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The French Symphonic Organ (1998)
Verschueren Orgelbouw BV (Heythuysen, The Netherlands)
Gothenburg University (Sweden)


In 1988, when the decision was made to build a new building (“Artisten”) for the School of Music, many possibilities were discussed concerning the plans, use, and function of the building, including the choice of an organ and its style. The Organ Department personnel had to decide whether to build one large “universal” instrument that would play all of the literature but with stylistic and technical compromises, or whether to build or find access to several organs, each with a strong and uncompromising historical style. We chose the latter, and drew up a plan that would include three instruments to serve the most important and meaningful eras of organ literature: a 17th-century North German Baroque organ, an 18th-century Swedish Classical organ, and a 19th-century French Romantic (symphonic) organ. This different approach allows students to discover directly, through experiencing historically-styled instruments, how various instrument types have inspired and shaped different aspects of organ literature and technique. This instrument-based approach has been applied in several international music schools and was a natural, if adventuresome, theme to develop in the organ education program in Göteborg. Unfortunately, no original examples of these historical instruments exist on the west coast of Sweden. Because the development budget for the new music building could be applied to only one of these three instruments, we were forced to prioritize, and chose to began work on the 19th-century French instrument, which would follow, as much as possible, the style of the famous French organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899). This instrument would serve as the main organ for the School of Music.


Choir and Organ Hall

The Organ Department’s top priority was to be able to teach and play on a first-class instrument. The performance hall was designed to be the smallest possible space that could still provide the acoustical environment needed for an instrument of this type. Of course, when it comes to Cavaillé-Coll’s instruments, the acoustic of French cathedrals was most typical. However, he also built many instruments for smaller churches and even quite large instruments for salons and halls in private homes. In some of these cases Cavaillé-Coll was involved in the architectural and acoustical planning of the rooms as well as of the organs. In the plan for the Choir and Organ Hall, we gleaned as many ideas as possible from the documentation of these original Cavaillé-Coll rooms. We gave particular attention to the floor, the walls, and the ceiling: The wooden floor, rather than lying directly on cement, is laid out on sand; the walls are not solid, but have an interior wall of plaster, which is separated from the cement outer wall by a layer of rubber. The ceiling was also designed after historical models. These elements were integrated into the concept of the room by the architect, so that the overall impression would harmonize with the rest of Artisten’s architecture. The Choir and Organ Hall may be Artisten’s most beautiful room. It is well suited as a concert hall for general use, and has proven to be an exciting music space for many types of recitals. The room is 59 feet (18 meters) long by 34.5 feet (10.5 meters) wide by 34.5 feet (10.5 meters) high. A bellows room lying directly under the organ houses the instrument’s main bellows and electric blower.


Many different kinds of specialists—architects, acousticians, organ builders, organists, and organ experts—worked together from the beginning of the project to ensure a positive result. The process has produced a model of working that we hope will be effective in moving the field of organ research forward. An organ is different from other musical instruments in that it is an integrated part of the room where it stands, and its sound must be adjusted by the organ builder to suit the room’s acoustical behavior. Together, the acoustics and the placement of the organ in the room create the conditions for the resulting sound.


Working with Verschueren

We were convinced that the French symphonic organ should be built as much as possible after the working methods and philosophy of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. The individual parts of the instrument—the specification, measurements, wind system, and mechanical coupling systems for different divisions of the organ, as well as the Barker machine for the playing action—all needed to reflect Cavaillé-Coll’s original designs. But our primary goal was to get these different parts to work together with one another in a coherent and recognizable French Romantic aesthetic. We also planned that the instrument’s façade would have some relationship to the original 19th-century instruments, while still blending with the rest of Artisten’s architecture.


When it came to choosing an organ builder, the intuitively obvious choice of a French organ builder who had already built instruments within Cavaillé-Coll’s tradition no longer existed, so we worked from the premise that the organ building firm must have identified itself with the French organ’s soundscape, and must have had experience in restoring organs of this type. Verschueren Orgelbouw BV (Heythuysen, The Netherlands), located just south of the Rhein, where the regional culture has been heavily influenced by the French, met our criteria. From its inception the Verschueren firm has specialized in pipe making. Interestingly, one of the pipe voicers in the shop of Cavaillé-Coll’s successor also worked for long periods in the Verschueren shop. Verschueren’s extensive experience with reconstructions and restorations included the restoration of two Cavaillé-Coll instruments and one Mutin instrument in The Netherlands, which also influenced our decision to offer them this project.


