Photos 2: Homage to Louis Vierne

Homage to Mssr. Louis Vierne, organiste-titulaire 1900-1937 of the Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Paris ... inspired composer and performer, beloved teacher, improvisor of genius, dear friend and mentor to many, even to this day, in absentia.

Students came to Paris from all over the world

to study with him.

Share this page


The scores for Vierne's charming, hauntingly beautiful, and magnificent organ music are precious souvenirs of what listeners would have heard when this music sounded against the great stone walls of the 850-year old cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.  Sadly, the tragic fire of April 15-16, 2019 completely destroyed the Cathedral's spire, roof, and all of the wooden frame in its attic.  It's an alarming fact that most historic-building conflagrations strike during renovations, and this fire, while its cause may never be determined, appears to have started accidentally in or near roof work underway near the Cathedral spire, which was elaborately scaffolded.  As flames raced through the historic wooden timbers in the attic the intense heat of this cataclysmic furnace melted all the lead in the roof, contaminated the entire work site with lead dust and debris, caused several of the six-partite ceiling vaults to collapse, and the heat and flaming debris followed by the drenching by fire hoses damaged some of the stonework and created innumerable microcracks in the rose windows and other stained glass which will require painstaking restoration.

Stabilization of the structure and rebuilding in an historically accurate manner true to a heritage that stretches back to the 12th century has begun however.  With precision and prowess a French team of carpenters using medieval techniques have begun rebuilding the triangular wooden frames in the "attic forest" using oak from France.  This team felled the trees and used axes to cut the logs for the wooden frame, then, with rope and a rustic pulley system, they slowly pulled the no. 7 truss replica they built from the ground in July, 2020 where it was displayed for the French people to see. 

Miraculously, the world-famous 1868 Cavaille-Coll organ in the west tribune escaped destruction, though it became filled with a non-adhering type of ashen dust like very fine sand which can, with extreme care, be removed and not the type of corrosive, sticky soot common with many fires.  The stone with its sloping roof that connects the two bell towers and covers the span of the Cavaille-Coll organ perfectly fulfilled its role as an umbrella and protected the instrument from being completely flooded.  Initially only some water on the floor, a small puddle on a bellows, and a few drops on the G#9 pipe of the Principal 32', the only pipe that received any water, were discovered.

Tents in front of the Cathedral were erected to shelter much of the precious debris until a more permanent structure could be erected for that purpose.  Archeologists are in the process of restoring tens of thousands of pieces of stone and some metal, but the chief architect was initially concerned about the vaults in the ceiling.  According to him, when all the pieces of the chared wooden framing that burned and the metal elements that accumulated would be eventually removed, anything could still happen.  The ceiling and walls near the summit remain fragile, and the initial moisture and dampness in the building from rain puddles standing in the floor of the nave after every storm presented a further threat to the Grand organ.

This organ with its nearly 8K pipes, and not just the pipes but nearly everything -- the console, windchests, wind trunks, actions, pipe conveyances, etc., were removed and taken down.  The companies of Cattiaux and Quoirin, which carried out the restoration and modernization of this organ in 2014, with the addition of the company Sarelot, were rehired for the occasion because of compelling reasons for each of their presence, and these suspended all of their works-in-progress to come to Notre-Dame.  It took the builders almost 5 months just to clean and remove what could be disassembled.  The treatment of each component was different according to the element and material to be restored:  cleaning and decontamination of the metal pieces (pipes, conveyances, wind trunks), application of a layer of paint to the wooden parts, and replacement of all leather parts, even those that were new (the leather cannot be cleaned except through the simple application of water which is obviously not ideal for the material).  The plan is to have the instrument completely reinstalled for the reopening of the Cathedral in April, 2024.

A total of 25 trusses had to be installed in the carpentry phase, but the sheer numbers of the timbers in the attic's close quarters and the fact that after the first alarm on the evening of April 15 a marshall failed to locate the fire allowed it to spread much faster than anyone ever anticipated.  There were special joints, techniques, and carpenter's marks on the wood members, all of which was lost.  The chief hurdle to overcome with reconstruction was not the carpentry problem however; the French have the wood and know how to do it with original methods.  The big issue has to do with the stone.  Some stones which supported the carpentry were damaged by the fire, and it's not so easy now to find similar stone.  The thinking was, that it might take several years simply to train French stonemasons in the ancient manner of building to replicate using identical materials and techniques what the fire destroyed.  

To get a sense of the mammoth task involved, the floor of the nave was cleared initially but not before it began raining inside the building during which time the site remained closed to the public.  One only had to look upward at the roof at the time to understand just how much work had to be done.  The fire left gaping holes in the vaults of the ceiling, twisted piles of burned metal and wood, and, at the summit, partially burned scaffolding towers overhead, which at the time were still in danger of collapsing.  Massive wooden braces were erected and bolted together outside the building in an attempt to shore up the huge exterior flying buttresses.  About 300 tons of structure were carefully stabilized before damaged portions could be taken down slowly, piece by piece.  The delicate task of dismantling melted scaffolding which was originally erected to refurbish the now-toppled spire was completed in October, 2020.

