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Notre Dame’s massive pipe organ to undergo 4-year-long cleaning


Frédéric Deschamps - Public Domain

J-P Mauro - published on 08/03/20

The team is hopeful that the pipe organ will play again in 2024.

Notre Dame Cathedral has begun the delicate and time-consuming task of restoring its pipe organ, which was fortunately untouched by the catastrophic 2019 fire. Although the fire did not reach the enormous yet immensely fragile instrument, the smoke spread toxic lead particles around and within the pipes.

The pipes must be meticulously cleaned, or else each time it is played the congregation in attendance would be exposed to toxic lead, which would be forced out of the many pipes by the streams of air that help make the instrument’s unique sound.

Pipe organs work by pumping air through a network of pipes that connect to the keyboard. Each time the organist presses a key, the corresponding pipe has its airway open. This allows air to move through the pipe, which makes sound in much the same style as a penny whistle, by moving air over a slit cut into the side of the metal that acts as a reed. Fun fact: Because of this method of creating sound, the pipe organ technically belongs to the woodwind family of instruments.

AP News reports that cleaning the pipe organ is expected to take four years to complete. The lengthy restoration is in part because of the gargantuan size of Notre Dame’s organ, comprising some 8,000 pipes. Unfortunately, cleaning the pipes is not as easy as hiring a few chimney sweeps to pump a brush through the top. Instead each pipe must be carefully removed from the organ and delicately cleaned inside and out.

If the workers were to leave even the slightest dent on any of the pipes, the pitch could be irreparably altered. With so much at stake, the process will be slow-going, in order to ensure the safety of the instrument.

AP News went on to note that the restoration team has begun to dismantle the keyboard, which will be followed by the removal of all of the pipes. The removed pipes will be placed in a special storage container within the church, where they will await cleaning in 2021. The dismantling process alone is expected to last the rest of the year, and when it is finally complete they will need to tune the pipes, a process which can take up to 6 months. 

If all goes well, they hope to have the pipe organ playing again by April 16, 2024. This timeline fits in well with President Macron’s plans to see Notre Dame reopened before the 2024 Olympic games, scheduled to take place in Paris.

If you’re interested in seeing the process of pipe organ cleaning, check out the video below, which shows an organ restoration from a parish church. Just remember, the organ at Notre Dame is many times larger than the small organ they’re restoring below.

FranceHistoryMusicNotre Dame
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