In northern Italy the ‘classical Brescian organ’ of the late 16th century remained a norm to which the occasional 17th-century two-manual organ was an exception (and probably built by a foreign builder); it was only in the mid-17th century that the French organ achieved its classical form, intimately bound up with music of a distinct and well-characterized idiom. The very number of livres d’orgue published following the publication of the Caeremoniale parisiense (1662; seeOrgan mass) suggests a remarkably unified ‘organ school’. Every stop in a French organ of about 1700 came to have an appointed purpose, and the livres d'orgue from Nivers (1665) to Marchand (c1715) and beyond, several of which contain registration tables, give the impression that late 17th-century Paris had shaken off outside influences past and present.
But Flemish influence had originally been paramount in northern France as Italian and Spanish had been in parts of southern France. Titelouze’s plenum was much the same as that of a Dutch composer. Even the Cornet was Netherlandish, from the time of the organ in Antwerp (1565) onwards. Yet while many details in Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle (1636–7) may point to northern influences like Praetorius, important moves towards the organ of the livres d’orgue were made at this period, above all in Paris. Narrow- and wide-scaled Tierces soon became common (narrow at St Nicolas-des-Champs, 1618; wide at St Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, 1631) and with them a general change towards mutation colour (e.g. more 13/5' ranks, fewer 1'). Mersenne knew Tierces as ranks used both in the plein jeu and for solo combinations. More important still were the new short-compass keyboards of solo or quasi-solo character: the 25-note Cornet manual (i.e. a Récit) at St Séverin, Paris (1610), set a new fashion, though intended at first only as a little keyboard giving the raised Cornet chest a second row of keys. Were the little extra chest to be placed below the Grand orgue it would be called Echo and probably have a shorter keyboard and more ranks. By 1660 a large organ could be expected to have four manuals (including two treble halves): two supplying classical Great–Chair organ contrast (Grand orgue and Positiv) and two right-hand solo manuals (Echo and Récit) for music influenced by the monodic récit dramatique of the ballet de cour.
The organ played by Nicolas Lebègue (Table 14), one of the organists to Louis XIV, shows the French scheme of the period at its best. Rarely can an organ have been so closely related to the music of its period as such an instrument to the works of Lebègue, Raison, Grigny, Couperin and others. Standardization was one of the chief aims. To obtain the Plein jeu for those movements in the Mass that required it, for example, the organist drew the Principals 16', 8', 4', 2', then added the Fourniture, whose composition was probably something like: and then finally the Cymbale: which, if it was a large four-rank Cymbale, included the 26th as well. Such schemes were recorded by Bédos de Celles (B1766–78) at the end of the great period but can be taken as typical; thus, for instance, his specification of 1766 (for the case design, see fig.36) is almost indistinguishable from that of the 1674 organ at Le Petit Andely. Important points about the French chorus (which also, through his brother Johann Andreas in Alsace, influenced Gottfried Silbermann in Saxony) are that the Cymbale broke back more often than the Fourniture but generally duplicated the Fourniture in the treble; no rank is higher than 2' at c''' (i.e. 28 mm long); and doubled ranks did not occur in either Mixture. The plein jeu was rarely brilliant, never shrill; it was rather a further ‘colour’ of the organ.
Pitch, at least from about 1680, was about a semitone below a' = 440. Pipe metal was hammered, including the lead pipes for flute stops. The keyboards were always pivoted at the end, and the mechanism suspended from the chests above, trackers passing straight from the Grand orgue keyboard to the pallet box ranged vertically above the keys (fig.37). The Positif stickers connect with a lever which raises the pallet placed above the channel-end. Such systems were simple and logical, providing the player with a very sensitive action facilitating, among other things, the playing of ornaments.
To obtain the Grand jeu, the organist drew a varying combination of reeds, Cornet, Principals 8' and 4' and Tierces, but no mixtures. The reeds supplied volume and brilliance; the Cornet boosted the thin reed trebles; the Tierces encouraged the overtone level that gave prominence; and the Principal 4' strengthened the basic tone. Fugues were often played on such registrations, and other fugal colours, such as Tierce combinations with Tremulant, give an impression quite different from that of Italian or German fugues of the period 1650–1750. On larger organs, a pair of Trompettes on the Grand orgue after about 1750 gave a timbre peculiar to the bass depth and brilliance of French reeds. Late in the period a Trompette was also put on the Positif, and following the organ at Notre Dame, Paris (Thierry, 1730–33), Bombarde manuals were also very occasionally included – keyboards coupled to the Grand orgue and playing the large-scaled Bombarde 16', perhaps with other large reeds; at Notre Dame the Bombarde division could also be played from the Pedal. The chief purpose of this was to give the ranks their own chest and wind supply, which was often experimentally high by the end of the classical period. Similarly, it was the treble ‘boosting’ supplied by the Cornet that led eventually to higher pressures and double-length harmonic resonators during the next century. The reed basses, however, remained the chief glory, encouraging composers to write special basse de trompette music from about 1650 onwards. De grosse taille (‘of large scale’) is a phrase often applied in 17th-century contracts to the Trompette.
Even in plein jeu registrations (in which the mixtures replaced the reeds for brilliance), the French organ was not overdrawn. Only a handful of stops was involved in any of the characteristic French registrations, and all the codified ingenuity was geared towards clearly marked colours. Thus the texture of a piece marked Tierce en taille, one of the most beautiful effects known to organists, would consist of the following elements: (i) left hand on Positif, Bourdon 8' + Prestant 4' + Doublette 2' + Nasard + Tierce (perhaps + Larigot), playing a free, singing melody in the middle of the texture, gamba-like; (ii) right hand on Grand orgue, Bourdons 16' + 8' + 4' (jeux doux), playing accompaniment above or around the melody; and (iii) pedal playing the bass line on a Flûte 8' (or perhaps coupled to Grand orgue Bourdon 16' in later examples). There was some variety in such registrations: Bédos de Celles, for instance, did not like 16' manual stops in accompaniments. On the other hand, the Tierces were so characteristic of French organs that many combinations were possible: a right-hand Cornet line on the Grand orgue, for instance, could be accompanied in dialogue by a left hand Jeu de tierce registration on the Positif. From D’Anglebert (1689) onwards, Quatuors and Trios had been played using three different colours including pedal: indeed, the chief purpose of the pedal was ‘pour pouvoir jouer les trios’ (according to Joyeuse’s contract at Auch in 1688) and to play 8' and 16' cantus firmus in pieces built on a plainchant. The biggest drain on wind supply and narrow channels must have been the slower, sustained music written for concert de flûtes and fonds d’orgue registrations, comprising all available Montres, Prestants, open Flûtes and Bourdons. Such sounds became fashionable around the middle of the 18th century; but whatever the combination, no organist in the provinces need have been in doubt about how the Parisian composers expected their pieces to sound (see alsoRegistration, §I, 5).
The splendid French organ at the eve of the Revolution (1789) may well have been far superior to the music written for it, as were the Dutch organ of 1700 and the English organ of 1850; but it is the very decadence of the music that best draws out the extravagant contrasts, brilliant reeds, round flutes, echoes, big choruses and immense colour potential available on such extant late instruments as those at St Maximin-en-Var (J.-E. Isnard, 1773) and Poitiers Cathedral (F.-H. Clicquot, 1787–90). The French organ received a serious setback when the Revolution disrupted life in the cities. It was ripe for development at the very moment when Clicquot’s sons became soldiers; but not until Cavaillé-Coll's organ for St Denis, completed in 1841, did Poitiers have a worthy successor.