Hoping Le Grand Orgue undamaged in Paris blaze a pipe dream, city organist says


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Young United Church organist Lottie Enns-Braun knows better than most that when a fire strikes a church sometimes it is hearing that is believing.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/04/2019 (1259 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Young United Church organist Lottie Enns-Braun knows better than most that when a fire strikes a church sometimes it is hearing that is believing.

Enns-Braun said she has seen photographs and reports in the aftermath of the massive blaze that destroyed parts of the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris earlier this week.

Lottie Enns-Braun, organist at Young United Church, sits with the church’s organ. (Anthony Mark Schellenberg photo)
She said some of the reports say that the cathedral’s Great Organ has been saved, but she knows there is a difference between saved and being able to play it right away, and for it to sound like it did.

That’s because Enns-Braun said the devastating fire that struck the then-80-year-old church at Broadway and Furby Street in 1987, burning all of it to the ground except for its iconic brick tower, wasn’t the only blaze there.

She said a much smaller fire ignited two years ago in a room where garbage is collected, just off a hallway near the church sanctuary, where the pipe organ is located.

“The sanctuary was filled with smoke,” Enns-Braun said. “When I ran my hand over the keyboard I couldn’t feel anything, so I thought, ‘Oh, good, it wasn’t damaged.’

“But, as we found, there was more to it.”

Enns-Braun said her ear told her something had changed when she played it again.

It was because, as she and church officials were told by Quebec-based manufacturer Orgues Letourneau, smoke can cause damage that isn’t visible.

“They said you have to have it cleaned — it is the fumes that can mix with the pipes,” she said.

The result is corrosion and, eventually, deterioration of the pipes, she added.

As a result, two Letourneau technicians came to Winnipeg last year, working nine-hour days for two weeks, removing every pipe, cleaning each by hand and reinstalling them.

“Some of the pipes were as small as your pinky finger,” she said. “And then they had to tune the organ; that can take as long as the cleaning.”

A small fire two years ago required the church to have every one of hte organ's 1,828 pipes removed, cleaned, reinstalled and tuned. (Supplied)

Fortunately for Young United, the cost of restoring the organ was covered by insurance, the second time the church made use of its coverage.

“A past organist (before the 1987 fire) said you have to insure the organ for the cost of replacement, so the congregation changed their insurance policy,” Enns-Braun said. “The only reason we have an instrument here is because they said, A, we want a pipe organ and B, we have the money with insurance.”

Notre Dame Cathedral’s Great Organ, or Le Grand Orgue in French, was built in the 1700s and has about 8,000 pipes. Young United’s organ has 1,828.

But Enns-Braun said even after the pipes are cleaned and tuned, and any work is done on the organ itself, Notre Dame’s organ may still not sound like it did the day before the fire.

“They always say 50 per cent of an organ is the acoustics of the room. With the renovation work needed, it could take years and it still might not sound the same.

“Thank goodness there are so many recordings of the music.”


Philippe Lefebvre plays the organ at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in 2013. (Christophe Ena / The Associated Press files)
Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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