an IBM personal computer attached to the microphone that picks up Mr. Leguay's voice responds to his command, instantly replaying the passage from its electronic memory and through the organ's pipes. Here, in the organ loft of the most-visited monument in France, the past has met the future.

After a 30-month-long marathon restoration project, the mostly 19th-century Romantic-era, Grand Organ of Notre Dame has come into the 20th century. Two computers embedded in its console are linked by new copper cables to the organ's 8,000 pipes, 108 stops, 32 foot pedals, as well as to a musical-instrument digital interface (MIDI) that records and allows for instant replay, a voice synthesizer, a printer, and a telephone line to an office near Versailles.

The scope of the 1990s restoration is probably matched by that undertaken in 1868 under the direction of Aristide Cavaille-Coll, the leading builder of Romantic organs during the reign of Napoleon III, who doubled the number of pipes that give the Grand Organ the sound by which it is recognized today.

Revamping France's largest organ had a two-fold purpose: restore the pipes' resonance and sonority - clogged by dust and rusted by moisture - and attract a new generation of organists by adding computers to extend the Grand Organ's use.

"We wanted to find our authenticity of history and our modernity," explained Jean-Pierre DeCavele, who was in charge of the project. French officials also point to an organ revival under way among the young with a 10-fold increase in sacred organ lessons during the last 20 years.

The French Ministry of Culture, which maintains the country's organs, awarded the contract to upgrade Notre Dame's organ to Boisseau and Cattiaux-Giroud-Emeriau, two noted organ builders and restorers, and their high-tech partners, the French subsidiary of IBM Corporation and a small telecommunications company, Synaptel S.A., known for its work in the transportation and broadcast industries.

The project cost slightly more than $2 million and took 40,000 hours. Not only were the pipes cleaned, replaced, and retuned, but 200 new pipes were added to give the Grand Organ a greater harmonic range. The organ now boasts a total of 8,000 pipes, including 12 from the 14th century, when Notre Dame was first built. Restorers also tackled the organ's dried-out bellows and pneumatic parts, reconstructing them using 1,000 sheep skins.

But to make the organ more than just a musical instrument, five Synaptel employees logged 1,800 hours writing software programs that allow Notre Dame's organists to compose, record, play back, and even print out scores - all while sitting in front of the massive keyboard.

Synaptel also designed a new copper network to replace a maze of electrical wires that had mechanized the connection between the organ's keys and the valves that control the passage of air through the pipes. Besides carrying the faster pulses of digital data, the new wiring, through a hook-up in the local telephone line, enables Synaptel's staff to monitor the organ from its offices in Le Mermoz, near Versailles, one of France's burgeoning technology regions.

IBM engineers also donated their time to the project, which is built around IBM's PS/2 computers - models specifically designed to withstand high vibrations and dust in factories. Additional units were installed in case of failure with only a two-minute lag time for the backup computers to take over.

The performance possibilities for the computerized Grand Organ reach beyond Paris. Other organs similarly equipped with MIDI systems could be linked for a nationwide concert or simply a critique of one organist's composition by another. Network links could also create a light show synchronized by the playing of the organ.

Already, Notre Dame's three chief organists (Leguay is one) have asked that in a future software release they gain the ability to program two keyboards simultaneously along with the foot keyboard so that their free hands and feet can play other keys.

They can now verbally program the grand organ to pull out the stops necessary in a piece they may be performing. It is a new function that perhaps carries the most meaning for Leguay, who is sight-impaired. Previously, Leguay's wife and an assistant would help by pulling the stops for him. Now he can play unassisted by human hands.

This new function was carried to its logical conclusion in December at the Grand Organ's inaugural concert. Before a crowd of 4,000 people, the organ played Leguay's interpretation of the finale from Louis Vierne's "First Organ Symphony." Only the stops moved, while Leguay stood below in front of the altar waiting to applaud the project's completion.

* With the return of the Grand Organ to the music scene in Paris, Notre Dame's free Sunday concerts at 5:45 p.m. resume. (During restoration, organ recitals were played on the much smaller choir organ.)

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