A brief history

Originally built in 1470, under the reign of Louis XI, the great organ of Reims Cathedral was completely rebuilt after the cathedral burned down in 1481.

It was then enlarged over the centuries and completely redesigned by John Abbey in 1849.

Victor Gonzalez completely rebuilt the organ in 1938, after the damage caused by the First World War and the bombing of the cathedral in 1914.

He reused many elements, notably pipes and wind chests, and considerably enlarged the instrument from 3 to 4 manuals, and from 53 to 87 stops.

The great organ of Reims Cathedral, with 6742 pipes, was then the 4th largest organ in France, and the largest instrument in provincial France.

The location of the organ

The cathedral’s organ was installed in 1470 in the north transept, close to the choir, which remains a relatively rare location.

It accompanied the clergy’s entry into the cathedral from the ecclesiastical buildings and the cloister, which were in the immediate vicinity of the building, on the north side.

In Reims Cathedral, it was impossible to place the organ on the reverse side of the main façade, at the back of the nave. The instrument would then have hidden the rose windows and the magnificent sculptures.

Some examples of other locations

The most common location for an organ in a cathedral is on the reverse side of the main façade, as here in Laon Cathedral (top left).

Some organs, such as the one in Chartres Cathedral (top right), can be built in a « swallow’s nest », directly on one of the walls of the nave.

The organ in Bourgogne (bottom left), near Reims, is in the north transept, but installed on the floor, without a gallery.

The organ in Arques-la-Bataille (bottom right), in Seine-Maritime, was installed on the rood screen that closes the entrance to the choir.

The organ case

The monumental organ case of Rheims Cathedral owes its dimensions to the original 1470 instrument.

All the sculptures date from 1647. They were placed on the original 1470 case, which can still be seen from the back.

The large case, in the background, contains the pipes of the 1st, 3rd and 4th manuals, as well as those of the Pedal.

The small case, in the foreground, houses the Positif de dos, whose pipes are played on the 2nd manual.

The various turrets, the largest of which is in the centre of the large case, alternate with the fronts.

The Positif case

In 1571, the Positif de dos was completely rebuilt by Denys Collet, who replaced the original cabinet built in 1470.

This cabinet contained 7 stops and was powered by 3 bellows.

It is largely this cabinet that can still be seen today, although it was revised in 1647 and then extensively enlarged in 1849 by John Abbey.

The statue of Christ

The huge statue of Christ in majesty stands at the centre of the instrument, high up in the central turret of the large case.

In the setting sun, the rose in the north transept provides a wonderful and colourful reflection on the stone around the window.

Angels and Atlantes

Several imposing statues adorn the 1647 buffet.

Two atlantes with angel wings support the side turrets of the main case, while two music playing angels sit at the top of the organ on either side of the central statue of Christ.

Grandstand and balustrade

The organ loft and the balustrade of the Reims cathedral organ date back to the original organ of 1470.

Richly carved in oak, they are the traces of the stunning beauty of the instrument that was installed in the 15th century in the cathedral of the coronations.

The 15th century remains

The drawing made by Jacques Cellier (picture on the left) in 1585 shows the organ in its original state of 1470, to which the Positif de dos was added in 1571.

Many elements are still present today: the gallery and the railing.

The instrument then retained its general dimensions, the present case having been placed in 1647 on top of the old 15th-century case.

Remnants of this organ are still visible inside the case, such as the grills of the underframe, which were covered by the Louis XIII style case in 1647 (pictures on the right).

The console

The console of the organ is the organist’s real control post. It is located in a narrow passage between the two cases of the instrument.

It is called a « window », meaning that the organist is facing his instrument, not the cathedral choir.

He thus has at his disposal :
– 4 keyboards, which allow him to play 4 distinct sound levels (Grand-Orgue, Positif, Récit and Écho) ;
– a pedalboard, on the floor;
– a pedalboard on the floor;
– stop bars on the left and right of the keyboards;
– a number of accessories to assist in the handling of the instrument (dominoes above the keyboards, mushrooms above the pedalboard);
– a touch screen computer.

The pedal board

The pedalboard is a large keyboard, with wider dimensions, placed on the floor of the console and which the musician plays with his feet.

