If I was given the choice of visiting ONLY ONE cathedral in all of Europe and to see ONLY ONE organ in all of Europe  – it would be either the Cavaillé-Coll at St. Sulpice, Paris… Or this one… Depending on my mood. Or the phase of the moon. Then again my writing about this one first might say something… Ok… Really – I’d BEG to see BOTH!!!

Orgue de l’abbatiale Saint-Ouen

This is one of the last instruments to leave the Cavaillé-Coll workshop while Aristide was still alive. It is considered by many people to be one of his finest instruments (along with the organ at St. Suplice). It is also the most recorded pipe organ in the world. A good portion of the CD recordings (and some of the best recordings) I own are made on this beauty! (And YES, I realize I’m drooling!)

The abbey of St. Ouen is actually the 5th building to stand on this site. Construction began on the current building in 1318 by Abbot Jean Roussel. From what I understand the nave and central tower were completed years later in 1549, still using the original architectural plan. The monastery was converted to house the city hall in 1800. The west facade was built from 1846 to 1851, but not using the still surviving original plans. Why not??? Your guess is as good as mine! Today this structure is not in use by any church. It’s used for concerts, exhibitions, and an art gallery. You can see then how this would be ideal for recording…

St. Ouen, Rouen

the Abbey of St. Ouen, Rouen. picture taken by Wikipedia user Urban 2005

Architecture? This structure is in the Gothic style. And a bit of a rare Gothic structure as well. This cathedral was built with abundant and abundantly huge stained glass windows and therefore lets more light into the building than is typical of a Gothic structure. (see below)

At the transept crossing in St. Ouen

At the transept crossing. Photo by Wikipedia user Tango7174

The church is 416 feet (126.8m) long, 83 feet (25.3m) wide, and 104 feet (31.7m) high. The central tower is 285 feet (86.9m) in height. It’s interior is only a few meters smaller than that of Notre-Dame, Paris. I include these numbers for a reason. I’ll get to it. Read on!

In 1630, a man by the name of Crespin Carlier built and installed an organ in the west end of the cathedral. It was an 8-foot instrument (its largest pipes were 8 feet) with two 48-note manuals and a 12-note independent pedal. Part of that case remains in the current set-up. Twenty-years later Thomas Morlet modified the instrument, including the addition of a dorsal positive and the main organ case went from an 8-foot 3-turret instrument into a 16-foot 5-turrets instrument. (see photo at beginning)

However, records show that by 1803, for whatever reason, the only thing left was the organ case and the Montre pipes (facade pipes). A “new” organ was literally pieced together using parts from other organs. In 1851, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll was called in to assess the organ. He ranked it among the largest instruments in France with 50 stops over 5 manuals and pedal.

By the year 1888 the organ had fallen into disrepair and a rebuild was called for. The contract was awarded to Cavaillé-Coll, with the stipulation that he re-use as much of the existing pipe work as possible. It’s interesting to note here that Cavaillé-Coll often reused existing pipework, if their condition was still good. Recycle! Anyway, in all Cavaillé-Coll kept 20 stops and augmented those with 44 more. In 1890 he completed the “rebuilding” of the instrument. Now the organ contained 64 stops, 84 ranks, spread across 4 manuals and pedal. The manuals contain 56 notes, and the pedal 30.

Orgue de l’abbatiale Saint-OuenI read in one of my books that Cavaillé-Coll was quite anxious during the organ inspection. (In France at the time all new organs were inspected by organists and officials and had to be given their stamp of approval before the organ could be heard by the public.) At the console was Charles-Marie Widor, organist of St. Sulpice, playing and trying out stops. When finally asked, it is said that Widor replied, “It is worthy of Michelangelo.” Widor inaugurated the instrument on April 17, 1890. Indeed Widor was  so impressed with both the church and this new organ that his ninth organ symphony, Symphony Gothique, was premiered on this organ, and dedicated to the memory of bishop Saint Ouen of Rouen. Beautiful music, by the way, one of my favorites of the ten symphonies that Widor wrote.

Today, the organ and the organ case (separately) are listed as historical landmarks. We have a lot of thanks to be given to the organists of St. Ouen up to this point – to resist changing anything on this instrument. Today, it is exactly how it was inaugurated by Widor back in 1870. Though I have read in a couple of places that though the instrument today is playable it is in need of a thorough restoration. I hope for future generations this can be done… soon…

This organ is known for being an instrument of phenomenal tone quality! It’s Récit  division (swell) is also quite large. It contains 20 of the 64 stops and 22 of the 84 ranks! Add one more rank and that’s the size of the organ at my church! And that’s just one division! This allows a lot of freedom of expression with this organ. Also it is interesting to note that in several recordings I own they mention in the liner notes that the Contre-Bombarde 32′ is VERY powerful. More so on this organ than on other Cavaillé-Coll instruments. That’s ok with me! I like lots of rumble!

