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Avallon's Organ

Saint Lazarus church


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Through some milestones, discover the history of Avallon's organ, since his creation until nowadays. Click on the following icon

If you want to discover how the organ works, click on the following icon


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Saint-Lazarus Church's Pipe Organ – a stormy story

Though we have testimony of a pipe organ in Saint-Lazarus church dating back to 1333, the organ which today stands at the head of the nave was built in the 19th century. Let me tell you the story of its eventful building and multiple restorations which explain both its glory and its silence.

It all started in 1842, after the French Revolution had destroyed the preceding organ, when Avallon's archpriest, Abbot Darcy decided to have a tribune built to welcome a new organ worthy of the church. Initially planned to be made of wood, this platform was eventually built as a stone vault to which led a new flight of stairs. This was financed by local parishioners as the town council refused to participate in the project.

On April, 25, 1847, the Parish Council decided to accept Nicolas Chambry's offer for a typically classical organ. Chambry was then a quite renowned organ builder in the South of France. The organ was planned to have three manuals – a choir organ manual of 54 keys, a Great organ manual of 54 keys too, a swell manual of 37 keys as well as a pedalboard which was extended to 25 notes. Chambry suggested to include 30 ranks. Imagine a total number of 1 378 pipes, some in wood, some in an alloy of lead and tin, the longest more than 12 metres high for an amount of 15 000 gold francs!

Unfortunately, Chambry kept postponing the delivery of the organ. In January 1850, after the Parish Council had threatened him of a fine of 100 francs per day of delay, he complied, and the organ arrived in Avallon. Although it didn't exactly respect the agreement and lacked some ranks, the parish accepted the instrument while refusing to pay the last 10% owed to Chambry. As you may well imagine, the organ maker refused to continue working on the organ to the parish's … satisfaction!

Although Chambry's organ was of excellent quality, it was felt that its conception was outdated. Actually, the 19th century was a period of transition for pipe organs, from classical organ to romantic organ which were required to favour expression to sheer power. Chambry's organ was typically classical, a victim of changes in fashion!

Then two very important people entered the story: Abbot Thiesson and a new organ builder who had just settled in Avallon, Paul Chazelle. These two men created the pipe organ that we can still admire today. Abbot Thiesson wrote the schedule of conditions which transformed a classical organ into the more romantic one that Paul Chazelle built. The modifications were so important that it was decided to divide them into different stages as the parish couldn't afford all of them at one go. Just imagine: Thiesson planned to extend the number of ranks from 30 to 43 ranks, which meant 730 more pipes. This in turn caused the soundboard to be extended, the blower had to be doubled, an extra manual was ordered. The space all this required led to a modification of the organ case -the piece of furniture which hosts a pipe organ.

Such a magnificent instrument had to be visually enhanced, consequently the buffet, along with the wooden raining of the tribune was commissioned to Guillaumet, a famous local sculptor in 1853. Just note the details of his carvings. This work in Avallon was considered his masterpiece and it was written down on the list of French Historical monuments in 1972.

Chazelle's organ was delivered and accepted by the Parish Council on September 28, 1853; the report of the commission was laudatory and contributes to reinforcing Chazelle's reputation. Yet, the pipe organ is still not complete as it was agreed to finish it in different stages, some ranks were still empty. Unfortunately, Chazelle will never have the opportunity to finish his work of art.

Saint-Lazare's organ would be improved twice, one in 1891 and in 1925. Those modification will be minor and will not greatly change the instrument.

It wasn't quite so in 1951. Some important changes needed to be made, the mechanism linking the keys to the soundboard was badly in disrepair and had to be taken care of, the blowers were still man-powered and required two men, crammed in a tiny, dark space at the back of the organ, working the blower for the organ to produce any sound! The organ also needed to be cleaned and tuned. The company which was chosen – S.A.E.G.G.-Masset turned out to be dishonest and clearly unskilled. The mechanical transmission mechanism was replaced by an electropneumatic one of such poor quality that it started deteriorating after only 20 years. It is the main reason why the organ cannot be played any longer today. The organ case’s back was torn apart and wasn't repaired, some flutes were damaged, some were replaced by others of less quality, some simply disappeared...

