“The stalls, the enormous dilapidated organ, the choir screen. . . , the remnants of glass and tapestry and the objects in the treasure-chamber” were ‘well and truly’ examined by Dennistoun, the antiquarian, in the ghost story Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook.
This is one of many by Montague Rhodes James, Provost, successively of King’s College, Cambridge and of Eton (pictures 1 and 5). They were written to amuse friends and schoolboys at times of relaxation. In them, characters, usually mild of manner and antiquarian in taste, are engaged in blameless tasks. Some slight event - a padlock falling from its hasp, a bough tapping on a window or a book misplaced in a library, perhaps - would presage series of events that end in terror. Dr James’ wide and at times arcane scholarship gives a rare touch of authenticity.
This story was set in St-Bertrand-de-Comminges in 1883, when the small town appeared to be sinking into terminal decay. It was an ideal setting for one of this distinguished scholar’s highly atmospheric tales of the supernatural. Among the many editions of the ghost stories is that of 1904, for which James McBryde provided black-and-white illustrations. Picture 2 shows the interior of the church with Dennistoun making notes about the famous choir stalls; the crouching figure front left is that of the haunted verger. For organists, the main interest may lie in the organ - background right. Enormous it is, and more than dilapidated. Note that many of the compartments are empty of pipes, stolen for their metal, together with many within the case. The act of removing these had also involved a great deal of damage to action and wind chests.
The town of St Bertrand lies in the foothills of the Pyrenees, a few kilometres off the most southerly point on route A64/E80 as this sweeps, close to the railway, in an arc between Toulouse and Pau to the Riviera. Dennistoun and his creator, if they could revisit, would find that, apart from restored prosperity, little has changed. Their inn - the Chapeau Rouge - seems to have ceased trading but many other buildings within the town walls stand as they did then. The church of Ste. Marie, once a cathedral, is perhaps the least changed of all; even the stuffed crocodile, remarked by Dennistoun, is still there.
The choir-stalls that engaged our antiquary’s attention are outstanding even in an area rich in ecclesiastical woodwork; they date from the first half of the 16th century and reveal much of the life and thinking of the people of that time. Picture 3 reveals their richness more fully than can a drawing. The organ-case is from the same period and was mercifully undamaged when other vandalism was in progress.
Unusually, it stands in a corner at the West end instead of on a central tribune - the presence of a very tall tower-arch may account for this. Nicholas Bachlier, the maker in 1536, turned this to advantage, standing his instrument on a wooden platform, supported by fluted Corinthian pillars. The underside of this platform is richly panelled with pendant bosses, in the way of elaborate ceilings of the period.
On the case itself, lower panels are carved to form niches with scalloped arches, each showing a labour of Hercules. Above, soar towers and flats interspersed with more Corinthian pillars, the whole crowned with pillared canopies. Carved detail in high-renaissance style is everywhere - though binoculars are needed to appreciate much of this. For four-and-a-half centuries, it has been regarded as one of the wonders of Gascony. Picture 4 shows it as it is now.
The design, in two parts at right angles in a corner, must have caused headaches to the maker of its tracker action. This was reconstructed in 1974 together with new pipework to replace that which had been lost. A classical tonal scheme of 42 speaking stops is disposed over 3 manuals and pedal.
The organ is used both for liturgical purposes and for performances at the annual Comminges Festival, held in July and August, when a wide range of classical music is played both in Ste. Marie’s and in neighbouring churches. Information, including a discography, is at festival-du-comminges.com
Some readers may visit this page thinking that Wonder of Gascony is a race-horse or a variety of rose - as indeed may be the case. They don’t have to be lovers of organ music or aficionados of ghost stories to enjoy a visit to the area. It has a great deal to offer.
Picture credits - with thanks:-