The restoration of the chancel organ at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Québec

November 1, 2017

Andrew Forrest began with Létourneau in February 1999 and, as the company’s artistic director, oversees all of the company’s various projects. He travels regularly to meet with clients, to supervise the company’s on-site tonal finishing, and to speak about the pipe organ. Areas of particular interest for Forrest include pipe scaling and reed tone. Among others, he has completed studies of the Wanamaker Organ’s String division and the 1955 Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ at Winthrop University. He was on the organizing committee for the joint AIO-ISO 2010 convention in Montréal, and from 2011 through 2014 served on the board of directors for the American Institute of Organbuilders. More recently, Forrest was elected vice president of the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America in the spring of 2017. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.

The Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec is an important and historic location for the Catholic Church in North America as it was here the Church of Our Lady of Peace (Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix) was built in 1647. It became the first parish church north of Mexico in North America in 1664 and was dedicated as the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Immaculée-Conception). Ten years later, the church was made the cathedral of the newly established diocese of Québec under Bishop François de Laval. The cathedral was almost completely destroyed during the battle for Québec in 1759 and was rebuilt between 1766 and 1771 from the remaining walls to resemble the previous building.

Further changes and improvements to the cathedral’s design took place in the nineteenth century, including the addition of a neoclassical façade, and the cathedral was elevated to the status of basilica in 1874 in honor of the diocese’s founding 200 years earlier. In the twentieth century, a devastating fire on December 22, 1922, forced the parish and diocese to rebuild again from singed outer walls. The reconstruction project took eight years, and while modern construction materials and techniques were employed, the cathedral’s architecture was again modeled after its predecessors.

The church was home to a pipe organ by an unknown builder as early as 1657, and this was followed by a number of instruments of increasing size and complexity by Robert Richard, Thomas Elliot, Louis Mitchell, and the Casavant brothers among others. Casavant’s Opus 211 from 1904, an electric action instrument with 46 stops over three manuals and pedal, was destroyed in the fire of 1922. The rebuilding of the Cathedral-Basilica in the years following saw the installation of three new pipe organs by Casavant Frères between 1924 and 1927: a seven-stop instrument for the Chapel of St. Louis, a 25-stop instrument for the sanctuary, and a grand 69-stop instrument in the church’s gallery. The organ in the Chapel of St. Louis remains as it was in 1924 apart from two stops having been swapped between the Grand-Orgue and the Récit divisions. While the history of the sanctuary organ follows, the gallery organ currently awaits rebuilding after some spectacularly unskilled alterations in the 1970s and a corrective reconstruction from 1983 through 1985.

The sanctuary organ was built in 1924 as Casavant’s Opus 1024 and is installed behind the first two triforium bays on the south side of the sanctuary; it is invisible from the nave. The instrument’s terraced two-manual console was originally installed opposite in the north triforium where it was situated in the midst of an amphitheatre-like arrangement of benches. The organ was built with electro-pneumatic wind chests with ventil-style stop actions and is tonally similar to other instruments from the period with its generous number of foundation stops. When the gallery instrument was installed in 1927, the sanctuary organ was made playable from the gallery organ’s enormous four-manual console.

Subtle differences from Casavant’s conventional practices at that time include the placement of the 8Trompette stop in the Récit division instead of the Grand-Orgue, as well as the inclusion of independent mutations stops in the Récit. It is said the French composer and organist Joseph Bonnet was responsible for the placement of the 8 Trompette, having drawn an arrow on the organ’s proposed stoplist to move the stop from the Grand-Orgue to the Récit. Bonnet was likely consulted on the organ’s specification by Henri Gagnon, a gifted Québecois organist and titulaire at the Cathedral-Basilica from 1915 until his death in 1961. Gagnon lived in France from 1907 to 1910 and studied with Eugène Gigout and Charles-Marie Widor among others; he returned to France during the summers of 1911, 1912, 1914, and 1924 for further studies with Widor and Bonnet.

From the start, the instrument served the parish’s daily Masses, providing commentary on the liturgy and accompanying students from the nearby Grand Séminaire. Opus 1024 and the students from le Grand Séminaire were also sometimes heard in alternatim with les Petits Chanteurs de la Maîtrise (the chapter’s boy choir) who would sing from the gallery, accompanied by the gallery organ, Opus 1217.

The transfer of le Grand Séminaire to new facilities in the Ste-Foy neighborhood of Québec City in 1959 brought an end to the singing of the daily Mass in the cathedral. The explicit need for a sanctuary organ disappeared as a result, and with the instrument reportedly suffering from electrical problems, Opus 1024 was switched off at the blower’s breaker and abandoned.

It wasn’t until after Marc d’Anjou’s appointment as titular organist to the cathedral in 1993 that Opus 1024 was heard again from the distant gallery console. Some cleaning, minor repairs, and tuning followed, and this helped show the organ’s potential utility. The sanctuary console was carried down soon after from the triforium to the floor of the sanctuary where it was installed to the south of the altar. To provide the console and its electro-pneumatic mechanisms with wind, a crude flexible wind line was lowered from the triforium level inside a nearby column. From the column, the wind line snaked across the floor to the console where it entered through a hole cut into the side panel. The organ itself later suffered some minor water damage while the exterior of the cathedral was being sandblasted, but the affected portions were repaired soon after.

