article 115: The Organ at the Old Chapel / Château de Versailles

I detest Lous XIV and everything about him. He was the madly egocentric Napoleon or Putin of his day, whose barbaric despoliation of the Rhineland started the German-French conflict cycle that led to the disasters of the 20th century. The victim of the inheritance hoax which served as a spurious public justification was Louis’ sister-in-law, “Liselotte” von der Pfalz, one of whose officiers was Charles Couperin. The king’s landmark building effort, the palace at Versailles, bankrupted the state and was a construction site for most of its existence. Some of its most beautiful elements, such as the Grotte de Téthys, were destroyed after a few years on a royal whim.

A recent TV documentary reminded me that the present chapel, intentionally built along the lines of Saint Louis’ Sainte-Chapelle on the Île de la Cité, was only consecrated in 1710, with François Couperin presiding at the organ. But I asked myself for the first time where he had played for the court services since his appointment (1693) as one of the four quarterly organists at Versailles, alongside Buterne, Nivers and Lebègue, and as successor to his teacher after his father Charles died, Jacques Tomelin.

The chapel which now graces Versailles was the fifth at the chateau, after a series of provisional arrangements. The longest-lived of these, completed in 1682, was the one I was looking for. It connected the aforementioned grotte, which previously stood apart, and Le Vau’s first expansion of Louis XIII’s old hunting lodge. This chapel had an L-shaped, balustraded upper gallery around it, which included the royal box on the south side. The musicians’ gallery was on the east. There is not a single iconographical representation of it, because almost all the many paintings and engravings of special events held there are viewed from that side. The rest concentrate on the altar in the north.

What about the organ? That’s quite a story. For a previous, larger chapel design which was cancelled, Robert Cliquot commenced building an organ, parts of which which remained in his atelier for almost 30 years until they could be assembled and placed in the 1710 chapel. Meanwhile, a small organ was built for the temporary 1682 chapel. When the building was razed for the new north wing, this instrument was transferred to the Trinity Chapel at Fontainebleau. I found an image of it, shown below, in an online article ( ). Its original disposition is unknown, but in 1765 it was completely revised by François Henri Cliquot, Robert’s grandson, while remaining in its petit cabinet.* It then had two manuals, with the following registers on the lower: bourdon, prestant, nasard, doublette, tierce, cromorne and plein-jeu. The (?partial) upper manual could have been a cornet, an echo cornet, or possibly a chest on a two-foot principal basis with an eight-foot short-resonator reed stop.

The gallery was rebuilt in 1772, and got a new, larger organ, built by Boullet the younger, which is still there. I haven’t been able to determine whether old pipework was incorporated.

September 14, 2023

“Coupe de l’ancienne tribune” of the chapel at the Château de Fontainebleau, from Plans des tribunes et orchestres de la Musique du roy avec les noms des sujets qui en occupent les places by Jean-Baptiste Métoyen, 1773. Versailles, Bibliothèque municipale, ms F 87, plate 4.

* ”Mémoire des ouvrages que j’ay faittes et fournie pour l’orgue de la chapelle du roy de Fontainebleau en l’année mil sept cent soixante-cinq par moy, Clicquot, facteur d’orgues du roy.”

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