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They spoke about it
Robert Richard organ of the Quebec City Cathedral, 1753/1759–2009
It is September 1759: the height of the Seven Years’ War. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham, which pits generals Wolfe and Montcalm against each other, is the culmination of a series of events that commence with a naval blockade starting in June and conclude with the surrender of Quebec City by summer’s end. The blockade’s numerous bombardments wipe out a good many of the city’s buildings, notably the cathedral on July 22. In the respectably large cathedral—only just smaller than the current one—sounds an organ that is barely six years old. Or sounded, rather, since the instrument naturally cannot withstand the barrage.
This backdrop in place, it is with great pleasure that I speak of the rebirth of this organ, originally commissioned from Robert Richard in 1753. What follows echoes an article written by Élisabeth Gallat-Morin and Antoine Bouchard published in the magazine L’orgue Francophone in 2007. The reason we revisit this story today is simply that what was at the time presented as a process operating on several levels—historical, research, heritage, pedagogical, musical performance—became, in October 2009, a tangible reality.
The idea of rebuilding, as faithfully as possible but not slavishly so, the instrument that sounded in the Quebec City Cathedral up until the conquest, was first presented in 1998 by Kenneth Gilbert, organist and harpsichordist and former professor at Université Laval. That year, he created a group of organists and organ lovers called the “Comité pour la reconstruction de l’Orgue Richard (1753) de la cathédrale de Québec.” Aside from the aforementioned Father Bouchard and Madam Gallat-Moran, other notable members of this assembly were the professor and dean Hubert Laforge, a symbolic figure in Quebec City’s early music community and a key player in the project; and Benjamin Waterhouse, organist at Quebec City’s Anglican cathedral and principal organist of the historic England and Son organ (1790). It was after witnessing the recent reconstruction of several prestigious instruments, among them the organs at the Versailles royal chapel (Clicquot/Cattiaux) and Auch cathedral (Jean de Joyeuse/Muno), that the idea for the initiative came to Gilbert, albeit on a smaller scale. Thus in the fall of 1998, an unstoppable wheel began to turn, starting with the simple expression of a wonderful idea and stopping only with delivery of the finished instrument in 2009, to the delight of its sponsors, exactly 250 years after its destruction.
It is perhaps unnecessary to describe in detail the great efforts that went into funding this unique and unifying project. Suffice it to say that in 2003, nothing significant had been raised; yet five years later, the funds necessary to realize this ambitious dream were turned over to the Musée de l’Amérique française, which was to house and own the instrument. The time to contact an instrument maker had come.
It may not be particularly exceptional, but the fact nevertheless remains that the feverish research carried out early on in the project in various archives, in both Quebec City and Paris, produced a great deal of information about the commissioning of this Robert Richard organ by the Quebec City cathedral.
Quebec City’s sixth bishop, Monseigneur Pontbriand, was responsible for commissioning the organ; however, the intermediary between Quebec City and Paris was a church canon named de La Corne. Research done by the late Pierre Hardouin (who died 2008) at the Archives nationales in Paris turned up a contract dated March 10, 1753 engaging a Parisian instrument maker (“maître feseur d’instruments de musique à Paris”) to design an organ intended for New France. While he does not appear to have built large instruments, Richard had a good reputation. Canon de La Corne wrote: “You will be pleased, he is the most capable worker in Paris, a famous mechanic and a man of integrity…” (at the time, a “mechanic” was almost the equivalent of a modern-day engineer). While he himself did not know much about organs, he readily turned to those more competent than himself in the matter: organists, and in particular to one named Landrin, one of the king’s organists at Versailles. The timeframe was exceptionally short; in Canon de La Corne’s words, “I hope, messieurs, that you will be pleased. It is new and well-packed; it was made before my eyes and nothing was spared; for nearly two months, ten or twelve workers toiled, never leaving for a moment…” Approved by an organist of the king of Poland exiled to France, the instrument would travel primarily by water. The canon also wrote, “I plan to send it through Rouen, it will cost much less to send it to La Rochelle by water than overland…” Amazingly, by October of that same year, the organ was ready to play.