The contract to restore the sanctuary organ was awarded to Orgues Létourneau after a thorough evaluation process and a generous grant was provided to the cathedral towards the costs of the organ’s restoration by the Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec. A formal contract was signed in March 2014, the console was removed and wrapped for transit the following August, and the instrument itself was dismantled one month later. The wind chests’ internal components, some wind system elements, and much of the organ’s pipework were removed for transport to and restoration in the Létourneau shops.

The restoration of the instrument’s electro-pneumatic wind chests was a straightforward but time consuming process. All old leather diaphragms on the pouchboards were removed and replaced, while the primary actions were completely restored with new leather, felts, and leather nuts as well as new threaded wires. The wind chests have ventil-type stop actions, meaning the chests are subdivided laterally into chambers under each stop. The flow of wind to each chamber determines if the stop above plays with the flow being governed by a pneumatically operated valve. Given the quantity of wind going to each stop, these ventil valves are necessarily large and their prompt operation via pneumatics is paramount. The ventil stop actions were thoroughly restored with new materials similar to the originals and adjusted on-site for optimal operation.

The organ’s wind system was also comprehensively restored, including the recovering of its two enormous single-rise wind reservoirs and the blower’s static reservoir. The external curtain valve regulators were all restored, the flexible wind line connections under each chest were replaced, and the Récit’s tremulant unit was refurbished. The original nine-stage expression motor was replaced with a new pneumatic whiffletree-type unit with 16 stages.

Opus 1024’s pipework was cleaned and repaired as needed in our pipe shop. We experimented with softening the Grand-Orgue’s 8 Montre stop for a less overbearing presence but its already-smooth tone only became more flute-like. We found ourselves working at cross purposes with this stop’s nature, having been built to a large scale from heavy lead and voiced with wide slots as well as leathered upper lips. We reduced the strength of the stop only slightly but removed the leather from the upper lips, improving the pipes’ tone and speech. We also recast the Grand-Orgue 8 Salicional—its original voicing sounded more like a Dulciana with little intensity or specific color­—to produce a rich string tone with enough presence to color the other foundation stops.

New II–III Fourniture and 8 Trompette stops were added to the Grand-Orgue, with the Trompette extended to 16 pitch to play in the Pédale. Our goal for these new stops was to sound as if they might have been part of the original instrument, and in this respect, the composition of the new mixture might seem conservative by modern standards. The scaling and breaks for the Fourniture were developed after studying mixture stops in other Casavants from the same era as well as the Grand-Orgue’s 2Doublette. Breaks occur at every C after the third rank enters at c13, while the scaling of the individual ranks follows a halving ratio progression that slows considerably as the pitch ascends over ¼.

The new 8 Trompette was modeled after Casavant examples from the 1920s (including the 8 Trompette in the Récit) and has tapered shallots with long, narrow triangular openings and leathered faces in the bass octaves. The spotted metal resonators were built to a generous scale (8C = 5′′Ø) and are harmonic starting at f42. Our harmonic-length resonators for new stops usually follow the same scale as their non-harmonic counterpart of the same length. Put another way, the first harmonic resonator is the same length and diameter as the natural length pipe one octave lower. Casavant’s harmonic-length resonators in the mid-1920s, however, employed narrower resonators; there is still a jump in diameter transitioning from natural to harmonic length but the increase is roughly eight pipes larger rather than a full octave (or twelve pipes).

Space within the instrument was limited from the outset, and adding two new stops was a feat in packaging. The first seven pipes of the Pédale 16 Flûte ouverte were originally laid horizontally from the floor to the sloping ceiling at the back of the chamber but from there, the stop continued as a wall of vertical wooden pipes beside the Grand-Orgue and finished up with the smallest pipes arranged vertically behind the Grand-Orgue’s passage board. To make way for the new 16-8 Trompette rank, the vertical pipes alongside the Grand-Orgue were relocated to lie horizontally within the chamber as well as at the base of the triforium arch at the very front of the instrument. Having now opened up a corridor beside the Grand-Orgue, the 16-8 Trompette rank was installed here on two wind chests with most of the 16 octave mitred to fit under the chamber’s sloping roofline. The new II–III Fourniture stop is likewise located at the front of the instrument under the triforium arch, where it sits above one of the 16 Flûte’s horizontal pipes.

The console’s original pedalboard had a compass of 30 notes and, further, did not radiate as much as an American Guild of Organists standard pedalboard.  The console was too narrow to accept a new 32-note pedalboard so we rebuilt the console’s chassis to be 8 inches wider, providing space for additional drawknobs in the process. The original expression pedal assembly was considerably offset with the Récit pedal lining up with note a#23 on the pedalboard. We rebuilt the expression pedal assembly to fit into its current central location, conforming to AGO standards, while its frame and pedals were also recovered with new chrome. The console was fitted with new thumb pistons and dome-shaped toe pistons as well as contrasting ebony and Pau Ferro oblique draw knobs to resemble the originals. Opus 1024’s two original pedal ranks were provided with two additional pipes each to correspond with the new pedalboard’s 32-note compass. The enlarged console returned to the cathedral on a new two-piece platform, enabling its movement throughout the sanctuary.

