I first heard the great organ high in the west gallery of Notre Dame in 1963, as a student on a junior year in France. But earlier I had heard one of its most famous organists, Pierre Cochereau, play at All Saints Church in Worcester, Mass., on one of the 25 concert tours he made to the United States during his nearly 30 years as the cathedral's principal organist. The instrument, with 7,800 pipes, had survived two world wars, including a couple of bombs that hit the cathedral during the first.
As I write, it is not yet clear whether it survived Monday's conflagration or was catastrophically damaged or destroyed. Played on five keyboards and pedals, it is a symphonic organ, in tone and volume as majestic and powerful as the beloved building that has housed it since the great French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll completed work on it in 1868. It would have been notable anywhere, but in Notre Dame, it became an icon of the French organ culture.
I have played the organ as an avocation all my life, but Notre Dame loomed large from the beginning. My teacher at All Saints, Henry Hokans, had studied with Cochereau in Paris and had told me how inspiring the cathedral, the organ and its "Titulaire" — Cochereau — had been. When, later, I got to Notre Dame myself and heard Cochereau play the final chord at the end of a postlude to Mass, I was stunned — awed — as waves of reverberation continued to wash through the nave even after his fingers left the keyboard.
Many great musicians have presided over the Notre Dame organ over the years. Louis Vierne, who became organist there in 1900, left behind six great symphonies and other works that are still played all over the world. William Self, another American organist who went to Paris to study, wrote of being with Vierne in the balcony as he played:
"When Vierne unloosed the crashing chords that completely filled this great space, the immensity of sound produced a sudden chilling effect. Then when he used the lovely, soft stops and those of color, the response was a deep, inward moving of the heart."
Vierne, born blind, recovered some sight as a boy but suffered from poor health much of his life. At one point, during World War I, he asked his colleague Marcel Dupré to substitute for him at Notre Dame. Vierne returned in 1920 and played until 1937.
On the evening of June 2 that year, Vierne performed in a recital. All went well until the time came for him to improvise a piece on a theme submitted to him on a piece of paper. The organist Michael Murray describes it this way in his book "French Masters of the Organ": "Having reflected a moment and drawn some stops, Vierne slumped toward the keyboards, his hand clutching his chest, and fell from the bench, hitting a pedal note that reverberated down the nave. In the throes of a heart attack, he began to lose consciousness before the echo faded away. He died a few minutes later."
Notre Dame had organs before Cavaillé-Coll, who in the 19th century built on the one that had last been extensively revised by François-Henri Clicquot 100 years before him. Until the early 20th century, the organ was almost completely mechanical in construction — the keys and pedals connected directly with "trackers" to the valves that let air into the pipes to make them speak, with some assistance from air-pressurized levers powered, as the windchests under the pipes were, by assistants using foot pumps.
Over the years, various changes were made. Electric action was installed in the 1960s to replace the trackers, but it needed repair in the 1980s, and in 1992, with great fanfare, computer technology was installed, at a cost of $2.2 million. The digital system was designed to play back whole compositions for the performer, and even to produce scores from improvisations.
"The technology worked on and off for a while after the dedication, but never completely reliably," Jean-Pierre Leguay, one of the cathedral's organists, told me in 1995, when I was Paris bureau chief of the New York Times. "It broke down in the middle of a concert," he said then, "and we stopped using the organ at all for a while."
The team of organ builders who had installed computers and microprocessors to interpret the data from sensors under the keys and transmit instructions to the valves in the windchests went back to work.
In January 1996, I was in the cathedral again, this time for the funeral of President François Mitterrand. People filled the cathedral, among them 60 world leaders, including Fidel Castro in civilian clothes. The organ was up to a thundering improvised "Sortie" postlude by Leguay that whisked them all out to a reception by Mitterrand's successor, Jacques Chirac, after the Mass.
Edward J. Tipton, who was organist at the (Episcopal) American Cathedral in Paris for years, remembers a recital he gave at Notre Dame in 2005 as "an experience I will never, ever, forget. What has happened completely breaks my heart." He said he would try to organize benefits from recitals by American organists if a replacement of the Notre Dame organ is required, and he plans a trip to Paris at the end of the month because, as he put it sadly, "Notre Dame is a pinnacle for us."
Whitney, a former Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, is an amateur organist. This column first appeared in the Washington Post.