Organ Building

Organ building. Closely connected and often even essential to the practice of church music, the organ soon followed the first settlers to 17th-century New France. The early instruments, of modest proportions, were imported from Europe.
Organ building. Closely connected and often even essential to the practice of church music, the organ soon followed the first settlers to 17th-century New France. The early instruments, of modest proportions, were imported from Europe. However, it appears certain that an organ was built in Canada as early as 1723. This article traces the evolution and development of organ building in Canada from its origins to 1990, but is concerned essentially with the pipe organ. The more important builders have their own entries.

It was in Quebec City, in two different churches, that the first organs in Canada were installed, preceding the British colonies of North America in that by half a century. The Jesuit Chapel had its instrument before 1661. Le Journal des Jésuites (Quebec City 1871) refers to this organ as early as February 1661. Concerning the one belonging to the parish church (which reopened in 1650 after having burned down in 1640), mention of it is made in a deed by notary Guillaume Audouart dated 22 May 1657. This organ apparently did not last very long, since Mgr François de Laval, according to his biographer Louis Bertrand de la Tour (Mémoires sur la vie de Mgr de Laval, Cologne 1761), brought back from France in September 1663 an organ which was inaugurated in 1664 and which is mentioned in Le Journal des Jésuites (August 1664) as well as in a report to the Holy See from Mgr de Laval himself. La Tour also reports that this organ, serving as model, enabled a clergyman endowed with mechanical gifts to make copies for several churches, but in wood only and emitting a 'highly agreeable sound'. It was probably the 1663 instrument which Paul Jourdain dit Labrosse undertook to restore 1721-3. An instrument with seven stops, including the vox humana, which the cathedral contracted from Labrosse was delivered in 1723.

In 1744 Mgr de Pontbriand rebuilt the Quebec cathedral and dismantled the organs, whereupon a new organ was ordered from Parisian builder Robert Richard, (described in the Journal de musique ancienne, December 1984) similar in design to that of the positive organs of 'Saint-Eustache, Saint-Médéric, and les Petits-Pères which are the finest in Paris' (letter from the Canon de la Corne to M. de Lavillangevin, 27 Feb 1753; reproduced in the Bulletin des recherches historiques, vol 14, December 1908, p 359). The installation was completed in 1753 to general satisfaction and canon Pierre-Joseph Resche (Quebec 1695-1770), who had played the earlier organ 1733-41, became the organist in charge of the new instrument. This must have been a fine instrument, being praised in Paris by the organist of the King of Poland, who had tried it out. Unfortunately it was destroyed, along with the cathedral, by Wolfe's cannons in 1759. Not until October 1802 would the cathedral have another organ, this one built in London by Thomas Elliott (later W. Hill & Son). At about this time another Elliott organ arrived in Quebec City for use in the Anglican cathedral. It was replaced in 1847 by a Bevington organ, also from London.

In Montreal, Notre-Dame Church obtained its first organ, which had 7 stops, between 1701 and 1705, gift of the Sulpician François Vachon de Belmont. The second instrument, by the builder Holland, arrived from London in 1792. It had at least 7 stops, on two manuals, Great-Organ and Swell-Organ, and cost 234 pounds. In 1836 the parish of Montreal exchanged its organ with the one just purchased by the parish of Nicolet: an English organ which had 23 stops. Christ Church (Anglican) in Montreal received from London in 1816 an Elliott organ, a gift from George III. St Paul's Anglican Church, Halifax, was provided with an organ in 1765. This instrument is said to have been obtained as the result of the boarding of a Spanish vessel bound for the south. In 1802 Trinity Anglican Church in Saint John, NB, acquired an organ made in London. The organ played in St James' Cathedral in Toronto in the 1830s also was imported. In Fredericton, St Anne's Chapel possessed an organ in 1848, as did Christ Church Cathedral ca 1860. As for western Canada, the first mention of an organ relates to a barrel instrument sent from London to Victoria in 1859. A pipe organ by J.W. Walker and Sons of London was installed at St John's Anglican Church in Victoria in 1860 and was moved to St John's Anglican Church in Duncan, BC, 53 years later. Also mentioned is the name of John Bagnall, an organ and piano manufacturer active in Victoria from 1863 on, but there is no trace of any instrument by him. In 1875 the St Boniface Cathedral in Manitoba acquired an organ by Louis Mitchell.

