Piping up: Ottawa’s Notre Dame Cathedral organ restored and ready to play

Some of the more than 4,800 pipes of the Casavant Organ inside Notre Dame Cathedral.

Ottawa native Jennifer Loveless is the organist at Ottawa’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Her instrument has just been refurbished and members of the community can hear it in action in four concerts this summer. The first is on July 16 as part of the Music and Beyond Festival. She talks about what such an instrument means to her and to the church in an interview with ARTSFILE.

Q. Tell me about the organ in Notre Dame.

A. The organ at Notre-Dame Cathedral of Ottawa is the oldest and largest in the city.  The oldest pipes date from the 1850s when Joseph Casavant (the father of Casavant Frères) built the first organ, but the majority are from 1894 when the organ was enlarged by his sons. The cathedral has two organs; the larger in the gallery and the smaller in the triforium above the sanctuary. The console looks rather like being in the cockpit of an airplane. There are more than 4,800 pipes, 97 ranks in eight divisions over three manuals and pedals, with 73 stops (56 on the Gallery organ and 17 on the Sanctuary organ). The smallest pipe is ¾ of an inch long and the largest is 32 feet.    

Q. What is involved in a restoration of an organ? 

Notre Dame’s organist Jennifer Loveless.

A. This restoration was rather complex and was split into three phases over an eight-month period. The first phase required the reed pipes (think of these as the brass instruments of an orchestra) being removed, crated and transported to St. Hyacinth, Quebec where new tongues and shallots were added for a rounder sound and more stable tuning. Following this, concussion bellows were added to the wind chests to create a more stable wind supply. Also, the cracks in the wind line to the Sanctuary organ were repaired making it playable once again. Lastly, the remaining 4,000 pipes were voiced and adjusted to conform to the standards of tone, pitch and colour to ensure an even and more cohesive ensemble. As you might expect, the expertise and time required to work on a complex instrument such as this is not cheap. In this case, the repairs cost $316,000. To date, parishioners and the public have generously donated $214,000.

Q. At one point in history the organ was the largest machine made by humans. What does it mean to you?

A. Until the industrial revolution, the pipe organ, along with the watch, was the most complex mechanism created by man. What started off in the 3rd century BC as an instrument with a few pipes eventually grew into what many composers over the centuries have named ‘the King of Instruments’.  For me, it’s my voice and my expression of ideas and emotions. It’s like being the conductor of an orchestra when you consider the size of the instrument, the many different stops and colours, as well as the huge range of dynamics; from the most intimate sound to the most powerful and majestic.

Q. The organ is vital in sacred music. What does it signify for parishioners?

A. Charlemagne is assumed to be the first to request a small organ to be installed in his chapel in 812 AD, and thus began the association of pipe organs in Western European church music. In 1963, Pope Paul VI promulgated a document stating ‘the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendour to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.’ Being a wind instrument, the organ lends itself well to supporting the singing of psalms, hymns and anthems during the mass. Its wide variety of colour allows the organist to effectively choose the appropriate sounds depending on the text and liturgical time of year to achieve the desired sentiment or affect.

Q. This past spring Notre Dame in Paris was gutted by fire. I have been very lucky, I heard the organ in that mighty cathedral played. Have you? 

A. Yes. I have been fortunate to have played both the Gallery and Sanctuary organs.  It was surreal; knowing that I was playing on the same instrument where some of the most important repertoire was written. It gave a new perspective on how to interpret their works.  It is miraculous that the gallery organ survived the fire with only minor damage. The sloped stone roof above the organ acted as an umbrella and kept the water away from the instrument.

Q. Why are you an organist?

A.  For many years I couldn’t decide between the piano and the organ. The moment I decided to focus on the organ was when I heard Olivier Latry, Titular Organist at Notre Dame, Paris give a masterclass at the McGill Summer Organ Academy. I was drawn to the expressive singing quality of French romantic music. The challenge for organists is not to be consumed by all the technical aspects but to let the instrument sing. Generally speaking, I am drawn by its immense range of colour, dynamics and ability to sustain long lines, but ultimately I’m drawn to its ability to fill the entire space and make the whole building shake. 

Notre Dame Cathedral in Ottawa.

Q. What does it feel like to sit at the console of such an instrument?

A.  It is hard to express what it feels like. The first thing that comes to mind is exhilarating. You learn the notes, master the technical aspects and then just let the music take over. Having done quite a bit of whitewater canoeing, there are many similarities between the two. When performing you have one chance at it. You plan out your route and take a deep breath and just go for it. There have been moments while playing where I felt like I was flying or that time was being suspended due to its endless wind supply. Other times you reach a deep emotional and spiritual level that words just don’t even begin to describe.

Q. Please tell me about the concert series that will feature the instrument? 

A. The concert series is a celebration of the completion of the refurbishment and will run throughout July and August. I will performing on July 16 at 7:30pm with the Fernwood Chamber Brass of Toronto. This is part of the Music & Beyond Festival.  The remaining three concerts are at 8 p.m. and will feature: my assistant Barbara Hallam Price who will perform on July 24, Montreal organist Jonathan Oldengarm on Aug. 7 and Ottawa organist Matthew Larkin on Aug. 21. We have raised two thirds of the total amount and would be grateful for any and all contributions that help to achieve our goal. For more information on these concerts please see notredameottawa.com.

Q. What is the program you are playing and why?

A. The program will feature excerpts from Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky, The Planets by Holst and Capriol Suite by Warlock. We will also be playing Fanfare by Dukas, the Battle Suite by Scheidt and I will play the last movement from the Symphonie Improvisée – (Boston) by Cochereau, Scène Pastorale for an inauguration of an organ by Lefébure-Wély, Andante Sostenuto from Symphonie Gothique by Widor. These are primarily French works supplemented with some English and Russian repertoire. Since it is the inaugural concert, I sought repertoire that best displays the many different sounds the instrument has to offer.

Music and Beyond presents The Planets
Featuring True North Brass and Jennifer Loveless, organist
Where: Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica
When: July 16 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: musicandbeyond.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.