The Basilica of Notre Dame de Valère in Sion houses the world’s oldest still playable organ. The instrument has 376 pipes, the oldest and smallest of which are from the original instrument, built by an unknown builder. These pipes are made of an alloy that is almost pure lead. They seem to have been cast on rough cloth and sand and are very narrow in measure. The instrument was originally located in a gallery over the altar in the centre of the church but is now in a loft at the back. It is probable that the acquisition of the instrument was facilitated by Guillaume de Rarogne, a local dignitary who became the Bishop of Sion.
The decorative paintings on the organ and the frescos in the church were created by Peter Maggenberg of Freiburg. It has often been surmised that the organ was completed around the same time as the decorative paintings and frescos, between 1434 and 1437. However, the Rarogne family is connected with the building of the organ in several sources, and the dates of Bishops Guillaume I de Rarogne (1351–1402) and Guillaume II de Rarogne (1381–1428) suggest that the oldest pipes may predate the paintings. Certain old sources suggest that the original instrument dates back to the period 1370–1390. Organ specialists Henri Arnaut de Zwolle and Arthur G. Hill considered in their day that the instrument displays features of the Medieval Burgundian style, pointing to the mid-14th century.
A thorough restoration of the organ was undertaken in the 17th century, when organ builder Christopher Aebi de Soleure (1642–1693) and his father Hans Jacob added lower-pitched stops. Today, the organ has eight stops. During the Baroque era, the organ case was reshaped to resemble the church itself, with the largest divisions forming the towers and the smaller ones forming the triangular roof structure. When the basilica of Notre Dame de Valère was occupied by a monastic order in the 18th century, a small pedalboard with nine keys is supposed to have been added. This had a ‘short octave’, as indeed the only manual on the instrument.
The original pipes made by the unknown organ builder of distant past produce a tone that glows like gems in the magnificent acoustic of the Basilica. The sound and action of the organ bear the hallmarks of the philosophy and handicraft of centuries ago. The action is extremely sensitive and allows for several kinds of touch. The keys on the keyboard are so short that they force the organist to employ fingerings used in early music. This sensitivity allows the execution of percussive effects, including drumming on the lower-pitched stops. These effects are striking, because in historical instruments the action is unbushed. Every detail is carefully considered, and it is possible to conjure up magical beauty by playing just a few pipes.
The organ as an instrument has a colourful history. Ctesibius Alexandrinus is known to have built a hydraulic organ in 246 BCE, but Michael Praetorius reports in his Syntagma Musicum (1619) that the inventor and supreme builder of organs was King Solomon (hocherfahrnersten Orgelmacher). Praetorius’s sources for his Syntagma Musicum (1619) included Greek and other historical manuscripts. In 67 CE, a Gaul named Gaius Iulius Vindex is known to have been organ builder to Emperor Nero, who had an entire collection of hydraulic organs that were used in amphitheatres, at circus games, at gladiator fights, at parties and in processions, and the instrument is mentioned in the poem Aetna. Cicero, Lucretius and Petronius described hydraulic organs in several of their writings. Petronius has left us a legendary account of how an organ was used at chariot races. The organ was also used in Antiquity during surgical procedures such as trepanning: it was believed that the frequencies produced by the pipes could alleviate pain.
Eventually, the organ became an instrument of the church. In 951, an enormous organ was built in Winchester, requiring 70 strong men to operate its bellows and two organists on two levels to play it. By the 15th century, every significant cathedral and monastic institution had an organ (we know of instruments built at the Wettenberg Monastery in 1060, at the Salerno Monastery in 1092, in Bonn in 1230, in Barcelona in 1259, in Paris in 1299 and in Basel in 1313). It is assumed that Finland’s first organ must have been built at Turku Cathedral in the 14th or 15th century, but the earliest surviving documentary reference to an organ at Turku Cathedral dates from 1576.
Somewhat surprisingly, the organ was also developed into a battlefield weapon. Roger Bacon discovered an Arabic text titled Kitab-al-Siyasa, which
describes a gargantuan instrument known as the Horn of Themistius. Despite its name, this was an organ that was to be carried into battle and operated by 60 men, and it was capable of physically damaging the enemy, as its sound was, incredibly, said to be audible 100 km away. Judging by this, the Horn of Themistius remains the loudest musical instrument ever built.
The organ became a popular court instrument in the 15th and 16th centuries. When an inventory was made of the estate of the late King Henry VIII of England in 1547, he was found to have possessed dozens of chamber organs, regals and claviorgana, the latter being a type of instrument that had strings like a lute or viol in addition to organ pipes. Similar instruments were designed by Leonardo da Vinci, whose viola organista and portable continuo organ with double bellows have recently been reconstructed. Galileo Galilei, the learned dissenter, was also an accomplished organist and is known to have made at least one of his famous telescopes out of an organ pipe. The organ thus also played its part in the discovery of the mysteries of the universe.
In tune with the world history of the organ, the present disc contains music from the earliest surviving collection of organ music in the German language sphere, the Buxheimer Orgelbuch (1470), and from the Robertsbridge Codex, considered the earliest surviving collection of keyboard music of any kind. The collections compiled by Pierre Attaingnant and his printer colleague Claude Gervaise in Paris in the 16th century include many of their arrangements of works by other composers to be performed on court organs. In England, the most famous manuscript collection of keyboard works from the 16th and 17th centuries is one reputed to have been compiled by Francis Tregian the Younger while imprisoned for his religious beliefs. It subsequently came into the possession of Lord Fitzwilliam, after whom it is known as the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. The disc concludes with music from the 17th century, e.g. by Giacomo Carissimi, played on the stops added to the instrument at hand in 1687–1688. The sound of the very oldest pipes in this oldest playable organ in the world carries us back to the day of Jeanne d’Arc (1412–1431). The beauty of these stories told in sound are a balm for the soul.
Jalasjärvi, 19 April 2020