Louis Vierne, the organ experienced some of the most prosperous years of its history. Distinguished guests flocked to the organ loft: renowned musicians such as Gabriel Fauré, Nikolaï Rimski-Korsakov, Enrique Granados and Camille Saint-Saëns, but also public or artistic figures like Jean Jaurès, Paul Verlaine, Georges Clemenceau, Auguste Renoir, Auguste Rodin and Gabriele D’Annunzio. Vierne’s students, such as Maurice Duruflé, Bernard Gavoty and Marcel Dupré crowded around their master. Dupré then replaced Vierne for four years, between 1916 and 1920, while Vierne battled in vain in Switzerland to overcome the glaucoma which would ultimately claim his eyesight. Times were hard nonetheless. In 1905, the law separating Church and State was a fresh blow to the music as it caused a significant reduction in cathedral income. Vierne spoke of how the abbot Alphonse Renault, professor at the Choir School and chapel and cathedral master from 1905 to 1925, was forced to double the devotion in order to keep up appearances: “The abbot Renault’s optimism showed no bounds. The good abbot was full of enthusiasm; to avoid the costs of purchasing music, he would copy (often at night) the choir material… No sooner had he taken over than he began to dream of restoring the choir organ, which was in a fairly sorry state. He paid for this refurbishment partly from his own pocket…. In the same way, he paid for the general tuning of my organ. We saw how it gave the abbot a unique pleasure to give of his meagre resources in this way and the rest he gave to charity. Occasionally, he united the two by returning working instruments to poor musicians who had had to part with them because of tough times…. The abbot loved me dearly and I felt the same way. During the thirty-six years of our reciprocal relationship, not once did we have a falling out. He was genuinely touched by the hand of grace on two occasions: in his apostolic calling and in his belief in applying himself to the art…”
Vierne had to battle to finally obtain funds to repair the organ in 1931, sought since 1912. The war claimed the lives of many of his dear friends. He himself died in the organ loft during a concert he gave on June 2, 1937. The cathedral chapter chose his substitute Léonce de Saint-Martin to be his successor. Taking the torch from Vierne, Saint-Martin drew up a vigorous programme of concerts where the organ and the choir school were an integral part.
Deprived of the canonical prebend that had financed it for centuries, the choir school became a kind of preseminary jointly financed by the Diocese, the cathedral and the families of the students. The number of students grew to several dozen and even reached 99 in 1968. The music was placed under the leadership of the chapel masters who succeeded canon Renault, canon Louis Merret (1925-1959) and then Msgr. Jehan Revert (1959-1991), the valuable witness and tireless organiser of musical life at Notre-Dame: not content to set up and direct choir concerts, he also gave conferences, presented and recorded concerts, chief among them Pierre Cochereau’s organ auditions, who was appointed to the Notre-Dame tribune in 1955. It is thanks to Msgr. Revert that we have been able to hold onto some trace of these unique moments the illustrious organist gave us. Until his sudden death in 1984, Pierre Cochereau lit up celebrations with his legendary improvisations. In 1985, an equally talented quartet followed in his wake: Yves Devernay (who died in 1990), Olivier Latry, Philippe Lefebvre and Jean-Pierre Leguay. The tenured organists of the great organ played at Sunday masses and holy services, whereas the choir organ tenured organist (Yves Castagnet since 1988) and his substitute(Johann Vexo since 2004) accompanied the services daily.
In 1991, Michel-Marc Gervais took over from canon Revert. At the same time, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the then Archbishop of Paris, tasked Jean-Michel Dieuaide with reorganising the cathedral’s musical activity. The result was the creation of the Sacred Music Association of Notre-Dame de Paris (MSNDP), which manages the different elements of the reorganised choir school, as well as a wide range of concerts and recordings.
Just like when it was first built, music still plays a major role in the influence of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris Organ recitals weekly, monthly organ recitals, concerts given by the choir school, they all testify to the high standards of excellence upheld by Notre-Dame’s musical figures today. Perhaps through this exercise, their prime role, that of bringing splendour to the services, the choirs, organists, choir masters and the cantor come close to reaching brilliant transcendence, which the visitor to Notre-Dame can rarely resist, whether they see it as God’s work or as human genius. These both humble and superb means give genuine soul to this grand building, created to lift humans upwards towards the absolute, the universal, and the sublime.