Newswise — Following the recent fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Lynne Davis, the Robert L. Town Distinguished Professor of Organ at Wichita State University, has written a reflective piece, “Fire: The Unthinkable.” Davis is familiar with the cathedral and the Great Organ and Choir Organ, having performed two concerts there.
Read her thoughts on the history and significance of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and its world-renowned Great Organ.
FIRE: The Unthinkable
by Lynne Davis
The 850-year-old Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is a vast symbol to many people. It is the beginning of music in our Western Civilization in the 11th Century with Leonin and Perotin. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Paris, one of the heads of the Catholic Church and the representative of the Pope. For so many around the world, it represents a spiritual high place as well as the repository of the true Gothic building tradition. This includes stained-glass windows, stone vaulting, flying buttresses, and until recently, an enormous wooden roof and frame covering all of the stone vaulting.
This frame high above the stone vaulting and the cathedral everyone sees when one enters is a maze of wooden beams cut from oak trees between 1220 and 1240. Most every beam was cut from a single tree, and because of its intricate look is called the “forest.” It was 100 meters long, 13 m wide in the nave, 40 meters wide in the transept and 10 m high.
Above this wooden frame was a roof made of lead weighing 210 tons. The cathedral being in the shape of a cross, there was a spire or wooden needle above the crossing of the transept and the nave. This spire was built in the 19th century by the famous Gothic revival architect, Viollet le Duc.
Extensive scaffolding was put in place recently around this crossing of the nave and transept to start restoration of the spire and structural elements that were showing signs of distress.
On Monday, April 15, the unthinkable happened. During the evening mass shortly after 6:15 p.m., the cathedrals fire alarms went off. Everyone was evacuated. What one saw on the outside was pure horror. A huge cloud of smoke and red flames were coming from this middle point.
Slowly, as the entire world watched, the fire spread to the roof over the choir and ambulatory and the nave. It looked like Dante’s inferno.
The spire with flames bursting upwards collapsed into the cathedral. Firefighters worked nine long hours to try and contain the fire and to prevent it spreading to the two towers on the west end.
The cathedral is also known for its world-renowned Great Organ and the Choir Organ. The news that the cathedral was burning impacted particularly the world of all musicians, especially that of organists.
My connection with Notre Dame goes back to when I made my first trip as a college student to Europe. As any tourist, we visited Notre Dame. After I went to France to study, Notre Dame was a frequent stop where we attended the weekly Sunday afternoon organ recitals, often perching ourselves on the steps of the alter in the crossing because the cathedral was filled to the brim.
Soon, I was able to go up to the organ loft, a high honor, and peer over the railing into the nave below. Then I played two concerts on this organ in the late 70s and early 80s.
We often would go up for the services to listen to the organists play, or sit in the side gallery on the same level as the organ. I was able to go up in the organ itself with the organ builder, Bertrand Cattiaux, in 2015 when he was restoring the enormous Cavaillé-Coll organ. I stood right in front of the Rose Window that is directly behind the organ pipes and looked out over the long nave. The pipes had not been put back in, so we had a free and unobstructed view.
With this tragic fire, miracles did occur. Seeing the fire from outside raging across the entire roof, we didn’t realize that it had not gone through the strong stone vaulting. The spire, of course, toppled and crashed through leaving indescribable rubble and debris with a gaping hole in the ceiling. But the Grand Orgue /Great Organ was relatively untouched. Located between the two towers over the Narthex, the top of it was protected by an enormous slab of stone. This allowed the streams of water directed onto the towers to stem the fire to slide off to each side. So the organ did not receive any fire. Only soot and possibly some debris in the pipes. The organ loft is still intact.
The danger comes from the walls of the nave and the vaulting collapsing under the weight of the charred, water-saturated timbers on the roof, and the heat that affects the stone. Not burning it, but making it more fragile. If the vaults collapse, the organ is lost.
The choir organ was drenched with water to save the 18th century choir stalls and the high altar. We don’t know if it can be restored. Some statues, such as Notre Dame on the right corner of the crossing and the choir survived intact when the debris from the spire fell only a few feet away!
In case of danger, the cathedral had a plan, put in place last year on the request of the Ministry of Culture, to save the relics and works of art in an established order. No one thought they would have to use it. Thus the Crown of Thorns and the tunic of St. Louis were saved. Although originally thought lost was the rooster weathervane which was atop the spire. The top portion of the spire toppled over to the side and not inside the cathedral like its base. The rooster was found by a man outside in the debris. It certainly is restorable, and the part which contained the relics – part of the crown of thorns and relics of St. Denis and Ste. Genevieve.
Today we are grieving and mourning for a part of us that has been destroyed. We are waiting for news about the viability of the entire structure of the cathedral. The great organ will either have to be dismantled entirely with its 8,000 pipes, console of five manuals and mechanisms, or be boxed up to keep it safe from the restoration that is promised. As a comparison, our great Marcussen organ here at Wichita State University in Wiedemann Hall has 4,623 pipes and four manual keyboards.
The builders of yesteryear were formidable in their craft. How did they manage to build something so strong that has withstood the centuries? With our technology, we will be able to rebuild. We will share their vision and faith.
The organs will sing out again, but it may not be in our lifetime. Cherishing our experiences in the past, we must look forward with hope and determination. My memories will remain intact, remembering so many organists and friends who walked up that winding staircase in the south tower, and going through a little door to the organ loft towering over the nave below, passing next to the historical console where Louis Vierne died in 1937 is in the side gallery, witness to another era.