Early Builders

Richard Coates, the presumed creator of seven instruments, arrived in Canada in 1817. He built mainly barrel organs, but one of his manual instruments (1848) has been preserved at the temple of the Children of Peace in Sharon, Ont. In 1821 Jean-Baptiste Jacotel, a French emigrant, settled in Montreal. In 1824 he built 'a manual and cylinder organ with four foot-pedals' for the Sault-au-Récollet Church. Though he produced little, he appears to have been the first in Canada to have devoted himself primarily to organ building. At his death (1832), his son Jean-Baptiste and son-in-law Auguste Fay undertook to continue the work. The partnership of Fay and Jacotel was short-lived: Fay carried on alone with some success until 1864, installing several instruments on both sides of the St Lawrence River, especially between Quebec City and Trois-Rivières. As for Jacotel fils, he was associated for a while with Toussaint Cherrier, but there are no records of him after 1845.

Joseph Casavant (b 23 Jan 1807, d 9 Mar 1874) was the first Canadian-born organ builder. His first instrument was delivered in 1840 to the parish council of St-Martin-de-Laval Church in the Montreal region. More important, he transmitted his skill as a builder to his sons Samuel and Claver, who played an influential role in organ building in Canada (see Casavant Frères).

In 1836, with the arrival from New England of Samuel Russell Warren, Canada was introduced to a professional calibre of organ building. Warren lived in Montreal until 1878, when he moved to Toronto. He produced more than 350 instruments, some of which still were in existence in 1990. Another of his achievements was the training of Louis Mitchell, who opened his own workshop in Montreal in 1861.

Quebec City also had one good builder at this time: Napoléon Déry. He produced little, compared with Mitchell or Warren, but, again, in 1990 several of his instruments survived in their original state. The earliest (1874) could be heard at St-Roch-des-Aulnaies. If the St-Joachim organ (1885) lacks eloquence, that of St-Isidore-de-Dorchester (1889) has preserved enough qualities to win over some of the younger Quebec organists to the tracker action; in the period 1950-60 these organists were to have a considerable influence on the evolution of organ aesthetics in Canada and the USA. The Déry organ of St-Michel-de-Bellechasse (1897) may well have elicited the same reaction. Despite the alterations made by Casavant in 1921, the organ of St-Jean-Baptiste of Quebec City still possessed in 1990 the fundamental pipe work of the fine 38-stop organ that Déry had delivered to the parish in 1885 and on which most of his reputation rests.

In 1866 Eusèbe Brodeur took over from Joseph Casavant and built several instruments, some of which have survived in the province of Quebec: those of Cacouna (Rivière-de-Loup), Ste-Monique (Drummond), and Les Cèdres (Soulanges). In about 1890 he went to work for the Casavant brothers, who had been his pupils.

The work of several other organ builders of the period achieved a certain reputation, but its quality cannot be assessed because almost none of it has survived. Joseph Pépin, for example, made several instruments before joining Casavant Frères. Others, including Ovide Paradis in Yamaska from 1854 to ca 1860, Auguste Desrosiers in Louiseville towards 1875, Pierre Beaudoin in St-Henri de Lévis around the same time, and Antoine Couillard in Montreal were amateurs who achieved a certain brief fame but later lapsed into relative obscurity. To this list should be added the names of Godefroy Martel, Charles Paquin, William Dennis, Raymond Roger Charbonneau, and a Monsieur Jodoin, all of whom were engaged in organ building or repair.

Alpec and the CBC coproduced the collection of 7 LPs Les Orgues anciens du Québec devoted to 14 instruments with their original tracker action and voicing (1979-80, Alpec A-81029-35 and RCI 538).

