〜Cavaille-Coll (Part II)
Last time, we prepared to explore the organs of the 19th century master builder, Aristide Cavaille-Coll, by looking back and listening to French organs of the 17th and 18th century. You may recall from the previous article that Cavaille-Coll altered the development of the organ so profoundly that his innovations redirected the very path of organ design. Today then, we will consider how Cavaille-Coll used what he learned from his native country’s tradition to create a new tradition; one that not only replaced the Classical organ, but also impacted organists and builders the world over.
As mentioned before, Aristide was born at a time of great social and political innovation in France. His life also spanned a period of great technological change. The world of manufacturing, so familiar to us today, was rapidly spreading across Europe throughout the 19th century. At the same time, the steam locomotive revolutionized travel and transport. Such changes would eventually begin to impact traditional forms of craftsmanship, including some of the processes essential to organbuilding, such as wood and metal working. But those changes were far enough off during his lifetime that, rather than be hindered by the advent of technologies and mass manufacturing, Cavaille-Coll found creative ways to incorporate them into his own work.
The Cavaille-Coll family represented a tradition of craftsmanship, with Aristide’s grandfather, father and older brother all working as organ builders. At the time of Aristide’s birth in 1811, organ building throughout Europe still showed little evidence of a transition away from Classical ideals. For instance, the organs that Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) knew throughout the German states largely retained choruses of principles and flutes in each manual division, while those he played in England were still mostly tuned in Meantone temperament. For that matter, organs throughout Italy, Spain and Portugal were still built according to rather old-fashioned ideals, despite upheavals of compositional style. Similarly, French organs of this period continued to expand upon the Classical instruments of the 18th century with little innovation in their specifications, winding or mechanism.
Perhaps the most notable direction in early 19th century French building was the
continuation of the previous century’s penchant for reduplicated reeds. You may recall from the previous article that batteries of Trompettes, Clarions and Bombardes became increasingly standard fare for French organs, leading right up to, and beyond, the Revolution. This predilection for powerful reeds suited not only the contemporary sensibilities of grandeur, but also the need to fill cavernous churches with sound. This was a trend that Cavaille-Coll would later exploit to its logical and extreme conclusion.
When people think of Cavaille-Coll organs, often the first sound that comes to mind is the full principal chorus with reeds. You might recall that the plenum (principals and mixtures) could not be combined with the reed chorus (Trompettes and Clarion) in Classical French organs because of their voicing and wind supply. However, Cavaille-Coll found a way of both maintaining the brilliance of the reeds while simultaneously incorporating them into the Plein-Jeu. He overcame previous limitations by adopting a different style of voicing based on higher wind pressures. This rather ingenious solution would lead to all manner of experiments by later builders who wanted to place ranks and whole divisions of a single organ on highly different wind pressures. (To be continued.)