Casavant Frères | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Casavant Frères

It was probably an unfinished organ by the builder Jacotel (from France, 1821) that Casavant père discovered on his arrival at Father Charles-Joseph Ducharme's college in Ste-Thérèse-de-Blainville in 1834. At 27, a blacksmith by trade, Joseph Casavant went there to study Latin.

Casavant Frères. Illustrious and pre-eminent Canadian organ-building firm which celebrated its centenary in 1979. It was founded in St-Hyacinthe, Que, by the Casavant brothers Joseph-Claver (b 10 Sep 1855, d 10 Dec 1933) and Samuel-Marie (b 4 Apr 1859, d 23 Nov 1929), both sons of Joseph Casavant (b 23 Jan 1807, d 9 Mar 1874), the first Canadian-born organ builder of note.

It was probably an unfinished organ by the builder Jacotel (from France, 1821) that Casavant père discovered on his arrival at Father Charles-Joseph Ducharme's college in Ste-Thérèse-de-Blainville in 1834. At 27, a blacksmith by trade, Joseph Casavant went there to study Latin. But it was the half-built organ rather than declensions and the rigours of Latin composition that became the focus of the belated student's interest. With the help of L'Art du facteur d'orgues (Paris 1766-78), a classic treatise by Dom François Bédos de Celles, he managed to complete the instrument. The news spread throughout the region, and the vestry of St-Martin-de-Laval ordered an organ from him. Thereupon, Casavant appears to have dedicated himself entirely to his new trade, so that the organ was completed and delivered in 1840. He persevered in this field and by 1866, when he retired from business, he had built 17 organs, including two of considerable importance in the Roman Catholic cathedrals of Bytown (Ottawa) in 1850 and Kingston, Ont, in 1854. Nothing of his work remains, unfortunately, except some pipes of the organ of the church of Mont-St-Hilaire, which subsequently was rebuilt by his sons. The testimonies of his contemporaries tell us little about the instruments themselves.

It was with the builder Eusèbe Brodeur, to whom their father had handed over his establishment in 1866, that the Casavant brothers began learning the details of organ building while pursuing their academic studies at the St-Hyacinthe Seminary. Claver worked full-time 1874-8 with Brodeur. In 1878 he began a 14-month apprenticeship with John Abbey in Versailles. He then was joined by Samuel, and the brothers travelled western Europe inspecting organs and visiting workshops.

On their return to Canada in 1879 the brothers adopted the name Casavant Frères and established themselves in the very spot where their father had installed his modest workshop 30 years earlier. In a circular letter in November of the same year the two brothers declared: 'We are honoured to inform you that we have just opened a workshop for the building of Pipe Organs for Churches, Chapels, Concert Halls, Salons, etc'. In 1991 Casavant organs still were being manufactured at the original location.

Claver excelled at voicing and Samuel was skilled in mechanics and a gifted adminstrator. In 1880 they installed their first instrument in the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes in Montreal. While the design of this 16-stop organ did not constitute a radical departure from current trends, the four pedals with adjustable combinations were a novelty indeed, the product of the inventive genius of Dr Salluste Duval (a collaborator of the Casavant brothers from the beginning; see Inventions and devices) and, apparently, the first of their kind. The firm made a further innovation when it employed tubular traction as early as 1884 for its seventh instrument, built for the chapel of the St-Hyacinthe Seminary.

Fascinated by new ideas, the brothers also sought a means of using electricity to operate the organ and were assisted in their research by Duval and Father P.-A. Choquette, a physics professor at their alma mater. One of the brothers returned to Europe in 1886 to investigate the latest advances and probably to seek advice on the enormous 32-foot pipe they were in the process of building for Notre-Dame Church in Montreal. The Notre-Dame organ was completed in 1891; its adjustable-combination pedals were the first to be operated by electricity. In 1892, in the basilica organ in Ottawa, electricity was used for an electro-pneumatic traction. This invention, by the Frenchman Albert Peschard, had run into problems when put into actual construction by Peschard himself and by the US builder Hilbourne Lewis Roosevelt. At Ottawa, for the first time, the system gave results which appeared to satisfy the tastes of the period. The instrument installed in St Patrick's Church in Montreal in 1895 was 'all-electric,' including the functioning of the stops.

The reputation of Casavant organs grew quickly in Canada and then abroad and rose steadily over the first 50 years. By 1914 Casavant Frères had completed their 600th instrument, by 1929 their 1355th. Most of their early clients were in Quebec, but soon they began receiving orders from other areas: Ontario (1887, first assignment for the parish church of Tecumseh, near Windsor), the Maritimes (1891), the USA (1895, first order delivered to Holyoke, Mass), Manitoba (beginning of the 20th century), the Yukon (1901), and British Columbia (1907).

Until World War II, sales were limited mainly to Canada and the USA. There was even a branch in South Haven, Mich, managed by Joseph Pépin, a former St-Hyacinthe employee who in the interim had opened a bellows plant in Montreal. A total of 52 instruments were built at South Haven between 1912 and 1918. The war brought production to a halt, but the employees who remained turned for a time to the manufacture of phonograph cabinets for RCA Victor; the subsidiary then closed its doors.

Besides the many fine organs on the North American continent, those installed in Paris, the West Indies, South America, and as far afield as South Africa, India, and Japan, constitute a legitimate source of pride. The archives abound in testimonials from famous organists - eg, Alexandre Guilmant, Louis Vierne, Charles-Marie Widor, Joseph Bonnet, and Marcel Dupré - who have played on Casavant instruments.

