Listen and read—our pipe organ has a rich family tree

Christ Church Cathedral’s Karl Wilhelm organ is a jewel among jewels and an important part of the tradition at the cathedral. Donations to the campaign will ensure its rich tones are heard for a long time to come.

Nicholas Capozzoli

Bravo, Nicholas!
Rising Up! extends its heartiest congratulations to Nicholas Capozzoli, doctoral candidate at McGill University and Assistant Organist at Christ Church Cathedral, who placed third in the Canadian International Organ Competition (CIOC) last week. Some of the world’s finest organists compete in this event in which a prestigious jury representing various countries awards prizes to a selection of the best young organists in the world. We do not have a recording of his performance during the competition, but we did find one of him playing the pipe organ at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Upper St. Clair, PA. back in 2013.

In honour of Nicholas’s win and in preparation for a special post to come, we thought it might be fun to do a short primer on the development of the pipe organ.

A short history of the pipe organ
Continuous tone is the organ’s most important characteristic and that the various iterations of the instrument is tied to musicians’ ongoing attempt to control wind to produce it.

Wooden Scandinavian pan pipe, 9th c.

Pan pipes are the first ancestors of pipe organs. At first made of different sized reeds cut from hollow-stemmed plants attached together with cord or wax, they eventually were also fashioned out of wood and clay.

The instrument pictured here was found in a 10th-century pit at Coppergate in North Yorkshire, England. Its tubes are bored to be of differing lengths so that blowing across their tops produces a 5-note scale, running from top A to top E. To hear a reed pan pipe, click here.

The hydraulis
The hydraulis or water organ is thought to have been invented in the 3rd century BC. A keyboard instrument, it used water to regulate the flow of air through pipes. Over time, bellows were introduced to the instrument. Both versions died out in the West after the fall of the Western Empire, but survived in the East. In 757, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Copronymus reintroduced the organ to the West by presenting Pepin the Short with a bellows-operated version, which was to become the church organ as we know it today. To hear a hydraulis, click here.

Portative organ 13C.web

Portative organ
Portatives were keyboard instruments that people strapped over their shoulders. The keyboard was affixed to pipes placed into holes on a box and an attached bellows pushed air through the pipes. One person both pumped the bellows and played the instrument. The one pictured here belongs to Cristina Alis Raurich, a Spanish historical keyboard player, researcher, and medieval music specialist. To hear her playing it, click here.

Medieval Bellow Organ

Gothic organ after Hugo Van der Goes
Around the year 1100, large pipe organs became a feature of churches. These instruments were fitted with many pipes and several huge bellows, so that two people were required to play them; one pumped the bellows (the calcant), while the other played (the organist). To hear the type of medieval organ pictured here, click here.

Christ Church Cathedral’s Karl Wilhelm organ
Did you know that the cathedral owned two organs prior to the one we currently hear at concerts and during services? In 1816, when the cathedral was on Notre-Dame Street in the old city, King George III gifted it with an organ built by Thomas Elliott, of London. Both the instrument and the church were destroyed by fire a short 40 years later. An exact replica was then built by William Hill and Son, of London and installed in the current edifice on Ste. Catherine Street. Enlarged, rebuilt and moved on various occasions, it was in service at the cathedral for 120 years. Parts of it are now in organs located in Gananoque, Ontario and in a northern New York university.

In 1979, a new organ was commissioned. The congregation wanted it to be built on the principles of other great organs found in the Protestant churches of northern Europe. The commission was won by Karl Wilhelm organ builders of Mont Saint-Hilaire.

The instrument was installed in the church in 1980 and the inaugural concert was presented on January 24, 1981, by Mireille and Bernard Lagacé. To hear our unique Karl Wilhelm organ, you can click here and you can also hear it live on Friday, November 10th at 7:30 p.m. when Patrick Wedd and the Cathedral Singers perform a concert entitled De profundis: Music for troubled times. Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for seniors, $15 for students and are available at the door. A post-concert wine and cheese reception is included in the price. For more information, call 514-843-6577, local 236.


Have a Say

Do you have a story to share about the Cathedral? We would love to hear from you!
Please contact us at Campaign.Communications@montrealcathedral.ca.
We also welcome your comments in the space below.

To donate to the Major fundraising campaign, click here.


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