What makes this organ so special is not only the sound of it (which I think is perfect, by the way) but the SPACE it is in. Remember those measurements? Well, take those measurements – a room that big in stone – and in the west end of that room plunk down an organ against the wall at about the middle of the height of the cathedral, aimed directly down the length of the room… What do you get? I’ll let you judge for yourself. Watch the  improvisation video below, enjoy the sound, as well as some excellent shots of the organ, the console and performer, and the interior of the church as well!

Just wow! (I know, I’m drooling again…) I love this instrument! Good thing too. I counted it out, 26 of the 259 CD’s I own were recorded on this wonderful marvel. (That’s roughly 10%!) It is amazing and fortunate that this is one of the VERY FEW Cavaillé-Coll instruments that has survived to this day completely unaltered. (Not to mention surviving two World Wars!)

Salon du livre ancien 2011

Someday I would love to visit this cathedral, and if I’m lucky, hear the organ. And if I’m REALLY lucky – try it out!

(more videos via YouTube below)

Specification of the Cavaillé-Coll Grand Organ at St. Ouen, Rouen.

II. Grand-Orgue I. Positif
Montre 16′ Montre 8′
Bourdon 16′ Bourdon 8′
Violon-basse 16′ Gambe 8′
Montre 8′ Unda maris 8′
Diapason 8′ Dulciane 4′
Bourdon 8′ Flûte douce 4′
Flûte harmonique 8′ Doublette 2′
Salicional 8′ Plein-Jeu V
Prestant 4′ Cor anglais 16′
Trompette en chamade 8′ Trompette 8′
Clairon en chamade 4′ Cromorne 8′
Clairon 4′
III. Récit
(expressif / enclosed)
IV. Bombarde
Quintaton 16′ Grosse Flûte 8′
Corno dolce 16′ Flûte 4′
Diapason 8′ Doublette 2′
Cor de nuit 8′ Fourniture V
Flûte traversière 8′ Cornet 16′ (c1) V
Viole de gambe 8′ Bombarde 16′
Voix céleste 8′ Contre-Basson 16′
Voix éolienne 8′ Trompette 8′
Flûte octaviante 4′ Clairon 4′
Viole d’amour 4′
Quinte 2 2/3′
Octavin 2′
Carillon I-III
Cornet (c1) V
Tuba Magna 16′
Trompette harmonique 8′
Clarinette 8′
Basson-Hautbois 8′
Voix humaine 8′
Clairon harmonique 4′
Soubasse 32′
Contre-basse 16′
Soubasse 16′
Basse 8′
Violoncelle 8′
Bourdon 8′
Flûte 4′
Contre-bombarde 32′
Bombarde 16′
Basson 16′
Trompette 8′
Clairon 4′

Couplers: Tirasse G.O., Tirasse Pos., Tirasse Réc., Appel G.O., Pos./G.O., Réc./G.O., Bomb./G.O., Pos./Réc., Bomb./Réc., Oct. gr. G.O., Oct. gr. Réc./G.O., Oct. gr. Réc., Oct. aiguë Réc., Anches Péd., Anches G.O., Anches Pos., Anches Réc., Anches Bomb., Trémolo Réc., Expression Réc., Orage


This is one of my most favorite organ pieces in all of organ literature! It is Allegro, the opening movement to the sixth organ symphony by Charles-Marie Widor.

Michel Chapuis improvises on the choral “Valet will ich dir geben” –  Recognize the tune?

Michel Chapuis improvises on the choral “Vater unser im Himmelreich” – You may or may not recognize the tune…

Sarah Soularue plays the Final of Louis Vierne’s Symphony No. 3

Carillon-Sortie by Henri Mulet (1878-1967) performed by Andreas Meisner.

Pierre Labric plays “Funérailles” by Franz Liszt (transcribed for organ by Jeanne Demessieux).

Hymne a Victor Hugo by Saint-Saëns (transcribed by Alexander Guilmant) performed by Gerard Brooks.

Otto M. Krämer improvises – Evocation

*All pictures containing the organ were taken by user zigazou76 from flickr.com and were used with permission.