Bayeux cathedral, gallery organ
The history of the two Cavaillé-Coll organs of Bayeux cathedral

The organ of the Cathedral of Bayeux has a long history. It is among those rare instruments which can be traced back to the heart of the Middle Ages.The first instrument was destroyed in the 16th century and replaced by a classical organ which remained in the cathedral for two and a half centuries.

This Classical organ went back as far as 1597: it was gradually enlarged through to the end of the 18th century. Having survived the Revolution, it was restored in 1804 by the organbuilder Dominque Huet. In the 1840s the old organ was in desolate condition, and a rebuild was indispensible. The work was initially given to John Abbey who had submitted his cost estimate in 1843. In 1844 he dismantled the organ and began work. The case was enlarged by the Le Breton company of Caen from 1845 through 1848. But the Abbey company went into bankruptcy during the years 1851-1853, partly on account of the consequences of the 1848 Revolution. The new bishop of Bayeux, Monseigneur Didiot (1856-1866) thereupon decided to call in the great organbuilder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899).

Cavaillé-Coll’s cost estimate for the grand-orgue is dated 24 November 1858. The builder proposed the construction of a new instrument re-using older material. The remaining pipework was appraised at only 1225 francs. The Abbey windchests as well were to be kept along with a few other elements for a sum of 4817 francs. The overall material to be kept came to 6042 francs, to be deducted from the total bill of 53,511.33 francs, that is 47,469.33.

Hence, Cavaillé-Coll was greatly cramped in by the dimensions of Le Breton’s case and, even more, by Abbey’s windchests which he agreed to retain. Thus the relatively narrow scale of the foundation stops may be explained, as they had to be lodged in this preexisting mold.

The builder planned to install a „multi-pressure winding system“ in order to achieve perfect sound balance between the basses and trebles. The organ comprised 43 stops distributed as follows: 16 on the Grand Orgue, 12 on the dorsal Positif, 9 on the Récit and 6 on the Pedal. Taking Abbey’s windchests into account, Cavaillé-Coll retained the 54-note compass for the three manuals and 25 notes (two octaves) for the pedalboard. The initial specification, however, was not fully taken into account. Certain changes were carried out right from the start of the construction phase, particularly in terms of the Récit stops.

The modifications made by Cavaillé- Coll with respect to his cost estimate were as follows: On the Grand Orgue a Bombarde 16 replaced the 16’ Basson. On the Récit, the Viole de gambe and the Voix celeste replaced a treble flute conique and 2’ Octavin. On the same manual a harmonic flute of 54 notes replaced another treble flute (traversiere). The instrument has retained this specification to this day. It should be pointed out that the only transformations to have been carried out since then were the extension of the pedal compass to 30 notes done by Gloton in 1942 as well as the removal of the thunderstorm pedal, no longer up-to- date (at the same time).

The Cavaillé-Coll company began the work in its shop during the year 1860. The following year was principally devoted to building the choir organ which was a welcome replacement for the mediocre temporary organ.

On 8 August 1860, Cavaillé-Coll sent Monseigneur Didiot his tender for an accompaniment organ “appropriately dimensioned for the designated location of this instrument.” This location is a loft situated on the left side of the choir, above the stairway leading down to the crypt. The organ case thus dominated the high backs of the second row of 16th-century choir stalls, while the console was to be incorporated into their first row.

The instrument comprised 12 stops distributed onto two manual keyboards of 54 notes. The tender further specified that the pedalboard would be composed of 20 notes (from C to g); but this point was not held to, as the pedalboard ultimately contained only 18 notes (C-f).

There followed the usual items concerning the facade pipes, the wind system, the windchests and the action.

The keyboards were to be made of oak capped with ivory and ebony, with a chassis in Brazilian rosewood. “These keyboards shall be placed in a desk in console form and located in front of the organ case, in such a way as to enable the organist to see the altar directly and to conduct the singers.”

In his cover letter sent to the bishop, Cavaillé-Coll asserts: “We have already conveyed to the architect the documents necessary for making this case, and we are waiting only for the last instructions and the approval of our tender by your excellence, Monseigneur, to take the work in hand.”

The new diocesan architect alluded to here was Gabriel Crétin. The bishop sent him two letters on 24 August and 2 September 1860, asking him to make known the dates of his trip to Bayeux, since he himself was to go on a pastoral visit. These two letters reached him at the same time in Marseille where he was at the moment.

Returning to Paris on the 7th, he hastened to reply the following day. Upon his return, the architect was surprised not to find Cavaillé-Coll’s tender waiting for him as had been promised. He was ready to take things in hand and come to Bayeux right after the bishop’s round of visits was finished. He even offered personally to see to the administrative formalities: having the documents signed by the prefect and conveyed to the minister. The work on the stalls, he then asserted, would be completed before the winter. The architect’s eagerness is easy to understand: he was beholden to the bishop. Considering that he owed him his appointment, he thanked him for having written to the minister on his behalf: “And please believe that I will make every effort to justify the confidence you have had in me up until now.” Monseigneur Didiot, however, was not in the mood to wait any longer. Giving the construction of the choir organ precedence over his pastoral visit, on 11 September 1860 he summoned Crétin to come immediately.

Construction probably began before the end of the year 1860, at least in the builder’s shop, parallel to the work on the main organ. On 12 December 1860 Cavaillé-Coll wrote to the bishop: “Work is progressing on the choir organ. Monsieur Crétin has just entrusted us with the organ case. I think I shall have the honor of soon greeting your excellency in Bayeux.”

