This interview is part of a series of interviews with European craftspeople conducted in collaboration between FRH, the European network for Religious Heritage, and Mad’in Europe, the network of European fine and traditional crafts and Cultural Heritage restoration professions.
This interview is a special edition since it was conducted jointly with @Stefan Claessens and @Victor Mangeol to enable an exchange between two crafts professionals from the same sector but in different countries.
1. Please introduce yourself (profession, area of expertise and years of experience).
Claessens: I am 37 years old, I am the manager of Organ building de Munck-Claessens since 2013. I have been active in organ building since I was 16 – 17 years old, so I have more than 20 years of experience. I specialised in pneumatic and electrical actions. I work in a small company of 4 people. We are one of the few companies left in Belgium dealing with organ maintenance. We also do restorations but less than maintenance.
Mangeol: I am a 33 years old organ and harmonium builder and restorer in the Vosges department in France. I have been working as an organ builder for 15 years. I initially undertook studies in cabinetmaking, an elementary working basis to develop my passion for building organs. My company is mainly focused on restoration, the archaeological part of the work. I created my company in 2011 that I run together with my wife and it has grown to become an LLC in 2018.
2. What clients/markets do you work with (are they local, national or international)? Which are the required skills and certifications that your customers request?
Claessens: Most of our clients are churches but private persons sometimes as well. Our core business is about maintenance: keeping the organs working. We have around 400 clients. I mainly work at a national level: in Belgium, sometimes on the borders in Holland and France. Regarding certifications, there isn’t really much regulation in Belgium either but it can serve as quality check.
Mangeol : My clients are mostly public markets for church organ restorations, but also private parts for harmoniums. I also work for museums, town halls. Regarding the required certifications, organ building in France is not much regulated. Hence, the clients mainly choose you on the basis of your references, the files of the organs that you have restored, and also a little by word of mouth. It can happen that a client requires your certifications. I have three diplomas: cabinetmaking, organ building ,organ pipework. I also recently obtained a qualification as Maître Artisan d’Art that can be a guarantee of reliability. There are not really any real certification requests but there can be prerequisites on the workshop regarding if it can accommodate an organ.
3. Please briefly explain how your profession is related to religious heritage and/or cultural heritage.
Claessens: I work in religious buildings,so it speaks for itself. Most of the organs are protected by Monument Watch and churches are the centers of communities therefore they are part of religious and cultural heritage.
Mangeol: The organ is linked to religious heritage as it is used for worship. There is a real blessing for the organ which is part of religious rituals. However, as for churches, they don’t only have a religious dimension but a cultural one as well. The burning of Notre Dame made us realize. that churches and cathedrals are also about crafts professions. If nowadays people don’t go to church to pray anymore, they can at least go there to listen to music. An organ is a musical and cultural instrument above all.
4. Please describe the main steps of your usual working process and the materials that you use most.
Claessens: We travel a lot for maintenance of church organs as we need to do a lot of checking to make them work. The time that is left is dedicated to tuning the organs. Hence, the main part is checking the blower, the windchest, the bellows and the pipes of the organ. For maintenance, the main material we deal with is leather to repair wind channels, but also tuning devices like tuning irons to tune the pipes. Maintenance doesn’t need a lot of materials. For restoration you need more materials: special glooms, special woods, different metals. Most of the time we replace and copy old pieces.
Mangeol : For restoration, the basis is to work on the instrument identity. I usually start by playing the instrument in order to discover and work on its sound identity and to gather information on wind pressure, mechanics etc. At each step of the working process we take a lot of photos and try to gather as much information as possible on each restored piece so that they will receive the greatest care. We use the original materials as much as possible, (the same metals, old screws that will be blackened to prevent rust) and try to preserve the initial aspect of the instrument. For the wind system we use animal skins and glues, this allows us to disassemble the worn skins. We try to adopt a know-how respectful of ethics, of tradition, overall when dealing with instruments classified as heritage.
5. Do you regularly cooperate with craft professionals from other fields?
Claessens: We collaborate with a lot of specialized partners. For restoration of old blowers for example, we work with a company in St Niklaas in Belgium, we also work with an organ pipe maker in Holland, etc. We also buy parts from specialized manufacturers in Germany (it used to be Laukhuff some years ago).
Mangeol: For a while it was a must to collaborate with Laukhuff, the German organ supply firm. We usually collaborate with pipe makers, namely from L&J KLEIN Orgel-Metallpfeifenbau. We also work with companies specializing in the treatment of wood to ensure the wood is healthy. We work with tabletiers, beef bones. We use motors purchased in Hungary from Könyves. We also sometimes work with painters, for special works (ex: the lemon organ)
6. Please mention any innovation that helped improve your work (technological, digital, material related, legal…) and explain the impact they had on your profession.
