A fire has ripped through the west end of Nantes Cathedral. Although under control with the cathedral itself escaping serious damage, stained glass has been destroyed along with the grand, or main organ. Three fires were discovered, leading police to suspect arson.
Reports by most media that the organ is 400 years old only tells part of the story. Like all large-scale organs, Nantes Cathedral’s instrument had undergone considerable change over the centuries to keep in line with changing musical fashion and demands.
A 27-stop, two-manual organ was built in 1619 by Jacques Girardet, which remained intact for 160 years before builder Adrien Lépine enlarged the organ in 1768, adding a bombarde reed pedal stop among others.
But it was the famous French builder Clicquot who completely rebuilt the organ in 1784, adding 49 stops and installing a five-manual console and 33-note pedalboard. By the late 18th century, French organ music by the likes of Claude Balbastre were writing music that evoked a more thunderous, colourful revolutionary spirit.
1868 saw Clicquot’s organ ‘restored’ by Merklin-Schütze, with several stop additions and replacements. The instrument by now was a far cry from its original make-up.
A pneumatic keyboard action replaced its original mechanical action in the 1930s, before a new restoration and a console came along in 1971, replacing the organ’s stop jambs with then-fashionable tabs. The organ emerged unscathed from a fire, just one year later, having survived World War II bombings.
The fire on 18 July 2020 is all too reminiscent of the blaze that ravaged Paris’s Notre Dame just one year previously. Unlike in Nantes, however, the cathedral’s Cavaillé-Coll, the 19th-century French builder’s masterpiece, was practically undamaged.