The Gothic Organ of the Valère Cathedral at Sion, Switzerland

Basilique du Château de Valère (Sion, Switzerland) — View from the east

Since the second half of the 6th century, Sion has been the city of the Bishop of Valais, who until then had resided in Martigny (Octodurus). In 999 a deed of gift was bestowed by the Emperor Rudolf III of Burgundy on the bishop, making him lord of the county of Valais from the Furka to Martigny and making Sion an imperial city, after which the bishop improved it by building the fortified city walls and the cathedral.

VALERIA: It is generally assumed that a castle already stood on the hill of Valeria in Roman1imes, and that its name is derived from one ‘Valeriana’ who set up a memorial to her son Titus Campanius Priscus Maximianus in Sion. There is, however, no evidence for this. The history of the castle of Valeria can be traced back in documents to the middle of the Ilth century (1049). It appears to have been from the outset the residence of the cathedral chapter, who occupied it continuously right down to 1798, and to whom it still belongs. In the Middle Ages the castle was outwardly an important strong-point for the ‘Bishopric and County of Valais’ in its long wars against Savoy, and inwardly the bulwark of the cathedral chapter against the spiritual and temporal lord of the land. Since the 12th century it has claimed the status of a cathedral, but it has to share this dignity with the bishop’s church1n the city. Later, after the departure of the canons from Valeria in 1798, the church and castle was restored by the Swiss Confederacy and the Canton of Valais and remains the property of the chapter of the Cathedrale.

On entering this church, we find ourselves in a splendid architectural monument in which romanesque and early gothic stylistic features combine so happily that the overall impression does not suffer in the least. From the romanesque age we recognize, in the choir, the lower part of the apse, the transept with its barrel vaulting, and the pillars, particularly their capitals, adorned with figures and monsters in the middle of foliage, shells, snails and pine cones. The second; early gothic period which arises with the 13th century can be traced in all other parts of the church. The 13th century also brought the closing off of the choir by a rood screen. The church has been further beautified in the 15th century by frescoes that cover the walls. The renaissance and baroque period has increased the number of colourful altars, while the richly carved stalls in the choir awaken a feeling of joyful exuberance.

On the west wall of the centre nave there is suspended, on a gallery reminiscent of a swallow’s nest, a little gothic organ which must undoubtedly be classed as one of the oldest instruments in the world. One can safely claim that it is the oldest playable organ. In 1883 the English architect A. Hill published a splendidly illustrated work, with pen and ink drawings, on organs of the gothic and renaissance periods, containing an elevation of the Valeria organ. The simplicity of the entire structure, the straight facade of pipes, the separation of the three groups by quiplain columns, the ending of ornaments in the mitre-shaped middle section, the splendid tracery hanging at the top of the side confirm the age of the instrument as estimated by the architect Hill. For the design of the facade, the contemporary altar was taken as a model. The organ also corresponds exactly to the design of the so-called Burgundian organ as described and drawn by Henri Arnaut de Zwolle, an expert on organs and other instruments, in the high gothic period (organ at Salins Dijon). (Wenger)

The piece you will hear is an Estampie, appropriately from the oldest extant manuscript of organ music, the Robertsbridge Codex (between 1320 and 1350).

  Estampie  from Guy Bovet à l’orgue de la Basilique de Valère (1390)

(not yet available on the recording site)

The Robertsbridge Codex



Under the number Add. 28550. The British Museum holds a voluminous register from the Abbey of Robertsbridge in Sussex dating from between 1320 and 1350. Bound up at the end of the records are two folio pages of music from what was undoubtedly a much larger manuscript originally. Although the manuscript is usually held to be English, the tablature, a combination of mensural and alphabetical notation, would seem to indicate a possible Italian or French origin. Yet whatever the origin, these pages have the singular distinction of representing what is probably the earliest known music for keyboard. The first folio page contains two complete and one incomplete composition which, by reason of their formal construction, are recognizable as estampies – a medieval form of instrumental music characterized by its division into a number of sections (puncti) each of which is repeated with different endings. The compositions are firstly remarkable for their great length. Indeed, the first complete piece contains over 220 measures which, at least theoretically, are repeated in performance. Moreover, the style of the estampies, in comparision with the vocal music of the period, is archaic: the form exhibits obvious reference to the medieval sequence, while the consistent use of parallel fifth motion clearly echoes a continuation of parallel organum. Yet it is precisely the long continuation of these archaic mannerisms that imbue these compositions with a life and spirit all their own. (McDermott)

L’annunciation, by Pierre Maggenburg (ca. 1427)

(This is the painting on the organ shutters when they are closed.)


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