Inside the Monumental Effort to Restore Notre-Dame’s Grand Organ

Workers spent four months painstakingly dismantling the musical instrument, which is only set to sound again in 2024

Notre-Dame's Grand Organ
Notre-Dame's Grand Organ, as seen before the April 2019 fire Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Twenty months after a devastating fire broke out at Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Paris church’s “voice”—otherwise known as its Grand Organ—is finally healing. This week, reports Anna Sansom for the Art Newspaper, workers finished disassembling portions of the Gothic landmark’s historic organ ahead of a major restoration project.

Though the April 2019 blaze left France’s largest musical instrument relatively unscathed, the organ—which features 8,000 pipes, 5 keyboards and 109 stops—is in urgent need of restoration to remove toxic lead dust and repair thermal damage caused by a summer 2019 heatwave, wrote Kim Willsher for the Guardian in August.

“I am delighted that the great organ’s removal has finished nearly two months ahead of time,” retired general Jean-Louis Georgelin, president of the French government agency responsible for the cathedral’s conservation and restoration, tells the Art Newspaper. “The great organ can now be cleaned and restored, before being returned to the cathedral to be gradually reassembled.”

Bertrand Cattiaux, the organ builder and restorer who has maintained the Grand Organ for more than 40 years, oversaw the four-month dismantling, according to Atlas Obscura’s Luna Shyr. Workers accessed the imposing organ via 98-foot-tall scaffolding installed this summer, removing its keyboards before preparing thousands of metal and wooden pipes—the longest of which is 32 feet long, and the shortest of which is half the length of a pencil—for transport to a nearby warehouse.

Other portions of the organ, such as the sideboard, a few bellows and multiple pipes, are too delicate or difficult to remove and will be cleaned at the cathedral, per the Art Newspaper. As Nadine Achoui-Lesage and Angela Charlton reported for the Associated Press in August, the entire process of dismantling, cleaning and reassembling the organ is expected to take four years to complete; once repairs are finished, experts will need at least six months just to tune the organ.

The instrument seen today dates mainly to the 1860s, when acclaimed organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll was commissioned to modernize and expand the church’s existing organ. Remnants of earlier iterations are visible today, most prominently in the organ’s 1730s facade. In the centuries since Cavaillé-Col’s additions, the instrument has undergone periodic renovations and improvements.

A look inside the restoration of Notre Dame cathedral

Speaking with Atlas Obscura, Cattiaux says, “An organ is always monumental.”

He adds, “It’s often in a church, so for people it represents moments of joy, of pain and of prayer; the music of the organ accompanies all these moments.”

The Grand Organ is no exception: Music lovers around the world gravitated to the instrument, and prior to the fire, anyone who wanted to play it could do so on Sunday afternoons. (Per the nonprofit organization Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris, the waiting list for these coveted jam sessions was about two to three years long.)

Notre-Dame’s acoustics aided the organ’s impressive sound, making its music ring across the cathedral.

“The higher you go, the fuller and rounder the sound is,” Vincent Dubois, one of the cathedral’s three organists, told Radio France Internationale’s Marie Casadebaig in August, per a translation by the Guardian. “It’s a sound that is extremely warm over the 120 timbers of the instrument. If you add to this the acoustics of the place, it gives a sound that is absolutely unusual, that exists nowhere else.”

Per the AP, the state agency managing Notre-Dame’s restoration says the organ should sound again on April 16, 2024—just over five years after the 2019 fire. It’s worth noting, however, that disagreements and distrust have clouded rebuilding efforts, placing restorers’ estimated timeline in question. In October, reports Sarah Cascone for artnet News, auditors found that the agency was illegally using about $5.8 million in donated funds to pay its 40-person staff, rent its building and cover other operational costs. (A law passed in July stipulates that donations must go directly toward reconstruction.)

Members of the restoration team have also voiced differing opinions on certain aspects of the project. Last year, Georgelin got into a public spat with the restoration’s chief architect, Philippe Villeneuve, over how the cathedral’s damaged spire should be rebuilt.

Despite the ongoing tensions, Cattiaux remains optimistic about the renovations.

“[T]he first time I went to see the organ” following the fire, he tells Atlas Obscura, “there were all these people working to preserve and save the cathedral. There was an extraordinary spirit, and this was energizing. That spirit is still there today.”

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