Ontario enjoyed some local building, owing to the sporadic efforts of Richard Coates and of the cabinet-makers (ca 1830) Blythe and Kennedy, the creators of the instrument preserved in Ottawa's Bytown Museum. The arrival in Toronto, ca 1856, of Edward Roome Lye, and the founding there in 1864 of his establishment, known later as the Lye Organ Company, provided Upper Canada with a reliable organ manufacturer, which produced between 300 and 400 instruments. Some of the earliest still survived in 1990, and William Lye, grandson of Edward, continued to own and operate an organ repair shop until 1982.

Ontario had no large organ building firms before the arrival in Toronto of Warren, though some of the following builders were of relative importance: T.F. Roome, who worked in Toronto (fl in the 1860s), Andrus Bros and the Canada Organ Co in London, and Hager & Vogt and Limbrecht, both fl 1849, in Preston (renamed Cambridge). Mention also should be made of John Thomas, who began working in Montreal in 1832 and who by 1844 had moved to Toronto.

The Maritime provinces possessed organ makers worthy of mention: Watson Duchemin, a Charlottetown wood merchant who ca 1850 for clients in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island built some instruments of which at least one, of small dimensions, has survived. James Hepburn of Pictou, NS, built an organ with 400 pipes for the local Assembly Hall in 1860. A local newspaper, the Eastern Chronicle, commented, 'Congregations should no longer look afield for organs, when such fine instruments can be manufactured here' (George MacLaren: Antique Furniture by Nova Scotia Craftsmen, Toronto 1975).

The Years 1880-1950

During this period, organ building in Canada enjoyed unprecedented growth in both quantity and quality. The one great name of this period is Casavant Frères, an enterprise launched under quite modest conditions at the end of 1879 by the brothers Samuel and Claver Casavant, sons of Joseph. The business prospered and at the turn of the century already had to its credit instruments of note in St-Hyacinthe, Montreal, and Ottawa. After completing their training in Europe the two brothers strove to stay abreast of the considerable developments occurring in the art of organ building, including the electrification of the bellows and stops. With the collaboration of Salluste Duval, they brought about certain improvements, such as pedals with adjustable combinations. From the Casavant staff emerged several independent builders. Thus in 1910 the Compagnie d'orgues canadiennes, an association which was to last 20 years, began in St-Hyacinthe. Also around this time, Odilon Jacques and a Monsieur Daudelin built standardized instruments of no great significance.

In Ontario the last 20 years of the 19th century saw few new builders, though the Toronto firm of J. Coleman & Sons(fl 1880s) deserves mention, along with J.H. Phillips in Napanee and the diversified firm of R.S. Williams, which produced some unusual pipe organs. About the time of the establishment of the Karn-Warren Organ Co (1896, after the firm of S.R. Warren & Son was sold to Dennis.W. Karn of Woodstock), the English organ voicer William Potter arrived in Woodstock, following a sojourn in the USA with Wurlitzer. Potter worked at first with Karn-Warren, but when Karn-Warren appeared to be losing impetus he went to work ca 1901 for a cabinet maker named Hay, who, with the help of a pipe maker from England, J.A.G. Webb, began turning out organs. Hay made few instruments and soon preferred to rent part of his workshops to Frank, Samuel Russell, and Mansfield Warren, who in 1907 formed the Warren Church Organ Co. Frank was the son of Charles S. Warren, who had succeeded his father, Samuel Russell, in 1882; Samuel Russell and Mansfield were Frank's sons.

The advent of World War I appears to have dealt organ building in Woodstock a crippling blow. However, a reorganization of skilled craftsmen in 1922 resulted in the Woodstock Pipe Organ Builders. This firm installed instruments throughout Canada before it, too, expired in 1948. The organ voicer Potter and the pipe builder Webb, who worked for all the builders in Woodstock after 1897, were largely responsible for the English style which was the hallmark of all this organ building.

