Marie-Antoinette's Orgue Du Dauphin

Article excerpt



This article originally appeared as "L'Orgue du Dauphin" in the Revue de l'art ancien et moderne (April 10, 1899), pp. 291-98.

IN 1804, the parish of Saint-Sulpice bought an organ from a secondhand shop in the rue du Bac. The carvedoak Louis XV-style case was painted white and gold. Of exquisite proportions, it was decorated with elegant musical symbols, topped by a French coat of arms and the royal crown. The dealer bought it in 1793 at the auction of furnishings from the Trianon and had kept it in the back of his shop for more than ten years.1

"It was," he said, "Marie-Antoinette's organ that had been played by the queen, by Gluck, and by Mozart."

It was placed in the Chapel of the Virgin, where it was used for the first time, December 23, 1804, during the visit of Pope Pius VII to Saint-Sulpice, and remained there for many years. Today it is in the Students' Chapel, a sort of long, narrow, flat-ceilinged undercroft located above the portico, perpendicular to the axis of the church.

The Trianon organ was then more or less intact as its builder had constructed it with two manuals, a short one-octave pedalboard, and eight soft, pure-toned stops. However, the key coverings, roughly carved in bone, left no doubt about the unfortunate mutilation committed: they were obviously not the original keys from Marie-Antoinette's time; it was not the ivory or mother-ofpearl keyboard fashioned for a royal hand. The valuable material had tempted the cupidity of the dealer who, until he could get rid of the instrument, had benefited by turning it into dominoes or opera glasses for use by the swells of the Directoire. It would be fruitless to try to recover the remnants.

But, two years ago, visiting CavailleColl's shop, I noticed in a storage room amid a jumble of debris, a dusty keyboard, elegantly shaped, in a rosewood frame with inlaid ivory and fleurs-de-lis projections. I stopped short. "That comes from Versailles, the organ in the château chapel," said Cavaillé. "When I undertook the restoration of the old instrument that had not been repaired since 1735, 1 had to alter the action and substitute a modern console for the original. The old keyboard is only good for firewood!"

"Ah! but no, don't burn it. First, you're going to give it to me and then adapt it to the organ of Marie- Antoinette, where it will look better than what now disfigures it. It's from the same era, same style, probably from the same builder."

So it was said, so it was done.

Last year in October, a notice in a morning newspaper announced the completion of Cavaillé-Coll's work: the old keyboards from the Chapel of Versailles had been adapted to Marie-Antoinette's old organ.

And this is where the story becomes interesting:

The distinguished curator of Versailles, Monsieur de Nolhac,2 intrigued by the notice in the paper, immediately asked me through a mutual friend for clarification. "What is this organ of Marie-Antoinette that I have never heard of? How did the keyboards of the organ in the chapel of Versailles get to Paris without my permission? How could an organ be built for Marie-Antoinette with no trace of any kind of expenditure in the accounts of her house?"

I told M. Nolhac the story of the selling of the organ to Saint-Sulpice by the dealer who had bought it at the Trianon in 1793. I read that this organ was contemporary with the arrival of Marie- Antoinette in France, since it was in the Louis XV style. Finally, I invited him to come to see it: his special knowledge of wood carving of the Louis XV and Louis XVI periods, and his practical experience at Versailles and at the Trianon, would give us more solid assurances of the truth of all the dealer's legends and stories.

And when he came to Saint-Sulpice, even before seeing the instrument: "I have brought you some interesting information," he said, "your indication of the period of the organ's construction made me look further through the old records. …