Until 1897 the majority of Casavant organs had tracker action. From 1898 to 1924 pneumatic action took over, electro-pneumatic action being confined chiefly to large-scale instruments. In 1905, after completion of the organ built for Sayabec, near Matane, Que, tracker action was abandoned. Electricity and pneumatic action were employed about equally 1925-9. In 1930 the founders were awarded the Grand Prix at an international exhibition held in Antwerp, Belgium. From that time on the electric action prevailed, far outstripping the tubular, which disappeared completely in 1944. Among the instruments built prior to 1930 should be noted, if only for their size, those in the churches of Notre-Dame in Montreal (83 stops), St-Nom-de-Jésus in Montreal (90 stops), St Paul's Anglican Church in Toronto (106 stops), Royal York Hotel in Toronto (107 stops), and Emmanuel Church in Boston (137 stops). Lynnwood Farnam was the organist at the last-named. Metropolitan United Church, Toronto, commissioned the largest Casavant instrument in Canada; it had 5 keyboards and 110 stops and was installed in 1930. For quite different reasons, mention may be made of the organs of Lacolle in Quebec (1885) and of St-Eugène in Ontario (1893), which have preserved their original charm and the qualities of their tracker action. Many other instruments which have withstood the ravages of time and the vagaries of fashion deserve mention as examples of that fresh and clear-cut design that characterized the Casavant organs of the early decades.

In 1931 Casavant acquired the equipment of the Compagnie d'orgues canadiennes, which had closed down. During the 1930s, however, the firm went through difficult times: the death of the founders and the economic crisis had serious repercussions. Many organs were still built, but their musical quality suffered greatly from the inordinate standardization (prompted by budgetary reasons) of certain stops. The design and the voicing of the instruments were subjected, as nearly everywhere, to excessive orchestral imitation: an increasingly insubstantial positive organ, the addition of high pressure tuba stops, and voicing favouring the fundamental tone at the expense of the harmonics. This caused concern among an increasing number of organists but went unnoticed by management for quite some time, since there remained a clientele apparently satisfied with the poor instruments of this period.

In 1956 the promotion to the management ranks of Charles Perrault, a Montreal-born metallurgical engineer who had joined Casavant in 1954, gave rise to a quite spectacular recovery. With the help of Lawrence I. Phelps from the USA, Perrault was successful in refocusing the sound structure of the instruments towards a more balanced design. In 1961, owing to the contribution of the German organ manufacturer Karl Wilhelm, Casavant made its first two manual instrument with tracker action. In 1964 the team, enhanced 1963-5 by the arrival of Hellmuth Wolff, restored to the three manuals of St-Pascal Church, Que, the tonal quality enjoyed in New France in 1753 when the Parisian organ was installed in the Quebec Cathedral. With the artistic direction of the German Gerhard Brunzema (1972-9), and, from 1981 onwards, the Frenchman Jean-Louis Coignet, the firm has continued to demonstrate that it is still motivated by the spirit of initiative that had characterized its founders.

The 1125 or so instruments (including more than 200 with tracker action) delivered between 1960 and 1990 demonstrate that the firm still maintains a predominant position in the North American market, not taking into account exports to Latin America, Australia, or Japan. Apart from their numbers, it is primarily the aesthetic and musical qualities that have earned these instruments an enviable and clearly defined place in contemporary organ-building: the Casavant organ of the end of the 20th century sounds for the most part French, and while based on a conventional design also makes a synthesis of both symphonic and new elements. It is rather difficulty to choose the best from such a vast and varied production. Nevertheless the large-scale organs, such as those at the Guadaloupe Basilica in Mexico (123 stops, 1976), and at the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne, Australia (60 stops, tracker action, 1982), should be mentioned. The 66-stop instrument in the chapel of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore (1970), is probably the only organ in the world which is entirely suspended from the ceiling. Alongside these feats should be mentioned the many instruments of all sizes built by Casavant Frères, which have brought the firm's artistic reputation to its highest ever level throughout the world.

The company presidents after Claver (1879-1933), were Samuel's son Aristide 1933-38, Samuel's son-in-law Fred N. Oliver 1939-59, Jules Laframboise 1959-61, Charles Perrault 1961-71 and 1972-4, Lawrence I. Phelps 1971-2, Paul Falcon 1974-6, and Bertin Nadeau 1976-80, succeeded by Pierre Dionne in 1980.

Output increased over the years at an impressive rate: 100 instruments had been built by 1899, 200 by 1904, 500 by 1912, 1000 by 1923. By 1996 the total output had reached the remarkable figure of 3750 instruments, including 350 with mechanical action. In 1990, 105 employees worked for Casavant. It was for a long time the only Canadian firm to manufacture its own metal pipes. Moreover between 1938 and 1982 to make the machinery produce a profit, Casavant produced cabinet-work, including furniture for large buildings and component parts for furniture or collections of period furniture. Casavant became a joint-stock company in 1919, incorporated under the name of Casavant Frères Ltée. At the same time, the new company acquired the former Société Casavant Frères and became incorporated as the Compagnie de phonographes Casavant Ltée. The latter, which was dissolved in 1927, had been created in the Casavant plant for the purpose of diversifying production. La Société Nadeau Ltée acquired the firm in 1976.

In 1945 the NFB produced a film on the Casavant firm, The Singing Pipes/Le Vent qui chante (in its shortened form Music in the Wind). A Montreal street was named for Joseph Casavant in 1959, and the Place Casavant, nearby, was named in 1963. To celebrate the centenary (1979) the French organist André Isoir presented a recital in 1978 at Notre-Dame Church in Montreal. Casavant Frères also received a special mention from the Canadian Music Council in 1979.

In addition to the voluminous archives preserved by the firm, the Société d'histoire régionale de St-Hyacinthe and the St-Hyacinthe Seminary hold papers and materials relating to the company.

See also Casavant Society; Organ building.