Pipe Organs of the Rich and Famous Marie Antoinette

By Smith, Rollin | The American Organist, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Pipe Organs of the Rich and Famous Marie Antoinette


Smith, Rollin, The American Organist


THE DAUPHIN (son of Louis XV and father of Louis XVI) married Marie-Josephe of Saxony in 1747. Both were music lovers, he, endowed with a powerful voice, and she, a talented keyboard player. Each week they held informal concerts in their private apartments. Sometime between 1747 and 1753, the renowned organbuilder Nicolas Sommer (c.1700-1771) was engaged to construct an elegant, modest instrument. Every corner of the white and gold case is embossed. The carvings were executed with incomparable grace in the finest style of the Antwerp furniture maker Jacques Verberckt (1704-71), who worked in Paris and Versailles.

Lacking documentation, it is likely that Sommer's organ was moved from Versailles to the Trianon at the request of Marie Antoinette; at least it was to be found there 40 years later in 1793. At the time of the Revolution, all the furniture from the royal palaces was put up for auction by the commissioners de Mussel and Delacroix, the father of the poet and the father of the painter. Knocked down to a secondhand dealer in the rue du Bac, the organ was eventually purchased in 1804 and brought to Saint-Sulpice, where it was used to accompany the chants on the occasion of two visits by Pope Pius VII in December of that year and the following February. At one of the services the organ accompanied a Te Deum in honor of Napoleon. After serving for some years as the orgue-de-choeur, it was replaced with a more powerful instrument.

The organ was "restored" by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1867. All of the original pipework was replaced as well as the action and wind system. Four years later, Cavaillé-Coll "restored" the grand orgue of the Versailles Chapel and, when he replaced the keyboards, Charles-Marie Widor asked that he adapt two of Clicquot's original keyboards (the Positif and Grand-Orgue) to this little instrument. At that time it had the following stoplist:

Grand-Orgue (54 notes, C-F^sup 5^)

8 Montre

8 Bourdon

4 Prestant

2 Doublette

8 Clarinette

Récit (30 notes)

8 Bourdon

8 Flûte

8 Hautbois

A pedalboard, not original to the 18th-century instrument, was either added or retained. It was "à la française," that is, it permanently drew down the lowest 13 notes of the lower manual. The bellows was activated by a pedal at the right.

In 1897, the Maison Cavaillé-Coll restored the organ again and replaced the Clarinet with a Nasard. At that time it was then placed in the chapel of NotreDame des Étudiants (Our Lady of Students), a long, low hall created by an attic behind the second level of SaintSulpice's facade.

In 1910, Frederic B. Stiven, a student of Guilmant, met Widor in the organ gallery of Saint-Sulpice, and described a demonstration of the organ:

When it came time for the sermon, Widor asked if we should like to see an organ once belonging to Marie Antoinette. Our curiosity being aroused, he led us back through the organ to a continuation of the entrance stairs, where we mounted to the floor above. Passing the two blowers of the upper bellows, we entered a large room where there were a great number of children dressed in white. Fond mothers were busily arranging filmy veils, putting on crowns of artificial flowers, and smoothing out the dresses of their children. As we passed through the crowd, Widor briefly remarked, "The children of the procession. …

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