Elsewhere in Ontario, the beginning of the 20th century was marked by the appearance of some new builders. Breckels and Matthews of Toronto (later Matthews Church Organ Co) built instruments, interesting samples of which were extant in 1990. It was early in the century, also, that Lorenzo Morel, a representative of Casavant Frères, arrived in Toronto. In the 1920s he built under his own name a number of instruments, several of which survived in 1990. During the same decade Richard and James Dawson, originally with the Warren Church Organ Co, made organs for a few years under the name of Dawson Bros but were not active for very long. The Franklin Legge Organ Co, founded in Toronto in 1915, had a longer existence.

In the Maritime provinces there was little local organ building until the 1880s. In 1881 John Bath Reed opened an organ factory in Bridgetown, NS, and the same year he completed an organ for Provincetown Methodist Church. In Saint John, NB, Landry & Son and the Peter Organ Co made instruments of which little is known, except for the organ of Carleton Church in the Gaspé, built by Landry in 1877. The restoration made by Casavant in 1970 has preserved the facade along with a major part of the original pipe work. Also worthy of mention is W.R. Chute (fl 1908) of Dartmouth, NS.

In 1887 the Presbyterian Church of Birtle, Man, acquired an organ with four stops built in Winnipeg by Bolton and Baldwin. The Musical Journal described this instrument in 1888 as the only pipe organ west of Winnipeg. This is incorrect, as Victoria and its region had long before that date acquired instruments that had arrived on ships that had sailed around Cape Horn. One of the first in British Columbia was a Bevington & Sons organ that had arrived in 1861 and was installed in Victoria the following year by William Seeley, the organist at Christ Church. Several old instruments survived in British Columbia in 1990, but it is not known whether they were original installations: eg, the extremely interesting US-built Appleton organ (1869) of the Church of Our Lord in Victoria and the London organ in the United Church of Cumberland.

Besides these, British Columbia in 1990 still had several other interesting and relatively old instruments, such as the Lye organ of St Paul's Lutheran Church in Nanaimo, or those of the English type of St Saviour's Church in Victoria and the church at Sooke, instruments restored by Hugo Spilker. In New Westminster, Chandos Dix (ca 1890-1940) applied himself chiefly to maintenance but built and assembled a few instruments, including those in Shawnigan Lake Boys' School, St-Paul's Anglican Church in Kamloops, All Saints' Anglican Church in Vernon, and St-Francis' Roman Catholic Church in Vancouver. Other old instruments imported from the USA and installed in Canada fairly recently should also be mentioned: in Edmonton, the Colburn organ (1870) of the German Catholic Church and the Chadwick (1900) of the Westend Christian Reformed Church. With the beginning of the 20th century, the West became well supplied with fine instruments coming occasionally from the USA or England, but more often ordered from Casavant.

Revival 1950-90

The early 1950s were marked throughout Canada but particularly in Quebec by a deep dissatisfaction with existing organ building. The European revival of interest in the organ finally reached Canada, especially through the new recordings, which gave forth sounds that were variable but enthralling compared with the insipid sounds characteristic of Canadian instruments. Some organists at that time favoured the neoclassicism of Aeolian-Skinner or of Hill, Norman & Beard. Other younger organists, who had played on classical organs in Europe, embarked on a crusade for a return to the aesthetics that had governed earlier organ builders. Montreal succeeded in acquiring excellent Rudolf von Beckerath instruments at Queen Mary Road United Church, at Saint Joseph's Oratory, and at the Immaculée-Conception Church. The new classical instruments, which were promoted by the Ars Organi concerts, soon drew an enthusiastic public, and audiences for the concerts were increased when they were broadcast on CBC radio. At Casavant, the new orthodoxy was assimilated in spectacular fashion. Many remarkable tracker-action instruments of classical design such as those of St-Pascal of Kamouraska, Que, or of Edmundston, NB should be mentioned, along with many other electropneumatic organs of neo-classical design such as that of the Cap-de-la-Madeleine Basilica, which, during the 1960s, placed Canada in the forefront of organ North America. This renaissance was of sufficient intensity to produce, in the wake of Casavant, several independent builders whose instruments contribute to the richness of Canadian organ building. Karl Wilhelm, of German origin, and trained in Europe, began working with Casavant in 1960. In 1966 he set up shop on his own. His workshop, located first in St-Hyacinthe, and later in Mont-St-Hilaire, has turned out numerous organs whose rich and powerful sound gives a healthy indication of their pedigree.

