Notre Dame Cathedral Fire: The Historic Organ Survived

Notre Dame fire

Getty Smoke billows as flames destroy the roof of the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019

Catholics around the world watched in disbelief as the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral burns in Paris. The fire sparked April 15, 2019, around 6:30 p.m. local time and raged for hours.

One of the items inside the cathedral that onlookers worried about was the historic organ. Officials confirmed to the Associated Press that the instrument appears to have survived the devastation. But the level of damage, due to the intense heat inside the cathedral, needed to be evaluated. Organ builder Bertrand Cattiaux told the New York Times that damaged portions of the organ appeared restorable and that none of the pipes had collapsed.

The exact cause of the fire remained unclear hours after the fire had been doused, but early reports suggested that renovation work may have been a factor. The fire began in the cathedral’s attic and appears to have been an accident; officials have said there is no evidence of arson. The nearly 300-foot tall spire at the top of the cathedral collapsed and a majority of the roof caved in. Officials say the towers are safe and responders managed to recover priceless relics such as the crown of thorns and religious artwork.

Hundreds of firefighters struggled to get the flames under control, as smoke billowed high into the air over the city. Officials explained that they could not use aircraft to dump water over the top of the building because doing so could have caused the entire structure to collapse. One firefighter and two police officers sustained injuries, the fire department shared on social media.

notre dame organ

GettyThis photograph taken on June 26, 2018, shows the organ at Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in Paris.

The current organ at Notre Dame dates back to the 18th century. François Thierry is credited with reconstructing the massive instrument in the 1730s. He reportedly kept at least 12 pipes that had been installed in the 14th century.

Then in the 1860s, Aristide Cavaille-Coll doubled the number of pipes. The modified instrument was dedicated in 1868.

It is the largest organ in France. The Guardian reports that it has five keyboards, 109 stops and approximately 8,000 pipes.

GettyA view of the grand organ inside the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral on November 30, 2012, in Paris.

The organ system underwent a major renovation in the early 1990s that lasted nearly three years. The project cost more than $2 million as the instrument was installed with more modern technology.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, computers were linked to the pipes and foot pedals, “as well as to a musical-instrument digital interface (MIDI) that records and allows for instant replay, a voice synthesizer, a printer, and a telephone line to an office near Versailles.” The upgrades allowed musicians to compose new music and record it while sitting at the keyboard.

Rare glimpse of Notre Dame's organAP Television Paris – 2 May 2013 1. Wide exterior shot of Notre-Dame Cathedral 2. Mid of Philippe Lefebvre, Notre-Dame Cathedral organist, taking seat at organ 3. Various of Lefebvre's playing "Piece Heroique" composed by Cesar Franck 4. Wide of organ pipes 5. Mid of organ pipes and wooden structure 6. Wide of visitors listening to organ and taking pictures 7. Close-up of Lefebvre playing 8. Close-up of Lefebvre's feet pushing pedals 10. SOUNDBITE: (French) Philippe Lefebvre, Organist, Notre Dame Cathedral: (talking about his first time listening to an organ, at 15:) "I was here, on this organ's loft. I saw the organist and I was very impressed. I thought that there were much more possibilities than with a piano. Even though I find a piano magnificent, this is just a whole new world." 11. Close-up of Lefebvre's hands 12. Mid of Lefebvre with music sheets 13. Close-up of music sheets of "La Piece Heroique" by Cesar Franck 14. SOUNDBITE: (French) Philippe Lefebvre, Organist, Notre Dame Cathedral: "We improvise. It is a big tradition in French organ school, for centuries. Since music sheets didn't exist at the early stages of the organs. So organists were improvisers primarily. And this tradition went on, in Europe and particularly in France." 15. Mid of Lefebvre's feet pushing organ pedals 16. Close-up of organ tubes 17. Tilt up of Lefebvre playing organ 18. SOUNDBITE: (French) Philippe Lefebvre, Organist, Notre Dame Cathedral: "Notre Dame is different because it is one of the only organs that has kept the traces of the centuries. As has the cathedral itself. So we have some tones from before the Revolution, some from the 19th century similar to ones of a symphonic orchestra and also all the recent inputs from the 20th century. So we have three or four authentic centuries of music." 19. Close-up of deep gash in organ wood carving, AUDIO: music 20. Wide of organ, AUDIO: music 21. Close-up of carved wood, 18th century and 19th century vertical tubes, AUDIO: music 22. SOUNDBITE: (French) Philippe Lefebvre, Organist, Notre Dame Cathedral: "This particular organ was always looked after by the cathedral and more recently by the French state. Every thirty years this organ was restored, in order to keep its good condition but also to add some improvements and some newer tones. And these tones are made for Notre Dame Cathedral's acoustics. He is in total harmony with Notre Dame Cathedral's acoustics. He rings out the walls of the cathedral." 23. Wide tilt down of cathedral, AUDIO: organ music 24. High shot of visitors inside cathedral, AUDIO: organ music 25. SOUNDBITE: (French) Philippe Lefebvre, Organist, Notre Dame Cathedral: "Here in Notre Dame when you play a tone, the acoustics make the resonance last for eight to nine seconds. It is exceptional, the sound spreads across the whole structure and you feel it when you play, the sounds come back at you. It doesn't just stop immediately. It provokes sensations for the organist." 26. High shot of Lefebvre playing organ 27. Wide exterior shot of Notre Dame Cathedral, installation in foreground marking its 850th anniversary 28. Mid of visitors walking to cathedral 29. Wide of crowd in front of cathedral 30. Mid of queue of visitors 31. Wide of visitors seated in front of cathedral 32. Low exterior shot of cathedral 33. Close-up of sculpture representing a French King LEADIN Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has allowed rare access to its historic organ. The instrument has been refurbished for the first time in three decades. The make-over is to mark the cathedral's 850th anniversary this year. STORYLINE: He first saw it when he was 15, as a young piano student. You can license this story through AP Archive: http://www.aparchive.com/metadata/youtube/ae56213cf35660b410c5202f5d55be9b Find out more about AP Archive: http://www.aparchive.com/HowWeWork2015-07-31T11:03:05.000Z

The Associated Press spoke with Notre Dame Cathedral organist Philippe Lefebvre in 2015. Translated from French, he explained that the organ’s age is a major reason why the sound is so fantastic. He told the AP, “Notre Dame is different because it is one of the only organs that has kept the traces of the centuries. As has the cathedral itself. So we have some tones from before the Revolution, some from the 19th century similar to ones of a symphonic orchestra and also all the recent inputs from the 20th century. So we have three or four authentic centuries of music.”

Lefebvre said he first heard the organ inside Notre Dame as a teenager and was hooked on it. “Here in Notre Dame when you play a tone, the acoustics make the resonance last for eight to nine seconds. It is exceptional, the sound spreads across the whole structure and you feel it when you play, the sounds come back at you. It doesn’t just stop immediately. It provokes sensations for the organist.”

Construction of the Notre Dame Cathedral began in 1163 under the order of the Bishop of France at the time, Maurice de Sully. It took nearly two centuries to complete; the cathedral was consecrated in 1345.

People around the world shared their grief on social media and mourned the presumed loss of the iconic instrument and cathedral.