While French President Macron announced that he would like to see the Grand organ restored and reinnaugurated in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics everything was done in order not to fall behind this plan.  The building with its beautiful stained-glass windows and vaulted ceiling however was another story.  The Notre-Dame rector estimated that this historic Gothic structure will continue to undergo minor restoration for another 15-20 years

The soaring Cathedral vaults were cleared of debris by 35 specialists on ropes.  While the Grand organ managed to survive the fire which consumed the cathedral's roof and spire, the blaze coated it with toxic lead dust that had to be painstakingly removed.  This effort was affected by the record heatwave in Paris during the ensuing summer of 2019 and other temperature variations to which it's been exposed since the roof was lost.  The elements of the organ too massive to be removed remained at the Cathedral, particularly the two windchests of the basses of the 32-foot, the wooden pipes of the Pedal, the large bellows, and the case.  These parts were cleaned and restored in place.  The console was removed and restored offsite.  The Eltec organ relay system had the instrument performing very well and updates had taken place regularly, thus it was left as it is.

The initial focus was on making the cathedral safe before restoration work began which, among other things, included the strenuous task of removing 40K pieces of scaffolding that were damaged in the blaze.  The cathedral today still stands solid on its pillars, its walls are solid, and everything is holding together.  The Grand Organ with its 8K pipes was dismantled and sent for restoration to builders all over France, and this work was completed at the end of 2022.  The reassembly of the instrument in the Cathedral's west end gallery started in early 2023.  The three organ builders selected were very familiar with the instrument due to their having carried out the dismantling in the second half of 2022, and some had already participated in the partial restoration that took place in 2014.  The restoration takes place in the exact opposite order to the removal.  Once the instrument has been reassembled it will be protected by thermoformed sheeting which insulates the grand organ gallery from the rest of the building in order to keep out any dust.  It will remain in place until the harmonisation phase, scheduled from the beginning of 2024, when each of the 8K pipes will be harmonised and tuned separately.  At that point the Cathedral, with the exception of the transept crossing vault for a time, will be closed and its interior volume, an essential element for the sound of the grand organ, will be almost fully reinstated.


As for the smaller choir organ up front which was built by Merklin, the firefighters soaked the choir stalls to prevent them from burning, and, inevitably, the water came back over the stalls and sank beneath the overhanging side of the buffet.  This caused the instrument's blower plant in the upper part of the basement to fill with water which then spilled onto the mechanism in the basement.  The builders were only able to recover the metal pipes of the instrument, as the rest including the console had taken on too much water to be saved.  The plan for a new choir organ has not yet been finalized, but many options have been discussed and decisions will need to be made when the time comes.


A new work for 2 hands entitled

Andantino in Bb Major for Organ Op. 5

from Ten Pieces for Organ Op. 1-9

has been composed and dedicated to Vierne's memory.

[See Bio/Works, 10 Pieces/2 hands subpage

for a Hauptwerk realization of this work by Dr. Vidas Pinkevicius]

This is a dreamy, unpretentious work constructed in the same 6-part form that he taught his pupils to employ for improvising on a single free theme.  This music pays quiet homage to this great French master -- without bombast, fanfare, or virtuoso display -- merely by employing the same form and some of the methods he used when composing his

Twenty-four Pieces en style libre for Organ Op. 31 for 2 hands and what he taught during lessons on improvisation.

Ideally, if the dedicatee of a work was also a composer, the tribute should enlist some of the same compositional techniques and/or harmonic vocabulary as the dedicatee habitually employed in his/her own music so that, when performed, it brings that person to mind and sounds very much like a sketch the dedicatee could have written.  It can be argued that the theme of the tribute should not be lifted from the dedicatee's music lest it suggest that more can be squeezed from the theme than the composer could find or wish to be found.  It also can be argued that, when done with dignity and respect, anything is permissible.

BOTTOM LINE:  homage to a musician of greatness and the intended reverential regard does not have to be an ostentatious show, i.e. a flashy torrent of notes many pages long ending in a crashingly loud climax.  On the contrary, it may succeed in serving the purpose just as effectively if not better when it is shorter and quietly incorporates some of the personal vocabulary and methods used by the dedicatee.  Above all, in the case of Vierne, it should have captivating chromatic harmony, thematic interest, and a strong sense of form.  Four of the preludes from Five Preludes & Fugues for Organ Op. 24-28 by Steven Monrotus also have single free themes worked in the same 6-part improvisational form taught by Louis Vierne.

This great French master Louis Vierne has left this world but is not forgotten.  He brought the organ symphony to the highest artistic level ever reached, contributed in a tremendous way to the standard organ repertoire, and left his highly personal and indelible mark in the hearts of his many pupils and admirers, which continues to this day.

While the instrument suffered the effects of smoke, dust, and heat and managed to escape destruction, the fire left three gaping holes in the roof, one when the spire collapsed.  The instrument's console and pipes, miraculously, did not burn, initial tests on windchests found them in operation, its electronic circuits, whether in the console or at the base of the buffet, somehow survived unscathed, and its other mechanical components also survived intact.  A true miracle.