The majestic Casavant organ

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

In 1916, the renowned pipe organ builders Casavant Freres of Saint-Hyacinthe, Canada, installed a three-manual (three keyboard) organ, the Opus 665, in the basement of the half-finished St. Peter’s Church.

Twenty-two years later, Dominican brothers — who came from that same southwestern Quebec town and were overseeing the remaining construction of what would be named Saints Peter and Paul Church — ordered two new Casavant organs. They would give the church, today the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, its distinctive, majestic sound.

Casavant Freres workers installed an Opus 1587 in the sanctuary behind the high altar and a larger Opus 1588 in the gallery directly below the rose window after construction of the church was completed in 1938.

Charles Courboin, an organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City at the time, supervised the installation and performed the opening recital on Oct. 4, 1938. Courboin, like the original designer of the Basilica, Noel Coumont, was a native of Antwerp, Belgium. Courboin studied at the Brussels Conservatory and played organ all over Europe before coming to the United States in 1904.

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Courboin brought a European repertoire with him to Maine for the recital. He was said to have a particular preference for Marcel Dupre. Considered an heir to the tradition of Romantic French organ playing, Dupre’s compositions are considered well suited to the Casavant.

“It is one of the best instruments of its size in the country,” Courboin was quoted as saying in a Lewiston Evening Journal article dated Oct. 5, 1938. “It has a pleasing tone that is royally dignified.” Courboin would ultimately receive much acclaim as the organist and music director at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City from 1943 to 1970.

The two Casavant organs in the upper church of Lewiston’s basilica are still known as some of the best in the country 80 years after their installation. “The gallery organ on its own is the largest organ in a church in Maine. Its size alone is not what makes it special, but it plays a part,” said Scott Vaillancourt, current organist and music director for the parish, adding that the larger Opus 1588 is known nationally for its quality and historic value.

“Initially made in the ’30s, a lot of (Casavant organs) were altered as tastes were changing. Or, for a variety of reasons, they fell into disrepair and were changed into something other than what they originally were. So we’re very fortunate here that this one wasn’t tinkered with or left to rot,” Vaillancourt said.

The Opus 1587 and Opus 1588, on opposite ends of the 316-foot-long structure, can both be controlled by the large console in the balcony beneath the Basilica’s rose window. The smaller Opus 1587 can also be played by its dedicated console behind the high altar. “The sanctuary and gallery organs are both playable from the console that’s up in the gallery so you can kind of use them like one instrument,” Vaillancourt explained.

Vaillancourt often plays both organs simultaneously, which is as complicated as it sounds. In addition to controlling two instruments, each with its own keyboards and array of sound controls, the organist must consider spatial discrepancies due to the vast size of the structure. “Sound travels kind of slowly,” he explained. “Or, at least, you notice that sound travels slowly when the sound of the instrument that you’re playing is coming from 200 feet away.”

His suggestion: Don’t sit too close to the front or the back of the church if you want to truly enjoy the music. “The way the acoustics of the church work, they tend to work well together unless you happen to be super close to one or the other.”

For example, when Vaillancourt plays both organs from the gallery, he has a hard time hearing the sanctuary organ. “Or if I am close to the sanctuary organ, I don’t hear the gallery organ as clearly. But if you’re in where all the pews are, the sounds blend together nicely.”

A SMALL ORCHESTRA AT HIS COMMAND

To understand how an organ is played, you first have to understand the design of the instrument. “A console is where you sit. It’s the whole thing. The ‘manual’ is just one of the individual keyboards,” Vaillancourt explained.

The main console resembles a musical control center. At the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul it includes four manuals and a pedal board as well as a vast array of buttons, levers, knobs and separate foot pedals. Aside from the keys on the manuals, which play the actual musical notes, a host of white knobs called “stops” allow for significant variation in the sound of an organ when activated.

Though they have similarities, pianos and organs create sound in entirely different ways. “When you’re playing a piano, you push the key down and you’re physically pushing a hammer that hits strings. What you’re doing on an organ is you’re pushing a button and it’s opening up a valve and allowing air to move through a pipe. The shape of the sound is very, very different,” said Vaillancourt.

Other differences are related to the richness and variety of sounds available to an organist. “With an organ, you have a lot of different colors available to you on a key,” he said. “With one key on a piano you’re always going to get the same sound out of that key,” he said, but that’s not the case with an organ.

“You have all those different manuals, those different keyboards. That way, you can play different kinds of colors at the same time, depending on whether or not you want one color to be kind of a melody thing or an accompaniment sound. Or you can make quick color changes by simply moving to a different keyboard,” Vaillancourt explained.

Meanwhile, each “stop” represents a set of pipes of a particular sound — a flute, for instance, or a reed or a string instrument. Pulling the stop activates a slider under that specific set of pipes on the windchest and a unique sound is created as air moves through.

An organist, in fact, has a small orchestra at his or her command. “It’s an orchestral instrument,” Vaillancourt said. “It has a lot of rich colors. It was made to do a huge variety of things.”

The Opus 1587 is a two-manual organ of 10 independent stops. The Opus 1588 is a four-manual instrument with 53 independent stops.

Vaillancourt learned how to play the organ at St. Bruno’s Catholic Church on Main Street in Van Buren, Maine. “Any instrument is complicated. Like anything else, it just takes lots and lots of practice and years of experience.” He studied music formally at Bowdoin College and earned his master’s degree from the University of Michigan before becoming the organist at the Basilica in 2003.

His favorite organ piece is “Victimae Paschali” by Tournemire. Vaillancourt explained that the Casavant organ is particularly faithful to French Romantic music, which tends to be more dramatic. “It has a wide variety of emotions available to its palate,” he said of Romantic music.

“This is an organ from a time period when organs were a particular style,” he said, referring to the Basilica’s Casavant. “This is one of the best ones made of that style and one of the few that still exist intact.”

He mentioned Romantic pieces by French composers Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupre as those that perform well on the Casavant organ. “Even Bach has a certain amount of drama to it, but the French Romantic repertoire is what works best on this thing.”

Vaillancourt also does a lot of improvisation. “In a liturgical church, there’s a lot of opportunity for improvisation because you have to cover certain liturgical actions and it has to be a particular length of time,” he said. Formal compositions have an exact length and an organist can’t pull out a piece of music and hope it will fit.

If you are ever in the Basilica when Vaillancourt is up in the gallery playing the Casavant organs, you will undoubtedly hear one of his improvisations. “Before Mass, the prelude music,” he said, for example. “Or during Mass itself, after a hymn, if the priest isn’t done doing what he’s doing, then all of that time gets filled up with improvised music. After Communion as well,” he said.

“It’s an instrument with a lot of color. You can play it god-awful loud and you can play it as soft as people can hear,” he said.

A detail of the ornate facade of the Casavant organ at the basilica.

Organist Scott Vaillancourt practices on the organ at the basilica recently.

Some of the smallest pipes on the Casavant organ are the size of a small pen.

Organist Scott Vaillancourt practices on the organ at the basilica recently. Because the organ is so tall he can’t see what is going on unless he looks into the mirror in front of him that is pointed at another behind him that allows him to see what is gonig on down below.

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