The instrument and its maker
When our 21st-century canons selected the organ builder Juget-Sinclair to recreate the Richard organ (with the greatest respect, it goes without saying!), they certainly made the right decision, even in terms of scale within the craft itself. Juget-Sinclair makes high-quality instruments of modest dimensions; and in fact, Robert Richard was also known for his small- and medium-scale productions. Based on the significant documentation at his disposal, Denis Juget went into the field with a thick notebook to explore and measure instruments in Vicdessos (09), Louvie-Juzon (64), Houdan (78). And Dom Bedos, it goes without saying. He looked everywhere, seeking out different stop mechanisms, valve openings, recording manual heights, etc. The instrument that he would build with his colleagues would be original yet inspired by many authentic details. While there was consensus on their eventual interpretation, that does not mean there were not any questions. For example, one topic of discussion was the instrument’s façade, upon which the original contract is silent. One thing the young makers kept in mind was Canon de La Corne’s statement that “our pipes will be large and strong,” so he was obviously aware that the organ had to fill a large space, even if it was thought of as the positive of a larger organ (which, unfortunately, would never be built). Indeed, as Denis Juget interestingly points out, in order to avoid being overly influenced by size, in Houdan he only played the positive, something which he found completely satisfying. I myself did the same thing at Montréal’s Grand Séminare, playing the positive alone for a good long while. The experience was conclusive! One of the guiding principles of the project, something that would in some sense determine the final product, was to design the positive of a larger organ, just as the canon in charge of the matter in Paris mentions in one of his letters. In reference to the new organ, he wrote: “what I will send you will be the positive without anything added or changed, and we will have an organ similar to that of St-Eustache, St-Médéric…which are the most beautiful in Paris…” It makes me wonder just what we lost. Of course there were animated discussions about temperament. Many opinions were solicited—Chapuis, Bouchard, Gilbert—and it was the latter’s who prevailed. The organ is thus tuned in a meantone with eight pure major thirds at a pitch of 392 Hz.
The instrument’s air supply comes in the form of two wedge-shaped bellows, placed on the side such that the bellows operator remains in sight of the organist. However, an automatic blower was also included, giving the instrument a great deal of flexibility.
The stop list is as follows: Montre 4’*, Bourdon 8’*, Doublette 2’*, Fourniture III, Cymbale III, Flûte à cheminée 4’*, Nazard 2 2/3’*, Tierce 1 3/5’*, Trompette 8’*, Cromorne 8’*.
*Indicates stops split between C’’ and C-sharp’’. The organ also has a tremblant doux and a tremblant fort. The permanent pedal coupler has 25 notes, and the range of the manuals is 52 notes, from C-D to e’’’ (hence lacking a low C-sharp).
The contented visitor
Installed in the right-hand gallery near the choir, the case, which was not described in any of the available documentation, is tall with a significant, even disproportionate, base, though accented with a simple and elegant moulding. Above this rises the main part of the case, with a façade made up of two flat faces framed by three turrets and supported by ornate corbels. The manual and stop knobs are located behind the instrument, as is often the case with this type of instrument. Great attention was paid to the stop list and voicing. This is a typical French organ: elegant, lively, at times rich and powerful. The ten stops and manual division provide a wide range of options. It has both grand and petit plein-jeu mixtures, along with a grand-jeu (a letter from Canon de La Corne to one Mr. de Tonnancour mentions that “this trumpet will make as much noise as the rest of the organ combined,” a detail that was noted for the reproduction), along with fond d’orgue and flute ranks. The bass and treble récit divisions required some creativity: transposition, displacement by an octave, inversion of voices, etc.—a minor constraint when compared to the satisfaction of the final result, and to the amount of Spanish repertoire that requires this disposition. The extremely light touch of the manual demands a high degree of control on the part of the performer, and the set up of the manual, bench and pedal board forces the arms a little lower than the norms of conventional technique. All in all, a very fine job indeed.
The instrument’s inaugural concert was given by Michel Bouvard, principal organist at St-Sernin de Toulouse and professor at CNSM in Paris. In December, Benjamin Waterhouse, an eminent Quebec City organist and committee member, also gave a recital.
I would like to sincerely thank Élisabeth Gallat-Morin, Hubert Laforge, and Denis Juget, who made available to me not only their time but also any documentation I desired, including their own publications, so I could write these few lines.
© Yves G. Préfontaine
Translation: Peter Christensen