The console features 46 draw knobs for the sanctuary organ’s stops, couplers, and other ancillary controls. Once the gallery organ has been rebuilt, the sanctuary console will be ready to play the gallery organ blindly through a common piston system with 300 levels of memory. The row of 34 tilting tablets above the Récit manual will permit the gallery organ’s four manual divisions to be coupled as desired to the sanctuary console’s two manuals and pedal. Registrations for the gallery organ will be programmed in advance on general pistons at the gallery console but once done, the gallery stops can be brought into play at the sanctuary console by activating the “Appel Tribune” tablet and using the same general pistons. Aside from multiple memory levels, the rebuilt sanctuary console offers a general piston sequencer, four programmable Crescendo sequences of 30 stages each, and record-playback capability.

After reinstalling the organ’s restored components and testing the instrument’s mechanisms, the instrument’s voicing was thoroughly reviewed and adjusted as needed. Tonal changes to the 1924 materials were kept to a minimum aside from the changes mentioned earlier, but all of the organ’s original stops were carefully adjusted for improved consistency and blend. The voicing for the new II–III Fourniture and 16-8 Trompette was meticulous to ensure these new stops built smoothly on the instrument’s fortissimo without sacrificing color or excitement.

The restoration and enlargement of Opus 1024 was carried out on an expedited timeline, and the first sounds after the organ’s return to the cathedral were heard in February 2015. The renewed instrument was first heard by the public a few weeks later on Easter Sunday (April 5) when the organ was rededicated and blessed by the Archbishop of Québec, His Emmence Gérald Cyprien Lacroix. M. d’Anjou, the cathedral’s titular organist, then played a short recital that demonstrated the organ’s graceful versatility, its vivid palette of colors, and, when needed, its grand presence. Since then, the instrument has been heard regularly within the cathedral’s liturgy as well as a concert instrument in accompanimental and solo roles. Orgues Létourneau is honored to have been selected for this prestigious restoration project, and we expect our work to renew this elegant instrument will serve the cathedral for decades to come. It was our distinct pleasure during the project to work closely with Marc d’Anjou, Gilles Gignac, and Monsignor Dénis Bélanger at the cathedral, and we would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their support and assistance at every turn.


Casavant Freres, Opus 1024 (1924), restored, enlarged, and revoiced by Orgues LОtourneau (2014)


16 Bourdon 68 pipes

8 Montre 68 pipes

8 Flûte harmonique 68 pipes

8 Salicional 68 pipes

8 Bourdon 68 pipes

4 Prestant 68 pipes

223 Quinte 68 pipes

2 Doublette 61 pipes

II–III Fourniture (new) 183 pipes

8 Trompette (new) 68 pipes

Recit expressif

16 Quintaton 68 pipes

8 Principal 68 pipes

8 Viole de gambe 68 pipes

8 Voix céleste (TC) 56 pipes

8 Mélodie 68 pipes

4 Violon 68 pipes

4 Flûte douce 68 pipes

223 Nazard 61 pipes

2 Octavin 61 pipes

135 Tierce 61 pipes

8 Trompette 68 pipes

8 Hautbois 68 pipes

8 Voix humaine 68 pipes



32 Flûte (resultant)

16 Flûte ouverte 32 pipes

16 Bourdon 32 pipes

8 Flûte (ext 16 Flûte) 12 pipes 

8 Bourdon (ext 16 Bourdon) 12 pipes

4 Flûte (new, ext 8 Flûte) 12 pipes

16 Bombarde (ext, Gr-O 8′) 12 pipes

8 Trompette (fr Gr-O)



Gr-Orgue à la Pédale

Gr-Orgue aigu à la Pédale

Récit à la Pédale

Récit aigu à la Pédale

Gr-Orgue unisson muet

Gr-Orgue grave

Gr-Orgue aigu

Récit grave au Gr-Orgue

Récit au Gr-Orgue

Récit aigu au Gr-Orgue

Récit unisson muet

Récit grave

Récit aigu



10 General pistons

6 Grand-Orgue pistons

6 Récit pistons

6 Pédale pistons

100 levels of memory

Récit expression shoe

Crescendo shoe

3 Tutti adjustable pistons


Record/Playback mechanism


The console is prepared to play the gallery organ once it has been rebuilt at some point in the future. The gallery organ stops will be accessible via the General pistons plus the Tutti and Crescendo settings.  There are tilting tablet couplers for each of the gallery organ’s divisions, allowing them to be coupled as desired to the chancel console’s two manuals at 16, 8′, and 4. Also included is an “Unification des expressions” (All Swells to Swell) control plus ventils for both the gallery and chancel organs.


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