As we have seen, what intrigued Olivier Messiaen was the intrinsic color of each stop. With his organ at Sainte-Trinité, he was well served in as much as the stops are characterized by their solo capabilities. We are not talking about simply this or that Oboe, Vox humana, Clarinet or the like, but of every timbre considered independently, be it a Montre, Bourdon, Octavin, Nazard, Flute or even a mixture alone. It should be mentioned that the pipe scalings of certain ranks are wider than those encountered in the huge instruments of Saint-Sernin, Saint-ouen, Saint-Sulpice, and above all, that the voicing of Cavaillé-Coll's company was exceptional. Indeed, with this instrument, it is possible to venture out into registrations quite unusual or even impossible elsewhere, the favorable acoustic of Sainte-Trinité making it all the more difficult to reproduce such effects in other rooms. It could be said that one innovation characterizes Messiaen : the search for tone colors.

This search doesn't just happen by itself. We started to become fully aware of the realm of timbre via the organs by Cavaillé-Coll who was a genius when it came to experimenting with timbres. It is Aristide Cavaillé-Coll who was the father of the modern contemporary organ; it is he who grasped the primal role of specific timbre (that is the basic solo value of each register) for in former times - I am thinking about J.S.Bach and his contemporaries - the tone colors were interchangeable and one had no qualms about giving a violin solo to an oboe, transferring a chorus into a chorale setting for organ, having a soprano sing a solo line originally relegated to the flute, etc… At that time, there was a certain insouciance concerning timbre.

I asked Messiaen: might this reason be due to material or practical constraints ?

I don’t believe so. In the history of music there is after all an orderly succession of events. In Western civilization, in any case, melody came about first, then harmony and finally the concern for timbre, still later, the concern for rhythm, for which I hear some responsibility. Finally, there is a characteristic that has been known in the East for a long time but is quite recent in the West: that is the concern for dynamics and tempo – the opposition between and the alloy of dynamics and tempo. We need to take that into consideration and the organ must imperatively follow this evolution whether it wants to or not.

There’s no need to have 200 stops on an organ to create nuances, for often it’s enough to add or subtract that one stop especially appropriate to the atmosphere sought. Nuance is a concept which too many organ builders gorget, especially in America.

Its not right to be carried away by exaggeration either: no need for example to have five or six or eight Soubasse stops on the Pedal ; this is completely ridiculous. Just as there is no use having eight or ten Gamba stops in the tonal palette…

Where do you go?  The mixtures should not resemble each other, indeed, there should be perceptible differences among them. It is quite possible to color a mixture with a tierce or septième (why not !) Hence, organ builders ought to be inventive people and not repetitive ones. Copying is only of minor significance !

I wondered whether music wouldn’t gain on one hand what it lost on the other. To this, Messiaen responded :

Perhaps it loses in simplicity but it gains in diversity of riches. We mustn’t always be looking for whatever may be reassuring to us. Neither should we use one stop or another because others do it that way or because it was well thought of to do it in order to reproduce what was one done. Bach’s works for example, seem rhythmical, precisely because they do not contain rhythm. Here is the explanation: in these works we hear an uninterrupted succession of equal note values that bathe the listener in a state of beautific satisfaction. Nothing intervenes to counter the pulse, breathing or heartbeat to the listener who therefore stays and receives no shock: the whole thing seems to him perfectly rhythmical. In the creation of new organs we ought not to seek to reassure, but rather, to forge on ahead: we need a shock, a reaction. Nonetheless, care is in order for it is not the composer. It is possible to improvise quite a colorful piece on a sole gedackt or harmonic flute alone.



Two years went by before any serious talk of restoration on the organ came about. The organ being the property of the city like most church organ in Paris, Messiaen wrote to the municipal cultural authorities to express his urgent desire to see this work begin. Receiving no response, he was even ready to cover a portion of the expense personally, for he wished to wait no longer and had no intention whatever of submitting to the whims of Commissions with their baroque, classics, modernist or romantic ideas and their scruples. This was ‘his organ’ and it was up to no one else but him when it came to this work. Alas, he was not to witness even the beginning of this work, let alone its conclusion.

On dismantling the instrument I was surprised to find that a good number of the conveyances suffered from lead decay, called ‘leprosy’ in France. Messiaen had guessed as much, since several 32’ pipes were no longer speaking which annoyed him considerably. There was a similar winding problem in the large wooden basses of the manuals. In order to enlarge the diameters of the windways, flexible tubing was installer. Now that this has been done, the important Cavaillé-Coll basses are more impressive than ever and the casework shakes all over when they come on.

As for the Cymbale on the Great division, it is true that there were many breaks and that the numerous high-pitched ranks made the mass of sound unbalanced, especially in the lower register with the Pedal coupler on. I proposed to Messiaen to have two ranks only for the first two octaves, then one octave with three ranks and four ranks for the treble compass. Messiaen agreed that this was necessary for achieving the ascending effect of the scale, which is preferable to breaking mixtures which in effect boil down the compass to one ridiculous octave The harmonic progression, to use the French term, should be brought out perceptibly.

The organ has been entirely cleaned and overhauled, the pipework having been temporarily stored in a room behind the organ loft and repaired. The entire wiring of the console has been re-done and the combination action adjusted. Wind leaks and case vibrations from the 32’ have been tracked down and eliminated and the casework had been refinished.


Messiaen wanted to add some stops but the city did not aggree.

He wanted :

On Swell : Septième 1 1/7, Quinzième 1 1/15, Neuvième   8/9
On Great Tierce 3 1/5
On Pedal Bombarde 32’
New manual all harmonics on the 32’ and 16’

 Rev 4/9/2000 by Timothy Patterson