New York Times
PARIS -- After spending $2.2 million to bring the celebrated 19th-century pipe organ in Notre Dame Cathedral into the computer age and announcing success with great fanfare in December 1992, the French Ministry of Culture has a problem: The modern technology is not working.
``It's painful and embarrassing, and it's not good for our image,'' said Jean-Pierre Leguay, who as an organist for the cathedral holds one of the most prestigious positions in French music. The organ now uses computer digital technology rather than mechanical connections to relay commands from the keyboards and pedals to the pipes.
``The technology worked off and on for a while after the dedication, but never completely reliably, and in May of last year it broke down in the middle of a concert and we stopped using it at all for a while,'' he said.
Last August, the French computer firm Synaptel, which did the electronics work, managed to get the system back up to the point where Leguay and his colleagues could get the organ to limp through Sunday services.
But to resume the concerts and recitals, Leguay said, a new contract will be needed to perfect the installation. There are reports that it could cost millions of francs.
This would probably be baffling to the great 19th-century French organ builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll, who installed most of the 7,800-pipe instrument in 1868 without any electronics at all. All the pipes, the chests that hold pressurized air, and the valves that he built -- the heart and soul of the Notre Dame organ -- work impeccably, waiting up in the west gallery of the church for the technology to catch up with them.
Some see Notre Dame's troubles as symbolic of the broader difficulties of moving France from its glorious past into the 21st century.
The huge church of St.-Sulpice on the Left Bank has taken a different approach with an instrument almost as big as the one Cavaille-Coll built in 1862. A three-year restoration completed in 1991 at a cost of $605,000 did not change a thing about the way it operates.
``This organ works as well now as it did when Cavaille-Coll built it,'' said St.-Sulpice's principal organist, Daniel Roth, seated behind the original amphitheater-shaped console as the reverberations from the last chord of an improvization washed around him.
The organ remains a marvel of 19th-century mechanical engineering, and it works dependably Sunday after Sunday, for Mass and for concerts. The only electricity it uses produces pressurized air for the pipes.
Originally it did not even need that -- 10 men or boys pumped bellows behind the organ when the organist played. The unused bellows are still there.
The immense and rich sound of the instrument at St.-Sulpice inspired such players as Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupre to compose music of symphonic dimensions.
``Our intention was to restore the organ, not to change it,'' said Jean Renaud, an organ builder from Nantes whose company did the restoration. ``We were always conscious that we were working on an instrument that had been played by some of the greatest musicians in France.''
At Notre Dame, Jean-Loup Boisseau and his fellow builders Bertrand Cattiaux, Philippe Emeriau, and Michel Giroud found an instrument that had been altered considerably long before they started renovating it in 1990.
``Electricity had already done its damage by the early 1960s,'' Boisseau said. ``We wanted to advance, not to go backward, and we created a prototype with the largest and greatest instrument in France. Normally, you would build a small model first.''
Since the renovation, the pipes need computer technology instead of the electric action installed in the 1960s to relay commands from the five keyboards, pedals, and 140 stop-knobs of the electronic-age console, which also has two video display screens and a vocal synthesizer for Leguay, who is blind.
``What is important is that all the organ's basic functions work properly,'' Boisseau said. ``You pull a stop and press a key, and it plays, and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we will get the bugs out.''
The new system uses computers and microprocessors to interpret the data from sensors that register which keys have been pressed, and how far and how fast, and accordingly release valves under the pipes that let in pressurized air to produce sound.
When it works, it allows the player to call up instantly any one of an unlimited number of combinations of the organ's 140 registers.
The system is designed to play back whole compositions for the performer, down to the smallest nuance, and even to produce scores from improvizations.
At St.-Sulpice, the keys are linked directly, with wooden and metal ``trackers'' assisted by pneumatic levers, to the valves under the chests that hold the pipes. The top level of pipes reaches nearly to the 112-foot-high stone vaulting, more than 60 feet above the console.
Renaud said the 32-foot-long pipes of the thundering bombarde stop -- the most powerful -- were as big around as a tree trunk and so heavy it took three strong men to lift them. ``We had to lift them up because a pigeon got in and tried to nest in one of them, fell down inside, and couldn't get out,'' he said.
Many of the pipes came from earlier organs by the 18th-century builder Francois-Henri Clicquot, who finished an organ for St.-Sulpice in 1781 and another for Notre Dame in 1783.
Inside Notre Dame's 18th-century oak organ case, with the medieval west rose window dappling the ranks of silvery pipes with a purple and red glow, Boisseau tried to be philosophical.
``Things could be much worse,'' he said. ``Organ builders joke that three renovations equal a fire.''
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