First Visit to Vierne

Alexander Schreiner relates first visit to Louis Vierne organ loft at Notre Dame Cathedral.

You can have no idea how elated I was one fine Sunday morning in October 1924 because I was going to visit the organ loft at Notre Dame Cathedral and there meet my then future maitre d'orgue Monsieur Louis Vierne, the official organist. Before leaving that morning I made my plans known to the French family with whom I was lodging. In my opinion it seemed as though the most sacred and most important spot of a church must naturally be the spot where the organ is played. So with that thought in mind and also a somewhat self-important attitude I asked my French hosts if perhaps they had ever had the wonderful privilege of visiting the organ loft at Notre Dame. ”Ze organ loft"? etc., etc. He said that he had never so much as been inside the great Cathedral before. Now I ask you, my fellow 8th and Hope streeters, what would you have said to that? Tenyrate, after expressing huge surprise to my seemingly wayward Frenchman, he said to me, "Of course I have been past Notre Dame in the autobus, so that I have seen it from the outside, but you see, it is not my parish church and therefore have never been inside."

After a bus, ride which took my American friend and me to the banks of the river Seine, we confronted the great pile which was erected some eight centuries ago. We entered a door leading to one of the bell towers and climbed stairs and stairs and stairs, hundreds, and hundreds, yes it seemed thousands of them. With panting breaths we unlatched a door and entered. It was very dark and we saw only a reflection of light from the brilliant white five rows of keys of the organ console. Upon being introduced to the great master Vierne, he replied something like this: brrrrrzzzz, brrzz, which we interpreted to me to mean that he was charmed.

Naturally it was his playing that entranced me. He improvised divinely. The organ is the idol of French organists: Brilliant, fiery, even fierce. It is not dull, mellow, and beautiful as the American likes it, but real French: fiercely brilliant. But I have a different story to tell you.

All morning the. master seemed to be pleasantly concerned with some electric pilot lights and buttons at the side of the console. He would touch the buttons and with a big smile on his face rattle off a lot of buzzing French. I could then understand none of it. The gist of the affair, as we soon found out, was that the great organ had just been enhanced by a real, and genuine electric blower. Think of it. No longer did Maitre Vierne need to prod eight men to pump harder when the supply of air was getting low, those eight men now were on the streets of Paris looking for a new job. All Vierne now needed to do was to touch the button marked "Marche" and the organ was ready to play. and when he was finished he would touch the button marked "Arret" meaning “Arrest" or to stop.

In the rear of the organ we were shown a regular organ-pumpers row, a place such as galley slaves must have known in ancient times. A long hard bench, large pedals to be worked with their feet, and individual spittoons. If ever a long service was to be held at Notre Dame, an additional eight men had to be procured, to alternate with the original force of organ pumpers. Men cannot pump forever. They need a rest every five or ten minutes. No wonder Vierne was pleased with his new electric blowing contraption. He was so delighted that he acted like a child with a new toy.

Source: Alexander Schreiner, "In the Organ Loft of Famous Notre Dame Cathedral," Choir Echoes (Los Angeles : First Methodist Episcopal Church Choir Association, October 1930).