Karl Wilhelm, opus 77

The current Cathedral organ was installed in 1980 by the German organbuilder Karl Wilhelm of Mont-Saint-Hilaire, QC. As was the fashion in the latter part of the 20th century, this instrument was inspired by old Northern European organs. The organ is particularly suited to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his predecessors, although it is capable of diverse genres. It consists of 3 manuals, 42 stops, and 63 ranks. You can read about the instrument in more detail here. The Cathedral also houses a four-stop continuo organ by the same builder.

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A History of Past Instruments

The King's Organ

“Oh, it's just seraphic!” says the widow. “It's just the breath of incense and the pealing of the organ at the Cathedral at Montreal.”

(William Thackery, The Newcomes, 1855)

Following a fire in 1803, the congregation of Christ Church commissioned a new Georgian style church that was built on Notre Dame Street in the Old Town of Montreal. The church finally opened in 1814 and King George III gifted a new organ to the parish. The instrument was constructed by the London firm Thomas Elliot and was eventually installed in the building in 1816. Very little is known about this first instrument, other than the fact that it was widely praised for its tone. The organ was familiarly known as the ‘King’s Organ’ and, as far as we know, served the parish well until the building was destroyed by fire (again) on 9 December 1856, shortly after the choir had finished their weekly rehearsal!

The 1859 Hill Organ

Following the destruction of Christ Church Cathedral on Notre Dame Street, the parish commissioned a new building on St Catherine. With the new building came a new organ by Thomas Elliot and his son-in-law William Hill. It was designed to replace the King’s Organ in its original state, although it is unknown to what extent this request was actually carried out. Records show that a new three-manual tracker instrument was installed by Hill at a cost of £1,000 and that this was installed in the North Choir Aisle.

This instrument served the Cathedral for the best part of a century, although it is reported that even from an early stage the mechanical action proved to be difficult and unreliable. The organ was adjusted and enlarged a number of times, the first being made by Hill in 1873, and in 1876 repairs were required 'on account of a heating apparatus having been introduced into the organ chamber, as well as by water from the roof.' A hydraulic pump was also fitted, as the organ was previously hand blown. In the late 1890s, Casavant Frères rebuilt the organ and electrified the action. Further stops were added by Hutchings of Boston in 1899. An enclosed Celestial Division was installed by Casavant, built in a floating case mounted high above the west arch of the crossing.

The 1950 Hill, Norman & Beard Organ

As early as the 1920s, the Hill & Son organ was increasingly unreliable. Dr Alfred Whitehead, then Director of Music, attempted to persuade the Cathedral authorities to replace the failing organ. In addition to various mechanical faults, the placing of the organ at the far liturgical East End meant that it struggled to speak into the rest of the building. In 1947, following the appointment of Dr Arthur Egerton as organist, the Cathedral entered into discussions with Messrs Hill, Norman & Beard of London (the successor firm to William Hill & Son) about the possibility of rebuilding and enlarging the existing instrument. Mr Herbert Norman, director of the firm, visited the Cathedral and was instructed that the main priorities for the rebuild should include retaining as much of the existing pipework as possible while ensuring that the instrument speaks more clearly into the main building. This was also to be achieved while maintaining as much, if not all, of the existing vista from the Nave to the High Altar.

Plans were drawn up for a new four-manual organ located in the existing chamber on the North side of the chancel, with the remaining organ in a new case under the North arch of the crossing. The plans also included retaining the Celestial casework on the tower wall, although this division was to be revoiced and restructured. The contract for this instrument was signed in October 1949 and work commenced in January the following year. The finished instrument was installed in the latter part of 1950 and was completed with alarming speed, as the organ was formally dedicated by the then Governor of Canda, Viscount Alexander of Tunis, on 27 November.

Despite being widely praised as one of the finest organs in Canada, the Hill, Norman & Beard instrument had a surprisingly short lifespan of less than 30 years. The Cathedral’s congregation elected to commission a new instrument by Karl Wilhelm of Mont-Saint-Hilaire.


Click here to download specifications of all of the Cathedral's organs.