Photos: David Hilbert  




The organ in the Oaxaca Cathedral was constructed in 1712 using some of the pipes from its predecessor organ of 1570. Since then it has been modified several times, taking it far from its original state. In 1997 it was reconstructed in order to reestablish its eighteenth-century character as far as was possible given the information available at the time. In 2002 the contract for the 1712 organ was discovered in the Notarial Archives (Archivo Histórico de Notarías de Oaxaca), and this finally clarified its original disposition and decoration.

La Villa de Antequera, the original name of Oaxaca City, was the third diocese erected in New Spain in 1535. By 1544 an organ, presumably a 2´ (foot) processional-sized instrument, was already in use in the original rustic Cathedral (location unconfirmed). It would have been imported either from Spain, Mexico City, or Puebla, since organ building shops had not yet been established in Oaxaca. Once the Cathedral was established in its present location, the Spanish organbuilder Agustín de Santiago was commissioned from Mexico City to build a larger instrument (1569-70) suited to the expanding musical needs, and the smaller organ was retained as well. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, there were always at least two organs in the Cathedral, positioned on either side of the choir gallery with the larger on the right (Gospel) and the smaller on the left (Epistle) side of the main altar.
The contract referred to above reveals that Matías de Chávez, an organbuilder originally from Puebla but who practiced his profession in Oaxaca, constructed the organ in 1711-12. The cost of the project was relatively low (2000 pesos) and the duration relatively short (10 months), since the contract specified that the pipes of three registers from the previous organ—the 8´ and 4´ principals and the chimney flutes–were to be reused in the new instrument, thus limiting the number of large new pipes to be made. Also specified were five additional registers—a twelfth, a fifteenth, a 22nd, a lleno (mixture), and a set of stopped wooden bardón (bourdon) pipes—as well as a windchest with divided registers and bellows. The contract also stipulated that the workmanship be of the highest quality, befitting the third most important center of musical activity in New Spain after the Cathedrals in Mexico City and Puebla.
According to the contract, the case was to be richly carved and gilded with a green background. Fortunately, the magnificent upper section of the case is nearly intact and may still be admired today. However, the lower case has been rebuilt several times and no trace of the original remains, although it surely must have been as elaborately decorated as the organ cases still extant in La Basílica de la Soledad (1686) in Oaxaca City and Santo Domingo Yanhuitlán (ca. 1700) in the Mixteca Alta region. These three organs may be considered as a group, since they date from around the same period, were of similar grand dimensions, and were also located in similarly important churches. One pipe stored inside the case of the Cathedral organ retains traces of green, gold and black polychrome and provides a clue as to the original opulent aspect of the organ´s facade.
In 1716, organbuilder Marcial Ruiz Maldonado, who like Chávez was from Puebla but worked in Oaxaca, added two more unspecified registers to this organ and also built a medium-sized organ to replace the old processional instrument. Two major constructions within such a short period implied considerable expense for the Cathedral, but this was a prosperous time in Oaxaca and music of high quality was clearly a priority. In 1758, two reed stops were added--clarín and trompeta real—bringing the number of registers to twelve and the organ to its apogee. Manuel de Sumaya (1745—1755) and Juan Mathías de los Reyes y Mapamundi (1756—1765, 1768—1779) were among the Maestros de Capilla at the time. A significant collection of eighteenth-century scores, including some of their compositions, is now stored in the Cathedral archives (Archivo Histórico del Arquidiócesis de Antequera Oaxaca or AHAAO) and attests to the high musical level and the intense productivity during this period.
Up until the mid-twentieth century, the Cathedral account books document many interventions in the organ which related both to normal wear and to damage caused by earthquakes. In 1907-08 Sebastián Campelans dismantled the 1716 secondary organ, incorporated some of its components into the large 1712 organ, and moved it from the right side of the gallery to its present position in the center. A few years later in 1911-12, Tomás Ríos installed a new windchest, rollerboard, keyboard, and the mute pipes in the façade, and raised the base of the organ by 70 cm to add more height in its new central location. It was probably during this intervention that the lower case was rebuilt and the action of the registers changed and reduced to six undivided ranks. This “modernizing” of the organ effectively erased its eighteenth-century character and complicated its later reconstruction. It was gradually supplanted by a Hammond electronic instrument in the 1950s, due in part to the fact that no one wanted to pump the bellows because the pay was so low and later by the elimination of the post of church organist.
The organ was left to deteriorate until 1997, when thanks to the initiative of the priest, Padre Fernando Vásquez Nuñez, Fomento Social Banamex agreed to finance its reconstruction through the association Órganos Históricos de México. Organbuilder Susan Tattershall designed and supervised the reconstruction, even though there was little information on which to base it. The contract from 1711 had still not been discovered and it was believed at that time that the organ had been built in 1690, based on an erroneous inscription on a plaque placed inside the case in 1957. Nevertheless, Spanish and Oaxacan organs of the same time period proved to be worthy models, particularly for the reconstruction of the damaged components.
During the reconstruction project, all the old pipes were reused. Although severely altered, they were quite homogeneous and presumably from the 1712 Chávez organ. Some 330 new pipes were made by Pascal Boissonet from existing and new material in order to recreate registers appropriate to an eighteenth-century instrument: quincena, diecinovena, lleno, trompeta real, corneta, pajaritos and tambor. Fortunately the façade pipes were undamaged, although their original polychrome disappeared during the late nineteenth or early twentieth century when churches all over Oaxaca were redecorated and refurbished in neo-classic style.
The damaged lower case and most of the interior wooden components were rebuilt of red cedar, which is impervious to woodworm. An early twentieth-century photograph shows that statues of trumpeting angels that once stood atop the towers. The present case dimensions are 6.48 m height x 4.83 m width x 1.07 m depth. The 56 note keyboard from 1912 was replaced with a more traditional 45 note keyboard and key action that included a short octave, divided registers, suspended action, and a rollerboard. The original pitch of 392 Hz, derived from the length of the front pipes, and the meantone temperament were restored. However, to overcome resistance in the church to these changes, two more notes were added to the treble for a total of 47 notes and the temperament was set in 1/6 rather than 1/4 comma meantone to allow for easier transposing.
The slider chest from the 1912 rebuild was of good quality and was reused, but it needed to be re-tabled and re-drilled to correct the curious arrangement of the pipes—the bass pipes situated on the right and the treble on the left. This arrangement was imposed by a gaping hole in the floor which extended under the right side of the organ that made tuning and maintenance possible only from the left side. When the organ had been moved to the center of the gallery, the opening at the top of the original stone stairway had not been sealed off and the organ was situated partly above it. Once this area was filled, access to the pipes was possible from both sides. However, even the re-drilling could not entirely eliminate the consequences of the former layout; thus the irregular arrangement of the present stop knobs. The feeder reservoir bellows from 1908 was rebuilt in the same form. Cuneiform bellows would have been more historically appropriate, but the space to the right of the organ was unfortunately too restricted. An electric blower was installed, although the organ may still be hand-pumped. The present wind pressure is 81 mm.
Since 2000 the Instituto de Órganos Históricos de Oaxaca A.C. has overseen the maintenance and repair of the organ. A detailed study by Ryszard Rodys of the organists and organbuilders of the Oaxaca Cathedral (in spanish) may be accessed at “Órganos, organeros y organistas de la catedral de Oaxaca,”

Cicely Winter