The history of the romantic Schyven organ can be traced back to the year 1878. On February 20th of that year Madame Eugenia Maria
Kempeneers passed away. She bequeathed to our Lady's Cathedral the princely sum of B.frs.150.000. It was her wish that this money be used for the construction of a new pipe organ. The project however was delayed for 10 years, owing to the fact she had also stipulated that the income on this large sum of money was to go to her brother for as long as he lived. Her brother died in 1888, and the church wardens then nominated a panel of experts whose task it was to make an initial selection of organ builders deemed suitable for this big project.
After preliminary disqualifications, the firms of A.Cavaillé-Coll (Paris), E.Fr.Walcker (Ludwigsburg) and P.Schyven (Brussels) were invited to submit a proposal. They were not to exceed the amount of money specified in the grant, but they were allowed to re-use the old pipes if they so desired.
All three organ builders proposed a magnificent 32' organ. Aristide Cavaillé-Coll proposed an instrument with 76 speaking stops, Ernst Fr.Walcker one with 100 stops and Pierre Schyven an organ with 87 stops. A fourth organ builder Charles Anneesens of Gramont in Belgium also submitted a proposal, uninvited. He wanted to build an electro-pneumatic instrument of 84 stops. His proposal was dismissed out of hand.
The final ballot gave two votes to Cavaillé-Coll, including the vote of the Cathedral organist Joseph Callaerts, and three votes to Schyven. Pierre Schyven was awarded the project. Construction of the new instrument commenced under the direction of the renowned architect François Baeckelmans. He built a new organ gallery, and certain alterations were made to the organ chest.
The original chest, dating from 1657, was built to a design of the famous artist Erasmus Quellin. The sculptures were carved by Peter Verbrugghen the elder.
Little is known about the original layout of the organ chest. It is quite likely however that the organ once had a "Ruckpositiv". When the organ was moved to its present location, additional side towers were added. These were joined to the organ chest almost seamlessly using oak panelling. The exact origin of these side towers is not known. In 1891 the beam structure of the organ chest was lengthened by about one meter.
The front of the organ is quite an impressive sight, with its sculpted figurines and its 95 front pipes. These pipes were all renewed in 1891. Contrary to what one might expect, most of these pipes are mute, serving as decoration only. This is somewhat typical of romantic instruments built around that time, where the internal build-up of the instrument often differed greatly from what one would expect by looking at the instrument from the outside. Only the twelve largest pipes in and around the side towers are actually connected. They are part of the Montre 16' of the Great Organ.
The new organ was inaugurated in December 1891. The panel of 12 judges was unanimous in its praise. During construction it was decided to increase the number of speaking stops to 90 and the specification of certain stops was altered. The photograph of the console (right) shows the four manuals. The position of the two uppermost manuals was interchanged at the start, with the Bombarde now being placed on top and the Récit second from the top. The manual second from the bottom is the Grande orgue and the bottom manual is the Positif. The organ had a gas powered engine for providing wind. This was in addition to the traditional pedals and bellows fitted to the lower wind chest placed inside the organ.
The Schyven organ has withstood the test of time remarkably well. It has done so, quite fortunately, without undergoing any modifications worthy of mention. Only one stop was modified over the years: the original Quitatön 12' in the Positif. It was replaced by a Quintatön 16' in 1934. This stop was again replaced by a Bourdon 16' in 1951. The fact that this historic organ has survived the years virtually unharmed is a tribute to the very fine quality of work of the organ builder Pierre Schyven. It also a reflects the fine reputation which this instrument has gained over the years.
But that is not to say that this organ never underwent any changes at all. The following is a brief summary of the small alterations which took place in the course of time, since 1891:
1901: Organ builder Stevens installed a new tremulant on the Récit. A small note written down at that time states (translated from Dutch) : "installed by Albert Van Winckel of Duffel, in 1902".
1913: The old gas engine, used for supplying wind, was replaced by an electric blower. A note was found written on a inner panel in the lower part of the organ chest: (translated from French) "Placed (an) electric blower in (the course of the months of ) August and September 1913".
1921: The electric motor of the blower was replaced.
1934: Organ builder Stevens cleaned the organ. While doing so he replaced the Quintatön 12' of the Positif by a Quitatön 16'. It is thought, but not with any certainty, that the mixtures were re-voiced and softened at that time.
1951: Organ builder D'Hondt installed a new tremulant on the Positif. He also replaced the Quintatön 16' on the Positif by a Bourdon 16'. Interestingly, the name of the stop remained unchanged. It is still named Quintatön 16' today.
1973: Major restoration work was scheduled in the Cathedral and the organ was dismantled. A protective casing was erected around the entire instrument. The organ chest itself was restored by a local cabinet-maker specialised in the art.
1983: Fire safety officials declared that the original wind chest, located in the left tower of the cathedral, was to be removed. It was said to constitute a fire hazard. The church wardens had no choice but to comply with this order. The Cathedral was reopened. Organ builder Pels-D'Hondt, of Herselt in Belgium, commenced with maintenance work on the organ. A number of alterations were carried out to the wind supply.
1986: The maintenance work on the organ was completed. The instrument was re-inaugurated on the 1st of February 1986 by the Cathedral organist Stanislas Deriemaeker. He brought the same repertoire which was played by his predecessor Joseph Callaerts at the occasion of the initial inauguration in 1891. He also played a composition of his own.
To this day, the romantic Schyven organ remains a true master piece from the era of Belgian symphonic organ-building.