In the 1990s, Saint-Lazare's great pipe organ fell silent and a small choir organ was used for mass. A new restoration has been discussed since 1978, when the instrumental part of the organ was recorded on the French Historic Monument list. Indeed, despite its apparent sorry state, this pipe organ still hosts extraordinary hidden treasures dating back to its original buildings: 2100 original pipes, some original soundboards and its manuals and pedal board are the very same Chazelle designed, back in 1853! The restoration has been postponed because it has to be performed after the refection of the church’s vaults which should have happened in … 1982! We can only hope to be granted the opportunity to hear once again this majestic instrument sing, thunder, roar... and enchant us as it did the locals and the visitors of the past.

The great organ of Avallon : a complexe working

  • St Lazarus: materials/dimensions

The organ's case of St Lazarus church was sculpted by Guillaumet which comprises wooden patterns such as angels, a Latin motto and roses all around. All this impacted the space left to the organ and particularly to the pipes within. The construction of an organ is thus very precise and meticulous.

  • Composition

Three manuals or keyboards (the great organ, the choir organ, the swell organ) have been built on the great organ of Saint Lazarus church as well as a pedalboard, an electric blower, 4 bellows, a wind chest, a wind duct and 30 stops.

You can observe two types of pipes: flue pipes and reed pipes. Flue pipes works the same as a recorder whereas reed pipes are always used to deliver brass sounds such as trombone, oboe, trumpet…

The pipes are essential to an organ and quite difficult to produce; they can be round or squared-shaped, made of an alloy of lead and tin or made of wood.

To make the organ sound, the organist needs to pull the stops accordingly to the expected timbre. Many stops can be pulled out and mixed so as to change the sound’s timbre.

Below is the pipe organ stop lists being found on the organ today:

The Great manual is composed of 12 stops: Bourdon 16, Open Diapason 8, Bourdon 8, Flute 8, Cello 8, Principal 4, Super Octave 2, Mixture, G. Cornet V, Trombone 16, Trumpet 8, Clarion 4.

The Choir or Positif manual is composed of 7 stops: Soft Flute 8, Bourdon 8, Flute 4, Quint 2 2/3, Galoubet 2, Tierce 1 3/5, Trumpet 8.

The Swell is composed of 11 stops: Harmonic transverse flute 8, Chimney Bourdon 8, Gamba 8, Voix célestes 8, Octave Flute 4, Nasard 2 2/3, Harmonic Flageolet 2, Tierce 1 3/5, Harmonic Trumpet 8, Oboe-Fagotto 8, Vox Humana 8.

  • How the Great Organ works

An organ is a complex wind instrument.

Inside the organ

The wind blower sends the air, called wind, through the wind ducts, towards the bellows where it is stocked. Once conducted into the wind chest located below the pipes, the air is stocked under pressure, waiting for the organist to press a key. In order to hear a sound, the organist pulls the stops out to line the air exit up with the wind chests’ holes.

Nonetheless, within each wind chest, at each air exit, valves are located below each pipe that allow the air to be stored under pressure. Without those, the organ would sound on its own in a big hubbub.

When the organist pushes a key, a valve is pulled down allowing the stocked air to be released through the corresponding pipe to make the correct note sound.

  • Pipes’ working

The sound produced by the pushed air through the pipes varies according to the height of the tune, measured in foot (16, 8, 4, 2, …). The higher the pipe, the lower the sound. Likewise, the narrower, the higher.


How a reed pipe works

When the air is pushed through the pipe, it doesn’t vibrate: but as the pressure gets higher and tries to get out through the first opening called “mouth” leading to an immediate air pressure fall. However, only a part of it is released: the air follows its course thus creating a wave between the mouth and the exit located at the top of the pipe. The wave frequency created (measured in Hertz) produces a fast or low wave leading to a high or low sound.

This works for both types of pipes: the flue pipes and the reed pipes. However, in reed pipes, the vibration is produced by the air pressing against the reed. Its pitch and timbre depends on the spring's place on the reed.

To learn more, click on the video :