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Canadian Casavant Frères pipe organ finds new life Down Under

Arts

AFTER more than a decade spent in storage and transit, the time has come for an exceptionally rare Canadian Casavant Frères pipe organ to sound its original voice on the other side of the world.

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The extraordinary pipe organ was built in 1927 by the world-renowned Casavant brothers and was housed in the St Jean de la Croix Church in Montreal for 70 years before the church was converted into a luxury condominium complex in 2003.

The organ survived and has now found a new home at St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral in Adelaide, South Australia.

John Maidment, the chairman of the Organ Historical Trust of Australia, says the volume and sound quality of the organ will make it a valuable asset not only to the liturgical life of the Cathedral, but also for recitals and performances.

“The sound and tonal quality of the organ will be well-suited to the space of the Cathedral. It has a substantial degree of power as well as more subtle, softer colours,” says Maidment.

“Hearing it will be an experience we’ve never had before. It will be a wonderful compliment to the other organs in Australia.”

The instrument is made up of just less than 3,500 pipes and weighs 16 tonnes.

“It is the only example of an organ of this kind built on the American continent in the inter-war years to come to Australia,” says Maidment.

Most of the other organs in Adelaide were made in London. These English style organs are quite different to the Casavant Frères, which have a French influence and distinctive sound. Adelaide’s Elder Hall is also home to a newer Casavant Frères installed in 1979.

The age of the organ and the time in which it was built is part of what makes it so special, explains Maidment.

“The organ was made during one of the greatest periods of organ building in the history of the world, especially in terms of the size of the organs,” he says.

“The period experienced a huge amount of financial support from churches and concert halls that has never been repeated on such a scale.

“It is an organ of enormous substance,” he says. “I haven’t seen anything quite like it. The general solidity is remarkable, perhaps due to the access to vast amounts of timber they had in Canada at the time.”  

Ian Wakeley, the organ specialist responsible for bringing the pipe organ from Canada to Australia, says this organ is exceptional because the sound has remained almost wholly unchanged.

“It is symphonic in style and sound and is an orchestral type instrument, which is rare. Even those in North America have mostly been rebuilt or reconfigured, so they have partially lost their original voice,” Wakeley says. “We have also kept the layout of the organ much the same.”

It has been a long and painstaking process to transport the organ to Australia, restore it, and install it in its new home in Adelaide. The thousands of pipes have been individually checked, cleaned and repaired, to ensure that the organ is sounding right.

St Francis Xavier’s closed in May 2015 to renovate the choir loft to hold the organ. Stunning new casework has been designed and the gallery floor has been levelled off and remade.

The reconstruction has been funded through a campaign called ‘Pipes are Calling,’ whereby individuals and groups can purchase a pipe. Prices vary from $100 for a small pipe to $100 000 for a 16-foot façade pipe. The fundraising has been ongoing and the target of the first stage of the campaign is AUD$5 million.

Jenny Brinkworth, Director of Catholic Communications and Editor of The Southern Cross South Australia, says St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral has never had a proper organ.

“It is a tradition and requirement that the Cathedral has a pipe organ. It will play a key role in masses, weddings and funerals,” Brinkworth says, adding that their old smaller organ was removed in the 1990s to make room for a bell-ringing chamber. 

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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