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France Notre Dame Fire Saved and Lost

Philippe Lefebvre, 64, plays the organ at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in 2013.

(AP Photo/Christophe Ena, file)

Few of us will ever forget April 15, when the 12th-century Cathédrale de Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire. Millions of people watched and prayed as flames ravaged the roof and spire of the great Gothic structure, a spiritual and cultural symbol of France.

The next day brought some hopeful news: The losses were not total. The cathedral’s vaulted ceiling, made of stone, protected the interior from serious damage when the roof buckled and fell. Most of the artwork was saved; the rose windows and the organs survived, though they were damaged.

That’s when the idea of the Bastille Day Marathon of French Organ Music was born. From 4 to 8 p.m. July 14 at Christ Church Cathedral, more than two dozen area organists will perform French music on the Episcopal cathedral’s great Aeolian-Skinner instrument. A free-will offering will be collected, and the funds sent to Paris to help pay for the restoration of Notre Dame’s two organs.

William S. “Pat” Partridge, canon precentor and longtime music director of the Cathedral, has long been immersed in French organ music; his own teacher studied with the great French organist and composer Marcel Dupré (1886-1971). Like most of the world’s classical music community, he’d been concerned about the fate of the organ, with some of its pipes dating back to the 18th century. He wondered what he could do to help.

There are musical connections between Paris and St. Louis. The great French organist Alexandre Guilmant came here to perform on the organ at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. In the late 1960s, the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co., which once had its own record label, brought another pair of outstanding performers, Maurice and Marie-Madeleine Duruflé, to record a program of French organ music on Christ Church Cathedral’s mighty Aeolian-Skinner instrument. “When I first heard it,” long before he came to St. Louis, says Partridge, “I couldn’t imagine where the organ was. It sounded like one somewhere in France.”

Paris, he concluded, “is our sister city. It’s time to reach out and help.”

Partridge ran his plan past Burnell Hackman, dean of the St. Louis chapter of the American Guild of Organists, who agreed that the chapter would take part. He called the Alliance Française de St. Louis; the executive director, Isabelle Heidbreder, said that it was a wonderful idea and agreed to help sponsor it. He sent the word out to area organists, and 27 signed up to perform. One, who declined to be named, pledged to match the first $1,000 raised.

There’s no expectation that the marathon will pay for the complete restoration of the organs. Along with the main organ (which has 115 stops in 156 ranks, five manuals and more than 8,000 pipes), there’s a smaller organ in the choir.

While there’s no major damage to the organs — the pipes are all intact — there was considerable smoke damage; everything will have to be taken apart, cleaned and repaired. That will take both time and money. While that’s happening, Partridge says, he’s most concerned about the three full-time and two part-time organists at Notre Dame, who are currently out of work.

(One of them, the superb organist Olivier Latry, has a gig for next year: He has been named a William T. Kemper Artist-in-Residence at the University of Kansas School of Music, beginning this fall. Already on the books there is a recital to benefit the many Notre-Dame employees who lost their jobs because of the fire.)

There will be a table at the door with volunteers providing information and collecting donations; it’s also possible to give online, at christchurchcathedral.us. (Select the Bastille Day Concert Fund.)

The music to be performed at Christ Church Cathedral runs the gamut from François Couperin (1668-1733) to Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) to Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992).

At four hours, with no intermissions (there will be a few minutes’ break between organists, as they seat themselves and set their stops), it’s fine for audience members to come and go. Partridge is saving his own contribution for last: Dupré’s “Sortie.” It’s a brilliant, flashy piece, the perfect choice to conclude an event designed to help erase some of the sorrow from the fire.


Bastille Day Marathon of French Organ Music

When • 4 to 8 p.m. July 14

Where • Christ Church Cathedral, 13th and Locust streets

How much • A free-will offering will be collected.

Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; she has also written on a variety of other topics.