Rick Hellman
KU News Service

Veteran Notre Dame organist hopes for another miracle

Tue, 04/16/2019

LAWRENCE – Having been the apparent recipient of one miracle – the survival of the organ in Monday’s devastating fire — James Higdon dares to hope for another: that he will live long enough, and enough of Les Grandes Orgues (the Grand Organ) in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris can be saved, that he can once again climb the worn stone steps to the steeply pitched organ loft and play in what he regards as the home of Western music.

Higdon is the Dane and Polly Bales Professor of Organ at the University of Kansas School of Music. His eyes teared up as he displayed a certificate from the curé of the cathedral commemorating his first recital there in May 1988. In all, he has given five recitals and attended dozens more at Notre Dame.

Higdon last performed there May 26, 2018, and was considering the repertoire he planned to play during a recital he was invited to give there next year.

“Just last week, I was invited to play in the Musique Sacrée series on Sept. 1, 2020,” Higdon said Tuesday morning. “In France they use snail mail for signed documents, and I'm hoping I will still get it. I have an email.”

Over and above news reports about the miraculous survival of Les Grandes Orgues at the rear of the sanctuary, between the two rectangular bell towers, Higdon said he had heard more details from colleagues in Paris using social media.

“There are three organists at Notre Dame, and one of them wrote that they believe that the organ has miraculously been saved,” Higdon said. “And if you look at photos of the inside of Notre Dame, the back of the church … still has the wooden track racks; all the wooden chairs are there; the candles are still upright in their votive holders.

“And the organ, of course, is in back of that. For some reason, they say that it was not damaged by heat, which would have melted the pipes, or fire, which would have burned up the case and the rest of the instrument.

“There was a concrete structure of some kind over the organ area between the two towers that saved the organ loft from having water damage. Apparently, there are two little puddles on each side of the organ, in the organ loft.”

Higdon said that as soon as it's safe, the organ will be completely dismantled – he notes it contains between 8,000 and 9,000 pipes — and placed in storage.

And he expressed confidence in French President Emmanuel Macron’s pledge to rebuild.

“I was really looking forward to it,” Higdon said. “When I went to sleep last night, I felt like I would probably never in my life be able to play there again. This morning, after discovering that the rose windows, the organ and much of the back of the cathedral is still intact, and that they feel like the bell towers still have structural integrity — provided the rest of the stone walls have structural integrity — it seems like I will be able to play there again.”

“I would like to hope that I still can play this Sept. 1, 2020, recital at a later date. And I plan to do everything I can to do that.”

Photo: Les Grandes Orgues (Large Organ) of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, seen in 2006. Credit: Frédéric Deschamps / Wikimedia Commons

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