Why we should champion Aristide Cavaillé-Coll
Thursday, June 2, 2011
For all the hundreds of glorious and seductive-sounding fiddles Antonio Stradivari and family knocked out, it was composers and composers alone who shaped the course of violin writing over the course of the late seventeenth century and beyond.
Which neatly illustrates how seriously we should view the career of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. It was he who kick-started the school of Romantic French organ composition in the 19th century that would produce such a wealth of masterpieces. Yes, he – not a composer, not a musician, but a Parisian engineer whose lurch into the musical world was prefaced by his patenting of the ‘flat bench circular saw’.
When Cavaillé-Coll really started to cut it in the organ world – his first instrument, in the Abbey of St Denis in northern Paris, was inaugurated in 1841 – composers started writing their music differently. There can be few more resounding endorsements of the art of engineering than that. Here was the Isambard Kingdom Brunel of late 19th-cenutry music; the organ world’s Chief Engineer.
You know when you’ve heard a Cavaillé-Coll organ, just as you know when you’ve eaten a properly dressed Salad Niçoise. The first thing to hit you is the breadth of the sound: a gentle nave-shaking vibration that feels like a tidal wind. Pressured wind powers all organs, but Cavaillé-Coll made it part of his sound; a strange, breathing humanity shot through the entire instrument’s register.
Then there’s the stops themselves – distinctive strings that have an alluring mysticism; forceful reeds that seem to protest as if wrongly imprisoned within the woodwork; the harnessing of them all with a seamless general crescendo (facilitated by the first use of the ‘Barker lever’) that builds rapidly to an overwhelmingly wide full organ sound.
But enough of that – I know from experience that organ-stop chat can send you clamouring for your tax return. So for the best endorsement of Cavaillé-Coll’s work, just listen to some of those composers whose music was steered by his machines. Guilmant, Widor and Tournemire, for example. The scale of some of their works is astounding in itself, but on a Cavaillé-Coll, you hear the music differently: textures shimmer, delight and chill; harmonies pierce and fight; low notes thunder; even Widor’s wonderful counter-melodies sound enlivened.
200 years after his birth, Cavaillé-Coll has champions, but he needs more of them. One of his only surviving UK organs was very nearly junked by an unsympathetic Warrington Borough Council a few years ago until a crescendo of disapproval granted the instrument a reprieve. Decades ago bureaucrats in Manchester approved a series of alterations to the Cavaillé-Coll in the city’s Town Hall; these days it can hardly be recognised as one of his instruments at all, and certainly doesn’t sound like one.
Which rather belatedly brings me round to what prompted this blog in the first place – an admirable project to make a film about Cavaillé-Coll and capture some of his best organs in action. Fugue State Films are ‘crowd-funding’ the documentary – which has yet to be shot – meaning anyone can help get the film made. If you can listen to Kare Nordstoga’s Simax recording of Widor’s Fifth Symphony played on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Caen and still not feel inspired to contribute, I’ll happily strap myself to a flat bench circular saw.