By Jonathan Gradin
Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, famous French organ builder, was born on February 4, 1811, in Montpellier, France. As a young lad, he and his family moved between France and Spain because of wars and the aftermath of the French Revolution; they finally settled in Toulouse, France in 1827. His father and uncle were organ builders; so, naturally young Aristide took up the art, quickly showing great mechanical talent and a sense of quality workmanship, as evidenced by his surviving organs today. This quality proved his financial undoing, as he would spend his own money to make an organ perfect. He moved to Paris in 1833, so as to be in a more practical position to build organs in the area.
Cavaillé-Coll's personal life was inseparable from his professional life. He married Miss Adele Blanc in 1854. This marriage, although romantic, had marked business advantages for him; his brother-in-law had access to administrative files and government contacts, which Cavaillé-Coll would use to obtain contracts for new organs.
Cavaillé-Coll had a total of six children, although two—Pierre and Isabelle—died in infancy; another—Joseph—died later as a child. His three remaining children, Cécile, Emmanuel and Gabriel, also formed a support network, as they were involved in all forms of culture.
His organ building business prospered from a renewed interest in the Catholic Church, which had become unpopular during the Revolution. Many of the historic pipe organs in the cathedrals had been desecrated as a result of the anti-catholic furor of the mobs; Cavaillé-Coll was there, willing to fill the gap with his new and improved organs.
Cavaillé-Coll pioneered many organ innovations, some of which he invented, others he perfected and/or made widespread use of.
One of his major innovations was the order of the manuals (keyboards), each of which has its own sets of pipes. Traditionally, the lowest manual was the Positif, consisting of softer stops, typically used for accompanying the choir. The second manual, traditionally, was the Grand Orgue; this was the powerful section of the organ. Cavaillé-Coll instead put the Grand Orgue as the lowest manual, setting up couplers allowing the whole organ to be played on it, if necessary; this allowed for more powerful crescendo and decrescendo effects.
Another Cavaillé-Coll innovation was the use of an expressive division, called the Recit (Swell on English and American organs). The Swell division was an English invention; the pipes were placed in a chamber with moving panel on the side that would open up to let the sound out. The early forms of this would only stay open as long as the foot was pushing the lever down; Cavaillé-Coll devised a balanced swell pedal, which is used in all modern organs. This pedal would keep the swell shades open at any position, thus freeing up the right foot to play more pedal notes.
He also devised a system of ventils, or shut-off valves, for certain sections of the organ. This allowed organists to set up stops beforehand, bringing them in at the appropriate time by means of little foot pedals. Organs in this period did not have combination actions, so the ability to preset stops was an unprecedented advantage. The division of the windchests1 for the ventil system also facilitated the use of different wind pressures for the various parts of the organ. This allowed the solo stops to be as loud as they should; also, the treble portions of the pipes could be set on increased pressure, allowing these pipes to be heard in a cathedral as well as the bass pipes.
His most important mechanical contribution to organ building was the widespread adoption of the Barker pneumatic lever. This, invented by Mr. Charles Barker of England in 1832, allowed large organs to be played without breaking a player's hand. Previously. The organist had to press against the wind pressure of all the pipes he was playing; the Barker lever eliminated this effort by using a pneumatic bellows to force the valves open, letting air into the pipes. Mr. Barker tried to sell his idea to other companies, but finally found the sympathetic ear of Cavaillé-Coll, who bought the patent rights to the technology, employing it in all his organs after that. Most of the other leading organ builders started using the Barker lever after Cavaillé-Coll's organs showed it to be superior to anything yet devised.
In addition to being a mechanical innovator, Cavaillé-Coll made many strides in founding the Romantic/Orchestral schools of tonal design, inventing a few new stops and improving on previous voicing techniques. He invented harmonic stops, most notably the Harmonic Flute. This was made twice the length of an ordinary pipe, but it has a hole drilled in the center of the length; this gives a very full, orchestral-like quality to the tone. Cavaillé-Coll also developed new orchestral reed stops, such as the Bassoon, Orchestral Oboe, and English Horn; these, along with his developments in the voicing of string-sounding pipes, facilitated the writing of orchestral transcriptions, as well as Widor's and Franck's organ works.
In summing up his contributions to the organ-building world, Charles-Marie Widor had this to say:
"It is he [Cavaillé-Coll] who conceived the diverse wind pressures, the divided windchests, the pedal systems and the combination registers, he who applied for the first time Barker's pneumatic motors, created the family of harmonic stops, reformed and perfected the mechanics to such a point that each pipe—low or high, loud or soft—instantly obeys the touch of the finger… From this result: the possibility of confining an entire division in a sonorous prison—opened or closed at will—the freedom of mixing timbres, the means of intensifying them or gradually tempering them, the freedom of tempos, the sureness of attacks, the balance of contrasts, and, finally, a whole blossoming of wonderful colors—a rich palette of the most diverse shades: harmonic flutes, gambas, bassoons, English horns, trumpets, celestes, flue stops and reed stops of a quality and variety unknown before.
Cavaillé-Coll built around 500 organs, some of which are still surviving today. There are at least 15 organs surviving in France, many of which have been modified. His largest, and most famous instrument is the 5-manual, 100-stop grand organ in the Church of Saint-Sulpice, in Paris; it is still in original condition. He also built the organ in Notre-Dame cathedral, although it has been extensively modified; the one in the Basilica of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse; in the church of St. Ouen in Rouen; and in the famous Eglise de la Madeleine.
He was not, however, limited to building organs in France; he also built several in England, of which only four are surviving today, including Manchester Town Hall and Saint Michael's Abbey in Farnborough. There are also many surviving in Spain; see the Wikipedia article—listed in the bibliography—for the complete list.
Some of these organs, such as that in Saint-Sulpice, can be heard on YouTube. I strongly urge you to check it out.
In 1890, Cavaillé-Coll, who had reached his zenith 20 years earlier, sold his company to his partner, Charles Mutin. He then retired in Paris as a parishioner of Saint-Sulpice, where he attended until his death in 1899.
Cavaillé-Coll's tonal developments helped increase the popularity of the pipe organ with the general public; this caused other builders such as E. M. Skinner, Henry Willis and others to push the development of the symphonic organ, which culminated in the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ in Philadelphia, the world's largest fully operable organ. None of the amazing orchestral transcriptions available now would have been possible without the foundation laid by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, one of the all-time greatest organ builders.
Copyright 2008 Jonathan Gradin
Audsley, George Ashdown. The Art of Organ-Building. Originally Copyright 1905. Dover Publications, 1965.
Aristide Cavaillé-Coll - His Origins and His Youth. http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/cavaille-coll/en/frames_acc_origines_jeunesse.html
Aristide Cavaillé-Coll – His Private Life. http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/cavaille-coll/en/frames_acc_vie_privee.html
Aristide Cavaillé-Coll – His Works. http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/cavaille-coll/en/frames_acc_oeuvres.html
Aristide Cavaillé-Coll – Wikipedia Article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristide_CavaillÃ©-Coll