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The New Pipe Organ of St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica


When renovations and restorations began at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica in 2014, one of the first decisions taken, thanks to the support of Cardinal Thomas Collins and Rector Fr. Michael Busch, was to plan for a new pipe organ to replace the 1880 Warren organ which had been mechanically unreliable throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s and unusable since 1993 when the rear gallery was closed because of structural instability. Clearly articulated by all concerned was the desire to have an instrument capable of playing the glorious heritage of organ music written to accompany and complement Catholic liturgies, as well as the broad spectrum of repertoire from many eras and traditions. The new organ would also complement the mission of St. Michael’s Choir School, whose musical contributions to cathedral liturgies include hymns, motets, Gregorian chant, and sung Mass settings at three of the six weekend Masses.  Many SMCS students study organ at the school, eventually serving as parish musicians throughout Canada and internationally.

A rear-gallery placement was assured, with two organ chambers on either side of the tower arch, framing the recessed stained glass window which had been hidden for over 130 years by the Warren organ (The Warren organ, the largest and best preserved in Canada, was carefully dismantled and put into storage, to be restored and rebuilt – more on that in a future article).

Several features of the renovated interior will assist the diffusion of sound from the rear gallery: slate tile floors throughout the nave, marble wainscoting running the perimeter of the interior, a marble-floored sanctuary, new pews with a thin, tightly-woven fabric on the seat and hardwood backs, and higher vaulted ceilings in the choir area, thanks to the removal of false ceilings installed in the 1930’s.

With this new instrument, the cathedral liturgies will be greatly enhanced by a vast and diverse repertoire of organ music spanning five centuries. Organists looking for liturgical and/or concert repertoire may find a helpful and convenient resource in the repertoire of preludes and postludes, covering September to June.

Echoing the Choir School’s commitment to Canadian music, preludes and postludes for 2016-2017 include works by Violet Archer, Maya Badian, Gerald Bales, John Burge, Florence Durell Clark, Margaret Drynan, Robert Fleming, Ernest Gagnon, Emily Hall, Ruth Watson Henderson, Jacques Hétu, Clarence Lucas, Walter MacNutt, Roger Matton, François Morel, Joseph Roff, Heather Spry, Georges-Emile Tanguay and Victor Togni. For convenience, the durations of pieces and their publishers  are included in the list of repertoire, which is available at this link:

William O’Meara

Organist, St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica


Casavant Opus 3907

The new organ of St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica comprises 56 stops (76 ranks) over three manuals and pedal, with slider chests and electrical action, controlled by a three-manual console installed in the gallery, and connected through the MIDI musical interface to the chancel console. Two of the three manual divisions, Swell and Choir, are enclosed to achieve maximum dynamic range. The 256 level electronic combination system will allow the preparation and saving of registrations for the over 400 liturgies with music that take place in the cathedral during the year.

The organ is contained in two large cases on either side of the tower arch in the rear gallery. These stained oak cases in gothic revival style were designed in collaboration with architect Terry White and incorporate façade pipes of 32’ and 16’ stops.

The expressive divisions occupy the lower levels,while the Great and Pedal voices are on the higher levels, ensuring the best sound projection into the nave and sanctuary. The large Pedal wooden stops are located horizontally on the floor in the space in front of the rear window, with their specific treble pipes placed against both adjacent tower walls and painted the same colour as the walls so as not to be visually obvious. The wind system is made of single-fold reservoirs and concussion bellows, ensuring constant and stable wind pressure.

Noteworthy are the expression enclosures of the Swell and Choir divisions. These are of double-walled construction, with a void between both partitions. The louvers are made of thick solid wood with specially designed gaskets. The wide dynamic range obtained with these very effective enclosures, from pianissimo to fortissimo, is truly remarkable.

The tonal design is inspired by the French symphonic organs. Principal choruses are found on every division. The 16’ Great principal chorus is echoed by the Swell 8’ Diapason and the Choir 8’ Principal with a panoply of accompaniment and ensemble possibilities. To reinforce the bass tone in the Pedal, there are mutations at 10 2/3’, and a Theorbo II providing 6 2/5’ and 4 4/7’ pitches.

The organ features a wide variety of flute stops of contrasting character. A Cornet V is in the Great division, and a divided jeu de tierce, including the Larigot 1 1/3’ and Sifflet 1’, for a total of seven ranks, echoes the Great Cornet V in the Choir division.  For the string voices, besides the Pedal and Great Violine 16 & Violoncello 8’, there is a contrasting Viole de Gambe/Voix Celeste in the Swell and the more ethereal Dulciana/Unda Maris 8’ in the Choir.  Complete reed choruses are available on the Great, Swell and Pedal divisions, plus an 8’ Choir Trumpet and smaller reeds such as Oboe, Vox Humana and Clarinet for solos and coloristic effects.  Finally, a Horizontal Trumpet 8’ mounted in the Gallery rail, and a Festival Trumpet at 16’, 8’, 4’ in the Choir expressive enclosure, complete the tonal resources of the instrument.

Given the planned acoustical qualities of the cathedral, we approached pipe scaling, voicing and tonal finishing with the goal of creating a naturally singing sound, achieving exquisite tone colours while ensuring the power necessary to fill the nave. More importantly, these acoustical qualities will blend all the stops, allowing for an unlimited number of registrations and an impressive, seamless crescendo from the soft Dulciana under expression to the powerful and thunderous Tutti.  The full specification of Opus 3907 can be viewed here:

Designing and building a pipe organ for Saint Michael’s Cathedral Basilica presented visual, technical and tonal challenges. We had the privilege to work collaboratively with a team of visionary and dedicated people who were aiming for the very best. Our entire Casavant team was involved in the design, construction, installation and voicing of this pipe organ. We want to express our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to all the people we have worked with, for their confidence in us, and their outstanding collaboration throughout the entire process.

Casavant Frères

Jean-Christian Céré          Jean-Luc Hébert

Simon Couture                  Robert Hiller

Alain Goneau                     Jacquelin Rochette