Hellmuth Wolff, who came to Casavant from Switzerland in 1963, founded his own establishment in Laval, Que, in 1968. Among his productions bearing the stamp of genius and poetry, are found a number of instruments built in the 'authentic' manner. Guilbault-Thérien Inc, formerly Providence Organ Inc/Orgue Providence Inc, in 1969 began to build in St-Hyacinthe mechanical action instruments of great quality. Moreover this builder has been engaged in the repair of dozens of pneumatic or electropneumatic instruments, making the effort to give them, when necessary, a more balanced and richer sound structure, a difficult operation, but one with which he has obtained astonishing results.

In 1979 Fernand Létourneau, after 14 years at Casavant, opened the firm Orgues Létourneau Ltée, which has been mainly dedicated to building organs with tracker action. He is also successful in the reconstruction or restoration of old organs. Létourneau's workshop, at first set up in Ste-Rosalie, was refitted in St-Hyacynthe in 1984.

In Ontario, Gabriel Kney, of German origin, was associated with John Bright in 1955. Their London workshop produced the first instrument with tracker action of the revival period in Canada. Starting in 1967, it was under his own name that Kney increased the number of mechanical action instruments: organs which carried his reputation well beyond his adopted country. Mention must also be made of a few builders who worked for a time: the T. Eaton Co. in Toronto (1946-60); Hallman in Kitchener between 1964 and 1976; Neutel in Brantford. In addition, Keates Organ Co, which had begun its operations in London in 1945, was subsequently relocated in Acton and in 1990 operated under the name of Keates-Geissler Pipe Organs Ltd, and Principal Organs Co began operations in Woodstock in 1962. In Fergus, Brunzema Organs Inc opened its doors in 1979. This company was founded by Gerhard Brunzema and has concentrated on the manufacture of organs with tracker action and is specialized in the production of small and medium-sized instruments.


After 1960, organ building in Canada attained a level of excellence previously unknown. This rapid improvement would have been impossible without the solid infrastructures laid by the preceding generations of organ builders and without the enthusiasm of a living and productive organ school. The situation may be explained, moreover, only in the light of the staunch affection so many Canadians have retained for the organ.

In 1990 there were some dark clouds on the horizon. There was the apparent disaffection of the Christian church for an instrument that has served it so well. There was as well the inexorable rise in production costs, which had made the acquisition of a fine instrument a serious financial undertaking. Fortunately at the same time there was a growing awareness of the importance of protecting as a precious heritage certain authentic examples of 19th- and early-20th-century workmanship, and a timely movement was underway to remodel instruments of the period between the two world wars, thus providing a link, aided by the aesthetic advances being made in contemporary manufacture, with the great organ building traditions of the past.

In 1983 the National Library of Canada presented the exhibition 'Pipes and Pedals: Chronicles of Canadian Organs and Organists,' prepared by Stephen C. Willis.

See also Canadian Piano and Organ Manufacturers' Association; Mechanical instruments; Organ composition; Organ playing and teaching; Reed organs; Morse Robb; RCCO.

