Marc Sacrispeyre, master of four thousand pipes

Photography : Jérôme Prévost - Text : Elisabeth Grosdhomme

At just 30 years old, Marc Sacrispeyre is the tenured organist of Senlis’ cathedral.

This is both an honor and a challenge. An honor because this organ ranks among the most beautiful in France. Erected in 1750 for Saint-Vincent Abbey, transferred to the cathedral in 1803, completely rebuilt at the end of the 19th century by the famous, Lyon-based organ manufacturer Merklin, it has been repaired and built upon several times during the 20th century. It now accounts for four keyboards, a pedalboard, sixty types of harmonic controls and more than four thousand pipes, among which some impressive chamades, horizontal pipes with a particularly bright sound.

But it is also a challenge, as the instrument is far from its best days. Some of the electric contacts which carry signal from the keys to the pipes are not operational anymore. The skins of the windbags, crackled in places, let air through. Some mechanisms have stopped working, some notes have disappeared.

Therefore, in addition to playing the main concerts, masses and celebrations at the cathedral, Marc Sacrispeyre is also the kingpin of an ambitious restoration project for the instrument, developed since 2008 by the local charity Les Amis des Orgues de Senlis.

As always when it is a matter of restoring historical heritage, opinions diverge : some think a restoration has to bring things back to their original shape, others believe it is a unique opportunity to put contemporary technologies at the service of what history has passed over to us.

Marc Sacrispeyre belongs firmly on the modernists’ side. Restoring « identically » would make little sense anyhow, talking about an instrument that has evolved so much throughout its history. For instance, the transmitters, mechanical in origin, became electrical during the 20th century ; the restoration in the making offers a chance to bring them into the digital era, with the promise of an infinitely enriched sonic repertoire.

It is not for the technical prowess that extending the potential of this instrument is worthwhile; it is because the organ, contrary to the stilted image it may have in the eyes of those who hardly know it, is above all an instrument of freedom. An organist is constantly improvising because, while he is accompanying the liturgy, depending on the priest’s personal style and the affluence at a particular mass, the written sheet music is always either too short or too long. So the musician needs to improvise, filling just the available time, no more no less, with a music that is not meant to catch the audience’s attention but to support prayer. And this will be achieved all the better with an organ that offers more tonal possibilities.

Still, organ music is not limited to religious music. It is often reduced to this, by ignorance, for the simple reason that organs are costly to build and maintain. For that matter, they have disappeared from most concert venues, only subsisting within churches. But there is an entire organ repertoire which goes well beyond holy music, and which Marc Sacrispeyre also enjoys playing as a concertist. « Within liturgy, the music speaks to the soul to touch the heart ; in a concert, the music speaks to the heart to touch the soul. »

Practicing the organ since he was ten years old, Marc Sacrispeyre knows every facet of it and is multiplying the ways and means of sharing his passion. He teaches that instrument, in Senlis and Chantilly, to students with ages ranging from 7 to 82 years old. He is also a professor of musicology at the University of Angers. And he has made himself an entrepreneur by taking on a company called Plein Orgue MS. As such, he is now working, alongside a team of engineers, on conceiving, installing and harmonizing digital or virtual organs, thus widening access to an instrument which was otherwise reserved for exceptional places and budgets.

It is the organ that drew Marc Sacrispeyre to Senlis. It is through it that he would like to contribute to the city’s appeal : making the great organ of the cathedral, restoration willing, such an efficient instrument that contemporary composers, wherever they hail from in France or the world, would come here to create their pieces, as it is here that they would find the instrument capable of giving life to the sounds they imagine.

It is the organ again that inspires another, more personal dream : to have the opportunity to play music together in the cathedral with his wife, an amateur organist, with the smaller choir organ echoing the great organ in a duet.

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