After The Flames, Notre Dame's Centuries-Old Organ May Never Be The Same Again

Apr 21, 2019
Originally published on April 22, 2019 11:46 am

Olivier Latry, one of the chief organists at Notre Dame Cathedral, was the last artist to record on the famous instrument before the catastrophic fire on April 15 that damaged the church and caused its spire to collapse. This pipe organ is the largest in France and dates back centuries. Though it was spared from the flames, it will still require extensive renovation.

Latry has been a chief organist at Notre Dame since 1985, and he played the organ to record his album, Bach to the Future, over the course of several late nights this past January, when the church was free of tourists and worshippers. On the day of the fire, Latry recalls getting SMS messages from friends that Notre Dame was burning and not believing it. For Latry, the shock still hasn't completely set in.

"We were just terrified, absolutely terrified," he says. "This is probably the most famous organ in the world."

Olivier Latry has been a chief organist at Notre Dame since 1985.
Jean-Francois Badias / Courtesy of the artist

The current instrument was built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll during the 19th century, and some pipes, from previous organs, date back centuries. Latry says the organ pipes themselves — some 8,000 of them — were not severely damaged. The main issues may be fixing the water damage to the organ's wind chest from when firefighters put out the blaze.

"It's the box where it provides air on the pipes," he says. "So we have to check all of those things. And, of course, the electric system. ... The organ has an electric system, which was installed in the last restoration, and as you know, electricity and water doesn't work together."

The staff members of Notre Dame are still figuring out how they will make these repairs. They may have to take apart the organ — that's normally done by hoisting it up on a pulley attached to the roof, which is now gone.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

You're listening to the last professional recording of the organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris before Monday's catastrophic fire. Olivier Latry, one of the chief organists at the cathedral, recorded his album "Bach To The Future" over the course of several late nights in January, while the church was free of tourists and worshippers. The organ is the largest in France and dates back centuries. Miraculously, it was spared the flames but will still require extensive renovation. Monsieur Latry joins me now.

Welcome to the program.

OLIVIER LATRY: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: First, I'm so sorry. This must be a terrible moment.

LATRY: Yeah. It's a terrible moment, of course. And I would say that it's quite something to hear this chorale that you choose for that because, in fact, I recorded that on my last CD last January. But I also played that last Sunday during the offertory of the last mass, which is one of the last piece which was played on the organ.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have been one of the chief organists at Notre Dame since 1985, when you were just 23 years old.

LATRY: Right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was your reaction when you heard about the fire?

LATRY: Of course, I thought it was a - not a joke, but it was not true. I received a SMS from a friend, saying Notre Dame is burning. I said, well, it's not - it's a joke - with a picture and then five minutes later, another picture. And then the fire was extending. And I thought, well, of course, with that kind of roof, it can go very, very fast. So we were just terrified - absolutely terrified.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Describe the organ for us. What makes it special?

LATRY: Yeah. This is the - probably the most famous organ of the world. The organ was built by Cavaille-Coll especially on the 19th century. Now, Cavaille-Coll kept a lot of material from - previous organ builders worked on this instrument. And all the organ builders worked on this instrument always kept what was the best of the previous instruments.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, so there's been an organ there since 1402. And what you're saying is...

LATRY: Right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...That the current organ was just sort of - taken previous organs, and they sort of built this instrument over time from all these other organs.

LATRY: Yes, right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to play some more music that you recorded on the instrument. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLIVIER LATRY PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "FUGE G-MOLL, BWV 578")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is, of course, very famous music by Bach. And I heard that it's actually unusual to hear Bach on this instrument because of the sound of the cathedral. Why is that?

LATRY: The sound of the cathedral because of the reverberation, especially because we have seven seconds of reverberation that you can clearly hear in this piece especially, especially the music by Bach, which is polyphonic. We need to hear all the voices, and...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's very intricate.

LATRY: I had to choose the right pieces to play at Notre Dame for that because not all of the music by Bach can be played and heard downstairs really clearly. So I chose pieces which work perfectly with the organ.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLIVIER LATRY PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "PASSACAILLE UND FUGE C-MOLL, BWV 582")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have you heard what's next in the renovation process? - because this organ has some 8,000 pipes.

LATRY: Exactly, but the pipes can be removed. It's not the main problem. It's just probably what we call the windchest. You see the box where the air - provide the air on the pipes. So we have to take all of those things, and also, of course, the electric system because the organ has an electronic system which was installed on the last restoration. And as you know, electricity and water doesn't work together. And the firemen just use the water to try to avoid the fire.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Once they're able to access the organ, just to remove all those pipes and take it out must be an incredible process.

LATRY: Yes. And the problem is that we have to install special equipment if we have to remove, for example, the organ - some parts of the organ, usually when we do that, we have a system which is hang to the roof of the cathedral to carry all the big elements of the organ.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you have to use, like, a pulley attached to the roof. And, of course, the roof is gone.

LATRY: Yes, exactly. So how we will do - we don't know yet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Today is Easter Sunday. Do you have a message for Parisians mourning after this heartbreaking fire?

LATRY: Well, it is said in the gospel that if the temple will be destroyed, then Jesus will rebuild it in three days. So the cathedral is destroyed on some ways. It will take more than three days, but we have to hope that it won't last too long.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Olivier Latry, one of the chief organists at Notre Dame Cathedral, thank you very much.

LATRY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLIVIER LATRY PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "CHORAL HERZLICH TUT MICH VERLANGEN, BWV 727") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.