Further Reading

  • Bridle, Augustus. 'Beginning with the pipe organ,' Canadian Courier, vol 12, 12 Oct 1912

    Lapalice, O. 'Les organistes et maîtres de musique à Notre-Dame de Montréal,' BRH, vol 25, Aug 1919

    Hollins, Alfred. 'Organs and organ building in Canada and the United States,' The Organ, vol 6, no. 22, 1926-7

    Dufourcq, Norbert. 'Précisions historiques sur l'orgue électrique en France, au Canada et aux États-Unis,' Revue musicale, Nov 1929

    Chapais, Charles. 'La construction des orgues par des Canadiens francais,' Deuxième congrès de la langue française au Canada, vol 1 (Quebec City 1938)

    Mackey, Donald. 'Organ in Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal,' The Organ, vol 31, Jan 1952

    'British Columbia's first pipe organ,' CBC Times, Eastern Canada edition, 27 Jun-3 Jul 1954

    White, Herbert D. 'The organ of St. Luke's Church, Winnipeg,' The Organ, vol 34, no. 133, 1954-5

    Steed, Graham. 'The rebuilding of Christ Church Cathedral organ, Victoria, British Columbia,' CMJ, vol 2, Summer 1958

    Kennedy, D. Stuart. 'Central United Church, Calgary, Alberta, Canada,' The Organ, vol 39, no. 156, 1959-60

    Dufourcq, Norbert. 'Quelques instruments canadiens,' L'Orgue, 118, Apr-Jun 1966

    Matthews, E.N. 'Some organ builders in Victoria before 1900,' The Organ, vol 46, Oct 1966

    Stobie, Charles I.G. 'The organ in St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Saint John's, Newfoundland,' ibid, vol 52, no. 206, 1972

    Royal Canadian College of Organists Quarterly (Oct 1973-8)

    Stobie, Charles I.G. 'The organ of the Anglican Cathedral of St John the Baptist, St. John's, Newfoundland,' The Organ, vol 53, no. 211, 1974; vol 54, no. 212, 1975

    Crousset, Donald. 'L'orgue de la basilique de l'Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal,' L MUS thesis, University of Montreal 1975

    Bouchard, Antoine. 'Évolution de la facture d'orgue au Canada, entre 1960 et 1975,' The Organ Yearbook 1978 (Buren, Netherlands 1978)

    - 'The organ in Canada: the first 300 years,' Mcan, 35, Apr 1978

    Harris, John. 'Organ builder takes skills around world,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 19 Jan 1981

    Gallat-Morin, Élisabeth and Bouchard, Antoine. Témoins de la vie musicale en Nouvelle-France (Quebec City 1981)

    Germain, Pierre. 'La Musique d'orgue en Nouvelle-France,' University of Ottawa Bulletin du Centre de recherche en civilisation canadienne-française, 25, Dec 1982

    Pipes and Pedals: Chronicles of Canadian Organs and Organists, exhibition catalogue (Ottawa 1983)

    Gallat-Morin, Élisabeth. 'Petites et grandes misères de l'installation d'un orgue à Québec en 1753,' Journal de musique ancienne, vol 6, Dec 1984

    Germain, Pierre. 'Le premier orgue en Nouvelle-France,' Journal de musique ancienne, vol 7, Oct 1985

    - 'L'orgue au Bas-Canada,' ibid, vol 8, Oct 1986

    Besingrand, Franck. 'L'orgue au Québec,' Sonances, vol 7, Spring 1988

    Lutz, Christian and Vallotin, Pierre. 'Voyage d'enquête et de contacts au Québec,' L'Orgue francophone, vol 5, Nov 1988

    Grégoire, Carole. 'L'orgue au Québec de la Conquête à l'arrivée de Samuel Warren d'après la presse québécoise de l'époque,' M MUS thesis, Laval University 1990

    Raudsepp, Karl J. Organs of Montreal (Pointe Claire 1993)

    Hanbury, Eric. 'The organnes of the new founde lande,' The American Organist, vol 31, May 1997

    Hartman, James B. The organ in Manitoba: A History of the Instruments, the Builders, and the Players (Winnipeg 1997)

    Jackson, Alan and Bailey, James. Organs of Toronto (Toronto 2002)

    Wetherill, John. 'Edmonton's new organ is unveiled,' Organ Canada, vol 14, Dec. 2001

    Gallat-Morin, Élisabeth and Pinson, Jean-Pierre. La Vie musicale en Nouvelle-France (Quebec, 2003)

    Coup d'oeil

    La Musique au Québec

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