Today, we’re focusing our blog on an organ builder who was integral to the development of pipe organs and pipe organ music as we know it today. Aristide Cavaille-Coll has been dubbed as the creator of the symphonic organ, and influenced the music of many incredible pipe organ composers, such as César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor.

Destined to Design

Cavaille-Coll was born in Montpellier, France on February 4, 1911. Interestingly enough, he was born into a family of organ builders; his father Dominique Cavaille-Coll, and his grandfather Jean Pierre Cavaille-Coll both held professions as organ builders.

Knowing his lineage, it’s no surprise that Aristide Cavaille-Coll took up a life as a designer and builder of pipe organs. That being said, it is quite incredible that he had such a profound and integral impact on pipe organs as a whole. 

Interestingly enough, Cavaille-Coll was not a musician, he simply had a passion for building magnificent organs. Although he was not a musician himself, he collaborated with many a pipe organ composer to maximize the quality and complexity of the music that could be performed via pipe organ. 

The Symphonic Organ

The reason that Cavaille-Coll has been dubbed the most important pipe organ builder of the 19th century is because he is responsible for introducing the world to the massive symphonic pipe organ. A symphonic pipe organ is an organ that is built with a plethora of pipes (usually around 4,000) that work to create the sounds of different orchestral instruments to effectively imitate the sound, presence, and musical complexity of an orchestra. 

Through his organs, Cavaille-Coll introduced many innovations to the instrument, as well as refined different aspects that previously existed within the instrument to provide more nuanced and elaborate opportunities for organists. These developments allowed for new opportunities when composing organ pieces, as the instrument was now capable of accomplishing different musical effects.

Firstly, he made it so the Grand-Chœur manual was moved down, replacing the Positif as the lowest manual of his organs. He also improved the technology of the expression, or swell, pedal by creating a balanced, spring-loaded pedal that optimized the range of expression the organist could utilize. Essentially, the expression pedal made it easier to manipulate volume, which, in turn, provided more opportunity for an organist to express and emphasize different notations of a composition. 

Perhaps Cavaille-Coll’s most influential addition included in his organs was the expanded set of stops and advancements in pipe-manufacturing that then allowed the pipe organ to mimic the sounds and tones of orchestral instruments. Although the most notable stop Cavaille-Coll added to the organ was the harmonic flute pipe. He also added stops that replicated the sounds of the bassoon, English horn, and oboe. 

Cavalle-Coll also made reed stops on the organ more accessible by upgrading the technology of the wind boxes, which are the parts of the organ responsible for administering pressurized air to the different pipes of the pipe organ. 

Additionally, Cavaille-Coll introduced the ability to crescendo from pianissimo to fortissimo by inventing a pneumatic combination action, which essentially allowed for an organist to program settings that could be enabled by buttons that are colloquially referred to as ‘pistons’.

The Cavaille-Coolest

The impact of Aristide Cavaille-Coll on the world of pipe organ fabrication is undeniable — not only did he introduce technologies that propelled the instrument forward and increased the potential for artistic expression, but he also became a beloved influencer of the organ world. From César Franck exclaiming “My new organ? It’s an orchestra!” to Charles-Marie Widor, accrediting him for his contributions to pipe organ technology. He was admired and respected in the music world, despite the fact that he wasn’t a musician. 

Throughout his life, Cavaille-Coll built or rebuilt over 500 pipe organs, many of which still exist and are in use today. It’s important to note, however, that not all of his organs are in their original condition. During the Orgelbewegung movement, a movement that attempted to return the pipe-organ to its roots, many  Cavaille-Coll organs were altered in an attempt to return to the original sounds and capabilities of the pipe organ before Cavaille-Coll’s advancements. That being said, we’ve listed some of the locations of the most notable organs devised by Cavaille-Coll below. 

  • Saint-Sulpice – Paris, France
  • Notre Dame de Paris – Paris, France
  • Notre Dame de la Croix – Paris, France
  • Church of St. François-de-Sales – Lyon, France
  • Church of St. Ouen – Rouen, France 
  • Haus Sonnenschein – Fuji, Japan
  • Igreja de São José do Ipiranga – São Paulo, Brazil
  • Jesus Church – Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Royal Conservatory of Music – Brussels, Belgium
  • St Michael’s Abbey – Hampshire, Farnborough (United Kingdom)

It’s important to note that these are only a mere fraction of the organs that Cavaille-Coll designed, built, and/or improved upon during his time as a pipe organ manufacturer. 

We hope that you’ve enjoyed this blog on the incredible legacy of Cavaille-Coll! At Whitesel Church Organs, we love basking in the history of the pipe organ and pride ourselves on making sure that the pipe organ stays alive and in all its glory during these modern times. If you’re in need of pipe organ servicing, repairs, tuning, or even a rental, call us today! We’re more than happy to provide you with a free organ assessment, and we look forward to helping you keep your pipe organ in mint condition!