On April 15, 2019, a fire devastated the cherished landmark Notre-Dame de Paris, destroying two-thirds of the cathedral's roofing and toppling its steeple. We spoke with concert organist Nathan Laube about his experiences playing this cathedral's storied pipe organ.
Notre-Dame de Paris is a space — a part of our shared cultural heritage — that belongs to everybody – not only for Christians, but also for musicians, artists, poets, historians, lovers of beauty – everybody.
The reason the fire hits so hard for the arts community at large, and the organ community in particular, is that there are few spaces in the Western world that are as sacred, musically speaking. It was here that polyphony had its birth with Léonin and Pérotin, at the same time that those amazing vaults were being built. That tremendously important marriage of sound and space has continued from the 12th century to today.
Notre-Dame has also been the birthplace of great organ music. So much of our repertoire was composed by Louis Vierne for the cathedral’s great Aristide Cavaillé-Coll organ from 1868. Even before the 19th century, much of the important French Baroque music by composers like Louis-Claude D'Aquin and Claude Balbastre was composed at Notre-Dame.
The organ mirrors the entirety of music history. There are pipes preserved in that instrument from every period of its history back to the 15th century — every person who 'updated' the instrument recognized the quality of the material he inherited and preserved some part of the fabric of its sound.
I first got to know the famous organ when I was about 17 years old. Playing that organ was like an electric shock — I had never heard sounds that were so arresting, powerful, immediate, visceral. To fill that space with sound requires an organ of seemingly nuclear capacity. Yet it is an organ that astonishes not only with its power but also its poetry. Simply put, it is one of the most stunningly beautiful sounds on earth, with the vast nave of Notre-Dame as its "soundboard."
The hours and nights I spent in the organ loft preparing for a recital years later in July 2017 were some of the most precious I’ve ever experienced with an organ. I had the keys to the cathedral for two nights. From the amazing vantage point of the organ console, I watched the sunset in the giant clerestory windows above the altar. As you watch the sunset in those windows in the gigantic nave of the cathedral, it disappears into darkness before your eyes, and you see the sun reemerge again over the Seine in the morning — the windows again glisten like jewels. That is an experience you never forget.
If everyone in the world had that experience of watching something so beautiful, hearing those sounds intermingle with those stones, I think the world would be a different place. It’s beauty at an inexpressible level.
I was moved to tears when I learned that, by some miracle, the "voice of the Cathedral" was spared by the harrowing flames. We sometimes evoke the old proverb that "if walls could talk..." In these hallowed spaces, those stones are given a voice through those ancient pipes of metal and wood. They are pipes that witnessed and survived a terrifying Revolution, that celebrated the ends of the World Wars, and that joined in the singing of a defiant and unified "Marseillaise" after the Bataclan Massacre in November 2015. Long may those pipes ring out and give a voice to that wonder of the medieval age and our own!
Our hearts go out to the organists of Notre-Dame de Paris and its curators, who have spent their lives caring for and making the most beautiful music on its great organ for years: Olivier Latry, Philippe Lefebvre, Vincent Dubois, Johann Vexo, Yves Castagnet, and Bertrand Cattiaux.
Nathan Laube is the host of WFMT's All the Stops. On the four-part program, Nathan takes you around the world and performs the organ’s finest repertoire on magnificent instruments throughout Germany; France; Slovenia and Croatia; and the United States.