For those of you who know me really well, it shouldn’t surprise you that one of the first posts I write about deals somehow with French Romantic organ music. This post is about a man who revolutionized organ building (and through that, organ performance, and composition) in France during the 1800’s, and is arguably partly-responsible for the French Romantic movement in the organ world. He was one of the most creative and brilliant organ builders in history (that’s my opinion). In fact it is his instruments – those which survive today, unaltered – that happen to be my most favorite. And it’s all about the sound!
Aristide Cavaillé-Coll was born on February 4, 1811 in Montpellier, France, into a family that already was associated with the pipe organ. His father, Dominique, was a builder just like his father. Aristide received a fairly well-rounded education, but it is no surprise that he also learned about organ building with his father, and was active in the company. As time went on his knowledge of mathematics and science played an important role in how he approached organ building. While still very young, (mid-twenties), He went to Paris, where he submitted a proposal for a new organ in the church of St. Denis, north of Paris.
He was awarded the contract and the new organ was finished in 1841. This proved to be a turning-point for the father/son organ building team and for organ music in France! In this new instrument Aristide used techniques that had never really been employed in France before. Some of these include a new pedal board built-in the German style, the Barker machine, and new stop sounds for the organ (namely harmonic pipes), and placing pipes inside a box with shutters that can be opened and closed (a swell chamber). This changed the way organs not only sounded, but how they were played/could be played and really freed up the organist. This was the start of the “Symphonic” organ…
Indeed some of the music written for these instruments was even called – symphonic. But to clarify, we’re talking “symphonic” in terms of the variety of sounds available and the ability to use expression (opening and closing of swell chambers). In that sense, the organ Aristide “invented” was like a symphony, with all it’s different tone colors and varied degrees of intensity. Symphonic is not meant in the sense that the organ is trying to directly imitate an orchestra (or replace it), like you find in a lot of early twentieth-century organs here in the United States.
Eventually Aristide took over full responsibilities for the company. He went on to become probably the most known and respected organ builder in France in the 1800’s, though the company wasn’t without its own problems. Several times the company was near bankruptcy and it didn’t help that often Aristide’s proposal would go over the budgeted amount during the building because he’d add to it in the name of art (forgetting about the pocket-book!). Sometimes he would absorb the extra cost, but there were times where the customer would get the extra bill… But in the end the instruments he built were very carefully planned, executed and those that survive to this day still are very high-quality instruments that are truly magnificent!
“It is he [Cavaillé-Coll] who conceived the diverse wind pressures, the divided windchests, the pedal systems and the combination registers; he who applied for the first time Barker’s pneumatic motors, created the family of harmonic stops, reformed and perfected the mechanics to such a point that each pipe—low or high, loud or soft—instantly obeys the touch of the finger… From this result: the possibility of confining an entire division in a sonorous prison—opened or closed at will—the freedom of mixing timbres, the means of intensifying them or gradually tempering them, the freedom of tempos, the sureness of attacks, the balance of contrasts, and, finally, a whole blossoming of wonderful colors—a rich palette of the most diverse shades: harmonic flutes, gambas, bassoons, English horns, trumpets, celestes, flue stops and reed stops of a quality and variety unknown before.” —Charles-Marie Widor, Avant-propos to the organ symphonies, tr. John Near
It is said that Aristide was able to walk into a space in which a new organ was to go and be able to tell exactly how many stops and what stops it would take to fit the acoustic of the space. Each and every one of the hundreds of Cavaillé-Coll organs that came out of the factory were intimately known by the head of the company! Aristide also was very conscious of the opinions of organists as well, listening to their suggestions and even incorporating their ideas into the way he built instruments. The organ builder was also good at maintaining relations with other builders, not just in France, but in the greater European continent as well. Ideas were shared and he was never one to keep new innovations to himself!
Throughout my posts you will see this builder mentioned lots, and lots of posts featuring instruments by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. They are my most favorite in all the world because of the sound and spaces they are located in. Someday I hope to go to France and see some of these wonderful treasures up close for myself. For now… I have to rely on recordings!
For more information on Aristide Cavaillé-Coll you can go to Wikipedia or I HIGHLY recommend the book French Masters of the Organ by Michael Murray. (more on that book later!) There is also a company that is producing a DVD about Cavaillé-Coll, due to be out sometime next summer… Check out that project and company here.