A Parisian page-turning pilgrimage

The editor of BBC Music Magazine, Oliver Condy, makes a trip to the organ loft of Notre Dame

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The 4.30pm Sunday recital slot at Notre Dame, Paris is the one organists crave. It's a rite of passage for any fine player and a tremendous chance to have a go on the ultimate train set – the five-manual 1868 Cavaill√©-Coll, complete with en chamades (stops whose pipes are mounted horizontally) of ferocious power.

But playing at Notre Dame is more than just an opportunity to flex your muscles on one of France's most exquisite and daunting organs, as I found out when I was lucky enough to be invited to turn pages for a friend of mine, Paul Dean, who was playing a recital there a couple of Sundays ago.

Performing at this great cathedral is something of a pilgrimage. It is a place where organ heroes have played, improvised and often died, from the great symphonist Louis Vierne (who gave up the ghost halfway through an improvisation in 1937), to Pierre Cochereau, an improviser too, but one of almost impossible skill, who thrilled congregations and audiences right up until his own death in 1984 (but not at the console, this time).

Those accepted as worthy recitalists – application to Notre Dame is by letter, accompanied by CD and a recommendation from a recognised organist – have a few hours a day or so beforehand to set up and acquaint themselves with the organ before being met at 4pm at the gate to the right of the cathedral. (After the long climb up the steps to the organ loft, or tribune, you need a few minutes to get your breath back...) Just before the loft itself, a vaulted ante-room houses the instrument's original console, used until 1959 when it was put into retirement and replaced by today's Anglo-American console. Organ geeks will no doubt be pleased to hear that the ventil system is alive and well in an astonishing array of foot pistons.

The loft itself is spacious, with the console sitting at the bottom of the organ case, facing out towards the east end – a quirk unique, I think, to France. Behind the console sits a computer on which it's rumoured that the current incumbent, Olivier Latry (below), plays solitaire during sermons. It's mostly used to control the organ's settings and recording equipment. There's a choice of benches too – if the modern one is deemed too high, guests can opt for Louis Vierne's own bench, parked rather unceremoniously in the corner and stamped with a commemorative brass plaque.

And then it's down to business. At the height of summer, audiences – if you count harassed tourists in the number – can number over 1,000. The 38-minute recital (not 35, not 40, thank you) is accompanied by a constant murmur from below. Pulling out all the stops from time to time is recommended. As is the insertion of at least one Romantic or 20th-century French piece into the programme. This is, after all, a pilgrimage...

Oliver Condy is editor of BBC Music Magazine