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History of the great organ of the Saint-Eustache church

While the Saint-Eustache Church is still not finished, a first organ was built in 1559 by the organ builder Josselin from Rouen. To this day, we do not know where this instrument was placed in the building. It was enlarged and improved by several successive builders, until it was moved in to the porch of the large doorway on the rue du Jour side in 1626.

However, the first problems began in 1665 when Colbert had two chapels built under the main facade which led to soil settlements. It was therefore decided to tear down the facade of the church. The instrument most likely disappeared around this time. It was not until 1788 that the new facade was "completed", and there was talk of acquiring a new organ! However, the French revolution prevented this project.

When worship was restored under the 1801 Concordat, the acquisition of a new instrument was necessary. At that time, Saint-Eustache obtained the right to recover the organ from the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. This transfer was authorized on two conditions. The first was that Saint-Eustache would pay all the costs incurred by this move. The second condition was that the organ be returned without delay as soon as the authorities of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés requested it. This second condition has never been met. The organ builder Pierre-François Dallery took charge of the operation. By reusing a large part of the pipes of the organ builders Thierry (Alexandre and François) and Brocard, he developed a large instrument of forty-two stops distributed on four keyboards and pedals. It was inaugurated in January 1802. Unfortunately, it deteriorated quickly and Dallery carried out a complete restoration from 1816 to 1820. This instrument survived until 1841. 


However, this organ was quickly judged to be archaic and no longer in keeping with the musical taste of the time. Félix Danjou, then organist of the church, introduced an ambitious project which was accepted and carried out from 1841 to 1844 by the Maison Daublaine & Callinet. This instrument, inaugurated in June 1844, had sixty-nine stops spread over four keyboards and two pedalboards (which is extremely rare!) One is French style and the other German style.


Charles Barker – who will be remembered in history above all as the brilliant inventor of the pneumatic lever which bears his name, and which allows the organist to play several keyboards at the same time without any effort – was at the time foreman of Daublaine & Callinet and had participated in the design and manufacturing of this masterpiece. On December 16 of the same year, barely 6 months after the inauguration of the new organ, while he was working on the instrument, he awkwardly knocked down the oil lamp which allowed him to see. It fell in an inaccessible place while continuing to burn. The fire spread over the mechanism and began to ravage the instrument. Charles Barker barely had time to escape and call for help. But it was too late, flames flooded the entire instrument. Metal, like lava, fell into the nave.

The organ case, which had once been the pride of Saint-Eustache, was no more than an incandescent blaze. The organ of Saint-Eustache was no more.

After this shock, it was not until 1849 that serious consideration was given to the construction of a new organ. It was completed in 1854. The organ case designed by architect Victor Baltard, which can still be admired today is in itself a masterpiece. Monumental and grandiose, it is an ode to the nature of the world imagined by man, hence the presence of many creatures such as chimeras, griffins or harpies. A celestial and fantastic fauna cohabiting above our heads, silently watching over divine worship. The case is crowned by an imposing Sainte-Cécile, saint patron of musicians, flanked by a furious Saul, ready to throw his javelin, and by a David seeking to calm him down with his zither.


The instrumental part was entrusted to Ducroquet, who had bought Daublaine & Callinet, ruined by the fire at Saint-Eustache. This instrument had sixty-eight stops spread over four keyboards and a pedal. This instrument worked until 1871, when it was partly destroyed during the incidents of the Commune.


In 1876, the administration of the church accepted Joseph Merklin's project for the construction of a large organ. He suggested an instrument of seventy-two stops on four keyboards and pedal. There are many testimonies to praise this instrument. We can imagine that Merklin must have been particularly involved in the manufacturing of this instrument when we know that all the great organs of the capital were entrusted to his direct competitor Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.

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This instrument seems to have worked continuously until 1926. Joseph Bonnet, then titular organist, wanted a major restoration and modernization of the instrument. The twentieth century saw a change in taste regarding organ design, whose focus was on more clarity, light, and modernity offered by the use of electricity.

Rickenbach then proposed a project that won Joseph Bonnet’s enthusiasm. It included the replacement of the mechanical action by an electro-pneumatic transmission, the creation of a new console, as well as the addition of several new stops including the famous basset horn by the English organ maker Henry Willis.

However, the troubles of this organ were not over. After four years, Rickenbach went bankrupt. The work was therefore resumed by the Gonzales house in 1931.


As planned, Gonzales completed the electrification of the instrument. He took it to 84 stops. The organ was inaugurated in 1932. In 1945, the position of organist was entrusted to André Marchal. Fro, his appointment until 1963, he had Victor Gonzales perform a set of transformations aimed at varying the sonic palette of the instrument.

In 1963, major work, including lifting the instrument, was necessary. André Marchal wanted this to be entrusted to Gonzales. The mayor of Paris decided otherwise. The contract was awarded to Jean Hermann, leading to André Marchal’s immediate resignation.

Ironically, Jean Hermann died suddenly while carrying out the work in Saint-Eustache. The work was then entrusted back to Gonzales. Because André Marchal had already resigned, Jean Guillou became the new titular organist in 1963.


The organ now consisted of 102 stops on five keyboards. It had two consoles, one in the gallery and the other in the nave. The condition of this organ deteriorated very quickly, and it was silenced in 1977 because of a high risk of catching fire due to the failing state of the electrical installation.

In 1978, the Technical Committee for Organs of Cultural Affairs of the City of Paris voted for the project proposed by Etablissements Dunand. This extremely ambitious project proposed the construction, in the existing case, of a new organ with five keyboards and more than 100 stops. These would be fully mechanical without any assistance. The organ was supposed to be finished in 1980. But after six years of delay, the organ was still not complete. It was therefore decided to end the contract, playing a a major part in the demise of the Dunand company.

A new competition was launched. It was won by Van den Heuvel from Dordrecht in the Netherlands. They proposed the construction of a large organ with 101 stops in the existing case. This instrument designed by Jean-Louis Coignet, in charge of the organs for the city of Paris, aimed to be a bridge between tradition and modernity. Although having many characteristics of the French symphonic organ, several of Jean Guillou’s were incorporated into it, giving it a sonic palette and an extraordinary personality. This mechanical traction organ with Barker assistance has two consoles, one in a gallery used for the services and the other in the nave for concerts.

Jean Guillou was its titular until 2015, when he became emeritus organist of the great organ of Saint-Eustache. That same year, following a competition, Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard and Thomas Ospital were appointed titular organists of the great organ.

Thomas Ospital

Translation : Christopher Mole 

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