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Thundering Pipe Dreams

For the week of Monday January 20, 2014

On January 23, 1807, Joseph Casavant was born to a humble family in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, but when he died there 67 years later he was a respected instrument-maker. His journey from common tradesman to exceptional organ-builder required daring, imagination, and perseverance.

Joseph Casavant
© Casavant Frères Archives
As a teenager Casavant apprenticed to local blacksmith Thomas Marchessault, but even as he learned to metal work his great passion was music. The wealthy seigneur of the area owned a piano, which Casavant learned to tune. At age 27 he made a life-changing decision: with just $16 in hand, he left his forge and went to the College of Saint-Thérèse. There he studied music under the priest Charles-Joseph Ducharme, making his own rudimentary violin and tinkering with a piano. In 1837, he built his first organ out of pre-fabricated and home-made parts just by following the instructions laid out in the book L’Art du facteur d’orgues.

The success of this project attracted attention, and Casavant won his first commission to construct an organ for the church Saint-Martin-de-Laval. This contract was soon followed by many others and, as his expertise grew, he created a new organ pipe he called “tonnerre en marche.” By 1850, he was so well-known that he earned the prestigious job of building an organ for the main Catholic church in Bytown (now Ottawa).

Casavant Frères organ in the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal
© David Lockwood

Needing a base for his growing business, he established a house and workshop in his hometown of Saint-Hyacinthe. He continued to make organs there until his retirement in 1866. His true legacy lies not in his creations but in his children. He passed on his trade and his love of music to his sons Joseph-Claver and Samuel-Marie, who founded Casavant Frères, one of the most prestigious organ-building companies in the world!

Joseph Casavant died in 1874, and 100 years later was designated a National Historic Person in recognition of his achievements in the musical profession. Some churches housing Casavant organs - such as the Notre-Dame Roman Catholic Basilica in Montréal and Ottawa - are National Historic Sites.

For a short dramatization of his life, follow the link to the Heritage Minute video produced by Historica Canada. To learn about another Canadian instrument-maker, please see The Piano Man. For more information on music in Canada, consult A Canadian Diva, O Canada!, Music to our ears, and Quebec’s Star and Canada’s First Chansonnière.

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