It is usually used to play the bass part of a piece, corresponding to the lowest sounds.

The « mushrooms », located above the pedalboard, offer the organist the possibility of activating combinations of stops, i.e. sound mixes, that he has programmed in advance.

The registers

The « register pulls », or stops, placed on the console on either side of the keyboards, enable the organist to select the sounds he wants to play, or to juxtapose them with one another.

A computer, whose screen enables him to check the data while playing, allows him to memorize mixtures that he has established in advance, but also to access functions such as a transposer, or even, in certain exceptional cases, a recording system that allows the organ to replay by itself what has been previously interpreted by the organist.

The wind

The wind, which is used to make the pipes sing, is produced by an electric turbine (bottom left) located under the organ loft.

The wind is then transported throughout the instrument by means of various « wind carriers » (bottom right), which are pipes, made of wood or cardboard, that supply the various wind chests of the organ.

The « postages » (top), of smaller dimensions, supply wind directly from the main wind chest to certain remote pipes.

Wind transport

The wind is stored in a huge reservoir, equipped with a spring-based mechanism, which allows it to be given the necessary and constant pressure to make the pipes sing.

Two wind carriers, here made of wood (left) or cardboard (bottom right), carry the wind from the main reservoir to the various wind chests of the organ.

The pipework of the Great Organ

The wind chest of the Great Organ is the set of pipes that the organist uses to play the first manual of the instrument.

It is located in the large case, in the centre of the instrument.

Those pipes are arranged according to two characteristics:
– the smaller ones, on the left, make the high notes speak, while the larger ones, on the right, make the lower notes sing;
– each row of pipes of the same shape corresponds to a stop, i.e. a very specific sound.

A stop is a series of 61 pipes, from the largest to the smallest, corresponding to the 61 keys of the keyboard.

The big flute of the Great Organ

When the organist draws a stop (also called a register), as in this case with the 8′ flute of the Great Organ (the name given to the first manual), he selects a row of pipes on the wind chest of the organ.

Only this stop can then sing in the cathedral.

Thus, to make one of the 6742 pipes of the organ speak, you must :
-nselect a stop on the console, by means of a drawbar;
– play a note on the keyboard.

The Positif pipework

The wind chest of the Positif is located in the small case of the organ, called « back positive ».

The short distance between  the pipes and the listener means that this layer is usually given a leading role, like a soloist in front of the orchestra.

All these pipes are played with the second keyboard of the instrument.

The right material for every pipe

Organ pipes can be made of different materials.

Some are made of copper (picture on the left).

Others can be made of wood, with a square cross-section (top right).

Most frequently they are made of metal, in an alloy of lead and tin (bottom right).

The right shape for every pipe

The material used, and the shape of the pipe as well, will affect its timbre, i.e. its sound characteristics.

For example, some pipes may be open at the top, while others may be plugged at the top.

The « chamade » trumpet pipes (bottom left) are placed horizontally on the roof of the organ to give even more power and strength to these brilliant sounds.

The length of each pipe

The material used, and the shape of the pipe as well, will affect its timbre, i.e. its sound characteristics.

For example, some pipes may be open at the top, while others may be plugged at the top.

The « chamade » trumpet pipes (bottom left) are placed horizontally on the roof of the organ to give even more power and strength to these brilliant sounds.

The organ as a cultural instrument

Many cultural projects are attached to the great organ of Reims Cathedral:
– concerts, as a soloist or with other musicians (choir, brass, orchestra…) ;
visits ; school presentations, field trips
– recordings ;
– exams and auditions for students of the Reims Conservatory.

The public gathers in the transepts of the cathedral, in the choir or in the cardinal’s chapel, behind the high altar, to benefit from the generous acoustics of the building.

After the restoration work, the organ of Reims Cathedral will be equipped with a second, mobile console, placed in the choir, which will enable the musician to play close to the public, especially during concerts.

The organ, an instrument of worship

The great organ is one of the major players in the liturgical life of our cathedral.

It accompanies Sunday masses, but also the great pontifical ceremonies, such as the episcopal ordination of Mgr Bruno Feillet, auxiliary bishop of Reims, on September 22, 2013.

The location of the organ, in the north transept, provides an unrestricted view of the sanctuary, the choir and the south transept.