Claessens: Most of the innovation comes from the companies that supply material, who introduce new things on the market. The last decade has brought major innovations related to electronics. For instance, we sometimes have pneumatic organs in a very bad shape and not much money allocated to restoration, so we just replace the actions with electronics. It is the cheapest way to keep an organ alive instead of wasting it. Electronic solutions are evolving very fast, so I must be constantly updated on the subject. As restorers, we are not really involved in innovation. We do look for new materials and experiment with them but regarding the process I would say that it is a rather traditional profession.
Mangeol : Technologies are important to me from the perspective of studying and researching the instrument. I particularly use 360 degree cameras to get information and to see the instrument in more depth. You have to consider that an organ is actually very inaccessible, you have more than 500 pipes in front of you when you work. I also use microphones to record the instruments before dismantling them in order to keep traces of the instrument’s identity, which is particularly important when re-harmonising. I also work more and more with temperature (recording thermo hydrometers), as the increasing drought affects the maintenance of organs. I agree with Stefan on electronic innovation. For example, I myself use note-keepers, an electronic system that is placed on the keyboard and that allows us to manage a keyboard remotely, thus reducing a little the difficulty of the work during the voicing phase. For me, innovation also has a desacralisation purpose, it allows us to show the instrument to a wider audience. I think it’s important to use technology for heritage and for learning, to show things that you cannot show in real life.
7. How did you learn the profession? Can you detail your learning path mentioning schools and workshops where you were trained?
Claessens: I went to a musical high school in Ghent for 5 years combined with the Instrument building school in Puurs. During my studies I worked for different organ firms in order to have various work experiences. Gaining field experience is very important.
Mangeol: I am first and foremost a musician, I have been playing music since I was six years old. I wanted to go into organ building at an early age, before I turned 18, but business owners could not take on such a responsibility. That’s why I turned to woodworking at 15. I am lucky to have a school specialised in this field in Neufchâteau, as we are one of the French furniture capitals. There I learned the first gestures, since an organ is made of more than 75% of wood. I then worked in 3 companies during my apprenticeship, which is compulsory for organ building. It is interesting to work in several places as you get to see different aspects of the trade. In the first one I saw the building of a big German baroque organ, in the second one I saw the restoration and finally in the third company I did a lot of restoration-fabrication in small sizes.
8. Do you pass on your knowledge to young people?
Claessens: It is difficult to do that because you need to find people that are interested in the business. From time to time I do receive work requests from young people but most of the time they are organists and there is a big difference between maintaining an organ and playing an organ. Organists are concerned about their fingers while my work is very physical, which is why they don’t usually stay. Sometimes we have students from the instrument building school in Ghent, the Musical High school where I studied, that want to work with us after they graduate. I also do visits inside the organs so that people can see and understand why it is so expensive to restore an organ.
Mangeol: I am very inclined towards pedagogy, which is why I often give virtual organ tours. I am also a part-time teacher at the national training centre for organ builders in Eschau,in Alsace. I teach there but I also learn a lot from the young people who study there.
9. What would you recommend to a young person interested in your profession?
Claessens: To do my job, you need to have some historical and musical interest in order to differentiate different types of organs: romantic harmonization, baroque-renaissance …etc., which is only possible if you have a passion for music.
Mangeol: I encourage young people to work in different companies to experience different aspects of the trade. This is what will enable them in the future to provide several solutions to the problems they may encounter in the workshop. I encourage them to discover more and more, and to do this by travelling if they have the opportunity.
10. Do you think that your profession is threatened and in this case, what are the main threats?
Mangeol: First of all, the fact that people don’t go into churches anymore, not even out of curiosity. Another thing that is more directly related to my job and that I have observed during my experience as a teacher is the practical shortcomings of some students, who are certainly very intelligent but incompetent with their hands. Theory is rewarded too much and tends to overrule practice. This also explains why young people give up at the first difficulty.
Claessens : The biggest threat is the disinterest from people regarding their history but also the fading out of grants from the governments for the restoration of organs. It is not our main issue as we mainly do maintenance but for bigger companies it will be a problem in the future. For a long time, we were afraid about all the churches that were closing down but they are in fact still there, they are closed for ceremonies but still opened for visits and therefore maintained, which is positive for us. Even if the church closes, the organ is moved to another church. The main threat according to me is the building of new organs, which is going to be a big challenge. We work with a lot of second-hand organs and I think this is how the future is going to look like: maintenance and restoration of organs but no new organs.
You can find out more about Stefan Claessens’s work on the website of Organ building de Munck-Claessens as well as on Facebook.
You can find out more about Victor Mangeol’s work on his website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Mad’in Europe.