But Cavaillé-Coll probably did not travel to the episcopal seat at that time. Once again, he doubtless was retained by more pressing engagements (especially those connected with the parallel construction of the huge main organ of Saint-Sulpice). However, during the first eight months of the year 1861 his employes were at work on site, erecting the two instruments. The choir organ was completed in September. On 2 September Cavaillé-Coll wrote to abbé Marie-Duclos, the secretary of the bishopric, to sollicit a partial payment of 3000 francs and bring up the matter of the dedication: “I take this opportunity to tell you, Monsieur l’Abbé, that I have seen Monsieur Lefébure-Wély and that this artist would be most willing to do the dedication of the organ around the 20th of this month of Septembre, either Thursday the 19th or Sunday the 22nd […]. I would be most obliged to you, Monsieur l’Abbé, to kindly confer with Monseigneur concerning this matter […]. I enclose several circulars about what has been done in comparable circumstances, so that, in collaboration with Mon- seigneur and Monsieur le Curé, you may organise this little festivity.”

Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély, former organist of the Madeleine, was waiting for the new Saint Sulpice organ. This famous organist wrote works or made improvisations which were light and lively, similar to operatic music (Offenbach’s rather than Wagner’s) and enjoyed great favor with the public. On Sunday, 22 September 1861, Lefébure-Wély dedicated an unfinished organ. The console shell had not yet been delivered. People were so happy in Bayeux finally to have an instrument in the cathedral that such details were of little import. This was the first time in seventeen years, not counting the temporary organ.

On Tuesday, 24 September 1861, in L’Indicateur de Bayeux, A. Delauney wrote a very favorable review, particularly citing the opinion of Haulard, organist of Saint Jean in Caen whom we come across again the following year: “Lefébure,” in his opinion, “achieved the ultimate degree of perfection.” The author goes on: “Let us say in summary that the fine instrument due to M. Cavaillé-Coll’s skill was splendidly dedicated and that its resources and harmonic riches could not encounter a more worthy and noble performer. This first and all-too-short trial of the small organ, so brilliantly carried out by M. Lefébure, gave us a precious foretaste of the more complete pleasures which are promised us next year.”

On 30 October 1861, Cavaillé-Coll announced to abbé Marie-Duclos the expedition of a crate “containing the shell of the keyboards of the small organ in harmony with the case, which, as I hope, will be to your liking.” We may assume it was, for this shell, just like the case, is well integrated into the Rennaissance stalls from the end of the 16th century. Cavaillé-Coll further specifies that the realisation had been entrusted to a “head worker” from his company, “after the drawings by Monsieur Liénard.” The latter was working for the great builder at the time: he was the creator of the woodwork of the small organ. Cavaillé-Coll took advantage of this letter to thank the abbé for the partial payment of 3000 francs, sent on 28 September shortly after the dedication.

Hence the the choir organ project had been carried out swiftly. At the same time, Cavaillé-Coll was actively expediting the work on the main organ.

The first crates containing the pipes of the grand-orgue had arrived in Bayeux by Western Railroad in the month of December 1860. Yet the year 1861 had been occupied above all by the refurnishing of the casework, also carried out by the Cavaillé-Coll company. The erecting and voicing were done in the first six months of the year 1862. At the beginning of the summer the instrument was completed and the dedication was scheduled for 12 and 13 July. Lefébure- Wely once again agreed to participate. The reception of the grand-orgue took place on Saturday 12 July 1992 at 4:00 in the afternoon. It was Lefébure-Wely who did the honors, assisted by two Caen musicians, Mssrs. Heulart and Karren, organists at Saint-Jean and Notre-Dame. The dedication went on throughout the following day, Sunday 13 July, with the benediction, mass, vespers and benediction of the Holy Sacrement. Lefébure-Wely was at the console from morning through the evening. The same Lefébure-Wely had been entrusted with writing up the official report which, dated 26 July 1862, was most laudatory toward Cavaillé-Coll’s work. It ends with the following words addressed to the Minister of Religious Affairs: „Your Excellency and the Diocese Administration may be assured of having furnished one of the most beautiful cathedrals in France with one of modern organbuilding’s best instruments.“

1862 is a stellar year for the history of the organ. Begun in January, the construction was completed six months later. Bayeux had been obliged to wait for nearly twenty years before reclaiming its grand-orgue; thanks to the stubborn will and the perseverance of two men, Charles Didiot and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, the 1858 project was able to be realized in a reasonable amount of time. The financing of the operation was taken care of without major problem: every- thing had been seen to by the end of December. The small organ had even been built before the large one and dedicated as early as 1861.

These two Cavaillé-Coll organs have been preserved up until our day, that is for 136 years. Their history during this period is that of the organists who occupied the organ loft and the choir, that of the concerts which took place in the cathedral, but above all that of the instruments themselves. The archives make it possible to study the overhauls, maintenance and other works that they underwent. Quite fortunately, no significant transformation was brought to bear. The organs of Bayeux are nearly-intact witness to the mastery of the great 19th-century Parisian builder.

François Neveux

translated by Kurt Lueders

Overhauls and restorations from 1862 to 2003

1878: Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (Paris):

Overhaul of the large and the small organ

1893: Charles Mutin (and Joseph Koenig)

of Caen: Overhaul of the lage organ

1910: Joseph Koenig (Caen):

overhaul of the small organ

1913: Joseph Koenig (Caen):

overhaul of the large organ

1942: Gloton-Debierre (Nantes):

Restoration of the lage organ

1977: Danion-Gonzalez:

Overhaul of the large organ

1998: Renaud-Ménoret (Nantes):

Restoration of the large organ.

2003: Lacorre et Robert (Nozay,

Loire-Atlantique): restoration of the choir organ. Extension of the pedalboard (30 notes).