Photo: Jeroen de Haan
The Saint-Denis cathedral was the centre of innovation
at two moments in history:
(1) in 1140, Abbot Suger started the work of enlarging
the basilica, the result being often cited as the first
example of Gothic Architecture.
(2) in 1841 a new organ was inaugurated, built by a
young organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899),
on one hand still standing in the tradition of the organs
built in the past centuries by the Thierrys and the
Cliquots, on the other hand adding several revolutionary
and outstanding innovations which would form the
basis for the French symphonic organs which would
dominate the second half of the 19th century.
On the remains of a Gallo-Roman cemetery, a first
church was built in 475 by St. Genevieve and a
second, greater, one in the 7th century by Dagobert I.
In the 12th century the Abbot Suger rebuilt the abbey
church using innovative structural and decorative
features that were drawn from a number of other
places. He created thus the first truly Gothic building
In 1836, architect François Debret designed a new
organ case replacing an old organ which did not
survive the revolution. A competition was held to
select the builer and several well-known organ
builders (Erard, Abbey, Dallery and Callinet)
submitted a design for the new organ. A few days
before the competition was closed, a young organ
builder from southern France arrived in Paris:
Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (aged 24 years). He was
informed about the competition, went directly to St.
Denis, worked for two days continuously on a plan
and submitted a superior and innovative design. He
won the competition, which can be seen as the birth
of the french symphonic organ tradition.
The organ was inaugurated in 1841, with several
- the swell box operated by a spring-loaded (later
- new stops imitating orchestral instruments (basson,
hautbois, clarinet) and the harmonic flute
- windchests divided into sections with different wind
pressures for fonds and reeds and introducing a
pedal to add or cancel all the reed stops of a manual
- use of many 8' stops (fonds)
- the Barker pneumatic lever machine to couple all
the manuals together and play without too much
All these innovations allowed a seamless crescendo
from pianissimo to fortissimo, which was not
On the other hand, this organ was still very 'classic',
with a full 32' grand plein jeu, the second manual for
the Great Organ and a classical 'French' pedal with a
'ravallement' from F and a small swell.
In 1901, Charles Mutin carried out restoration works
and the number of stops was increased to 69, the
pedal was extended to C-c' (the c#' till f' are mute
and speak only when coupled).
In 1983-1987 the organ was restorated by
Danion/Dargassies (mechanical part) and
Boisseau/Cattiaux (harmony and voicing). The stops
added by Mutin were removed.
Famous organists in the past:
Pierre Pincemaille (died on January, 12, 2018)
Masses with organ
Saturday 6.30 PM, Sunday 11.15 AM
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