KU organist with ties to Notre Dame says it’s miraculous that organ survived fire

photo by: The Associated Press

In this Thursday, May 2, 2013, file photo, Philippe Lefebvre plays the organ at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Although the cathedral suffered a devastating fire this week, the organ was saved from damage. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

When University of Kansas organist James Higdon learned Notre Dame de Paris was on fire, he thought he would never be able to hear or create music in the historic cathedral ever again.

“I was devastated,” Higdon told the Journal-World on Thursday, three days after the April 15 fire. “We watched the fire crawl across the roof, and I know where the organs are. It didn’t look possible it could make it.”

Higdon, the Dane and Polly Bales Professor of Organ for KU’s School of Music, said he was teaching on Monday when a student informed him that the Gothic cathedral was ablaze.

“I came in (to my office) and turned to CNN on my computer and one by one organ students and my colleague Dr. Michael Bauer gathered in my office and watched it,” he said.

photo by: Contributed photo

James Higdon, the University of Kansas’ Dane and Polly Bales Professor of Organ.

The cathedral, an architectural masterpiece dating from the 12th century, is highly significant to Higdon because he has attended many musical productions and even performed organ recitals there. Higdon first performed on the cathedral’s organ in 1988 and returned to perform four more times, most recently in May 2018.

“One of the most amazing times I’ve spent in Notre Dame Cathedral was at night alone practicing,” he said.

He also recently signed on to perform there again in September 2020. Now, of course, he does not believe the show will go on as originally planned.

“Just being there, the organ is very unique and is a beautiful musical instrument,” Higdon said. “A few days ago, during the fire, I thought I would never hear it or never play it again, but now I’m hoping my September 2020 performance will just be postponed.”

photo by: Contributed photo

James Higdon, the Dane and Polly Bales Professor of Organ at KU, sits at the organ in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris before performing in May 2018.

The cathedral’s rector recently said a “computer glitch” may have been behind the rapidly spreading fire that devastated the 850-year-old building, according to The Associated Press. Rector Patrick Chauvet did not elaborate on the exact nature of the glitch.

“We may find out what happened in two or three months,” he told a meeting of Paris business leaders.

The fire burned through the network of enormous centuries-old oak beams supporting the monument’s vaulted stone ceiling, dangerously weakening the structure. The surrounding neighborhood was blocked off as stones continued to tumble off the sides of the cathedral after the inferno.

On Thursday, Paris police investigators said they thought an electrical short-circuit most likely caused the fire. The Parisien newspaper has reported that a computer glitch might have misdirected firefighters responding to the initial fire alarm. The unsourced report said investigators are also looking into whether the fire was linked to temporary elevators being used in a renovation that was underway at the time the cathedral caught fire. Chauvet said there were fire alarms throughout the building, which he described as “well protected.”

photo by: The Associated Press

This photo taken on Monday April 15, 2019 shows Notre Dame cathedral burning in Paris. Firefighters declared success Tuesday April 16, 2019 morning in an over 12-hour battle to extinguish an inferno engulfing Paris’ iconic Notre Dame cathedral that claimed its spire and roof, but spared its bell towers. (AP Photo/Vanessa Pena)

On Friday, firefighters and architects said the structure of the cathedral was finally stabilized, four days after the fire broke out.

“There is no more risk the edifice’s walls could fall down,” Lt. Col. Gabriel Plus said, adding that firefighters have been able to cool down the walls and debris from the roof inside the cathedral.

“It’s a miracle that the cathedral is still standing, and that all the relics were saved,” he said.

One of those relics is the cathedral’s massive organ. Although many artifacts were moved out of harm’s way as the fire continued to burn, moving the organ, which contains more than 8,000 pipes, would have been a “superhuman job,” Higdon said.

“For one thing, the fire didn’t have to reach it,” Higdon said. “Water could have ruined it, or heat could have melted all these pipes.

“But it was saved,” Higdon added. “It’s really miraculous.”

Part of the reason the fire was so devastating is because Notre Dame is “ground zero” for music in Western culture, Higdon said.

“Historically, it’s an amazing place,” he said. “It’s an important place for (Christian) believers, for nonbelievers and for anybody who loves music.”

Ever since news of the fire quickly spread across the world, donations have poured in to help rebuild Notre Dame. Over $1 billion has already been pledged, and French President Emmanuel Macron is moving quickly on reconstruction.

Higdon said he believed it would be rebuilt and it is going to take more than the $1 billion already raised — but it’s worth it.

“People will understand the importance of this cathedral to the world,” he said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Dylan Lysen

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