Although the French Romantic organ repertoire with César Franck’s music at the center was our focus for the organ’s specification, the instrument also needed to accommodate the music of later generations of French organ composers, such as Jehan Alain and Olivier Messiaen. Because of the size limitations, we had to include all of the necessary registers for the French Romantic repertoire within the smallest possible space. The result was a specification of 43 registers, a fully developed symphonic organ for a small concert hall. Whenever possible, we followed the construction and conceptual philosophy of Cavaillé-Coll, with some small specification changes that his successor, Charles Mutin, could easily have constructed. The instrument’s function as the main organ for the School of Music motivated these small changes to allow the performance of 20th-century French repertoire as well. For the same reason, the organ also was designed with a combination system, which was installed so that it did not change the organ’s construction and functions, but was merely added to a fully mechanical registration system. The system is connected to a computer, which can be programmed to store as many registrations as one could wish for respective works and interpretations.


While the French symphonic organ was being designed and constructed, the next instrument in the original plan of three was started in Göteborg. The monumental North German Baroque instrument for the Örgryte Church in Göteborg was constructed in the university´s own organ research workshop. The goals of the North German Organ Project were to reconstruct, scientifically, the working methods, materials, and soundscape of the North German master organ builder, Arp Schnitger (1648-1719). The results of the project had to be studied, reproducable and published. This new model of instrument building research had a dynamic and positive effect on the building of the French symphonic organ.


The influence of this research is most clearly evident in the pipe work. A closer study of a selection of original Cavaillé-Coll organ pipes in 1995 revealed that Cavaillé-Coll used different working methods than was thought earlier. These discoveries which occurred in the middle of the Verschueren organ builders’ work, created dynamic new requirements, which they met with great interest and seriousness. Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg carried out the analysis of materials from original pipes, and sample castings were made at the Verschueren workshop in Heythuysen. Test pipes were compared in live sound tests with the original Cavaillé-Coll organ in Amsterdam. The test pipes were then also tested in the Organ Hall in Göteborg. Nothing was spared in the search to understand the fundamental sound environment that characterized Cavaillé-Coll’s instruments. With this project, developed dynamically by a commercial organ builder and a research institution, Verschueren has paved an exciting new path for a cooperative future in organ building.



GRAND–ORGUE (Manual I), C–a3

 laie des fonds
16     Principal
8      Montre
8      Salicional
8      Bourdon
8      Flûte harmonique
4      Prestant 
laie de combinaison
22/3 Quinte
2      Doublette
4      Cornet IV
1      Plein jeu IV–V
8      Trompette

POSITIF (Manual II), C–a3 – enclosed

laie des fonds
8      Cor de nuit
8      Salicional
8      Flûte traversière
4      Prestant
4      Flûte douce
16    Cor anglais
laie de combinaison
22/3 Nazard
2      Quarte de Nazard
13/5 Tierce
11/3 Plein jeu III–IV
8      Cromorne 

RÉCIT (Manual III), C–a3 – enclosed

 laie des fonds
16    Bourdon
8      Flûte harmonique
8      Viole de Gambe
8      Voix céleste
4      Flûte octaviante
8      Voix humaine
8      Basson et Hautbois 
laie de combinaison
22/3 Nazard
2      Octavin
1      Piccolo
16     Basson
8      Trompette harmonique
4      Clairon harmonique


laie de fonds
32     Basse acoustique
16     Soubasse
16     Contrebasse
8       Flûte
4       Octave

laie d'anches
16     Bombarde
8      Trompette
4      Clairon
Pédales de combinaison
Tirasse G.O.
Tirasse Pos.
Tirasse Réc.
Copula G.O. (Barker Machine)
Octaves graves G.O.
Appel Comb. (= Setzer)
Anches Péd.
Anches G.O.
Anches Pos.
Expression Pos.
Expression Réc.
Anches Réc.
Appel Comb. (= Setzer)
Copula Pos. au G.O.
Copula Réc. au G.O.
Trémolo Réc.
Copula Réc. au Pos.

Mechanical key action Barker Machine for the G.O.; Orelle system (iso-pneumatics) for the Récit.

Mechanical stop action, supplied with an extra “motor device” that can be operated  by an electronic Combination system.

Wind supply system: 18 bellows (2 main bellows; 16 additional regulators: 6 for the Pédale, 4 for the G.O., 3 for the Récit, 2 for the Positif, 1 for the Barker Machine)

Pitch: a1 = 440 Hz (at 20°C). Temperament: equal.

 This instrument was made possible throughthe generous contribution received from the Knut and Alice Wallenbergs Foundation and through national funding for university buildings.

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French Symphonic Masterpieces - Hans Davidsson
French Symphonic Masterpieces/Davidsson
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This recording of well-known French Romantic music is presented in the clarity of a chamber-music setting, much like the musical soiree performances at the Parisian salons in the 19th century. This style of performance is made possible by Verschueren's new French symphonic organ at Göteborg University (Sweden) in this, its first American recording.