Building the organ
When the Casavant Frères organ builders signed a contract with Notre-Dame’s priest to build an organ for the basilica in 1885, Cavaillé-Col’s reputation was at its peak, extending all the way to South America. Claver Casavant decided to go to France to consult Cavaillé-Coll about the project, explaining what the priest had envisioned for the instrument. The two had many discussions that helped refine the organ’s design. Back in Quebec, Casavant got to work, continuing to correspond with Cavaillé-Coll. He also ordered several organ stops made by Cavaillé-Coll’s pipe maker, which are still in the basilica’s organ today. Several of the Notre-Dame organ’s stops bear the Cavaillé-Coll stamp. The organ has several stop lists. The one from 1885, which was only completed in part, gives us a precise idea of what Casavant and Cavaillé-Coll had planned. Our renovation project is based on the stop list from 1885. The set of 10’2/3- and 5’1/3-pitched grand quints (fifths) on the pedals and a 5’1/3-pitched grand quint on the manuals give important clues as to what Casavant had in mind. In fact, Casavant’s progress can be tracked following his many meetings with Cavaillé-Coll.
The major obstacle to completing this stop list was undoubtedly the consultant used at the time, Saluste Duval, the organist at Saint-Jacques, who was known to be rather stubborn. Casavant and Cavaillé-Coll’s stop list was completely beyond him. He preferred something more traditional. That said, Cavaillé-Coll’s influence on the instrument is clear to see.
In 1891, the instrument was mechanical, using a Barker lever that reduced the resistance of the manuals when coupled. The instrument remained unchanged until the installation of a new heating system in the church, which proved detrimental to all the organ’s wind chests. The insides of the chests dried out and cracked, causing rattles and rendering the instrument generally unstable.
The decision was made to remove the mechanical actuator, whose lavish console was sadly destroyed, to install a second, electro-pneumatic console, which made the stops more malleable. However, this reduced the touch responsiveness somewhat, between playing the note and activating the valve, due to the delay the actuator caused. Further, it was difficult to quickly repeat a note, which is still the case today.