In 2019 Maison Taittinger provided financial support to the restoration of the century-old organ in the church of Isles-sur-Suippe, a project originally initiated by the local municipality. A remarkable return to working order by a team of passionate volunteers under the direction of organ builder Michel Gaillard.

Georges Burigana feels a sense of accomplishment. Alongside five volunteer friends, he finished restoring the organ in his village of Isles-sur-Suippe, a municipality with just over 800 inhabitants to the north of Reims, a few months ago. If it hadn’t been for lockdown, April would have seen the first concert on this instrument, which dates back to the late 19th century. The instrument experienced significant damage in the First World War, but was reconstructed in 1929 using material supplied by the prestigious house Merklin-Fortin, a point of reference in the field.

A retiree from the automotive industry, this was not Georges Burigana’s first restoration project. Among his landmark achievements, he already counted the restoration of four century-old church clocks, as well as a model of the façade of Reims Cathedral. “Here we were working with an organ builder from Alsace called Michel Gaillard, who directed us. Thanks to the dedication of the six volunteers by his side [forming the ‘Association of friends of the Isles-sur-Suippe organ and stained-glass windows’] and the hundreds of hours kindly contributed, he was able to divide the final invoice by six.” 

Under the master builder’s trained eye, the first task was to disassemble the organ and then methodically store its 500 pipes in a specially designated workshop within the church. Their next job was to clean them and remove the “kilos” of dust that had gathered over the years, before putting them back in place. To facilitate the work during this period of restoration, the small team had to build a retractable floor. The volunteers’ complementary skills were also called upon, with particular attention being paid to the keys and their control mechanisms; the electric blower; and the ‘clock’, the visible part of the solid oak cabinet. “We had to change around 100 bellows and replace them with new ones because most of them had holes in,” recalls Georges Burigana, who really enjoyed restoring the blower motor. “Everything was reassembled, the case was polished, and it was a magical moment. I remember very clearly the moment when Michel Gaillard got up and played us a magnificent piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. It sounded so powerful in our church!” 

You get a sense of the emotion felt by this small group of volunteers, who have been longing to make the restored organ resound again ever since. Lockdown has curtailed their plans. But it won’t be long before Pierre Méa, the main organist of Reims Cathedral’, is back at the helm, alongside the Master of the Cathedral Choristers. 

Michel Gaillard says of the year-long journey, “This idea of collective work undertaken by a team of volunteers is, on a human level, an experience which will remain etched in our memories. It is a civic act: an artistic, patrimonial and conservation approach, respectful of the instrument which has been brought back to life. We have carried out an excellent restoration project which everyone can be legitimately proud of.”

Like the other volunteers, Georges Burigana had never worked on an organ restoration before. Over the course of the restoration he explains, “The volunteers discovered talents they didn’t realise they had.”And for them, the organ of Isles-sur-Suippe is still a long way from the end of its journey.

Text : Cyrille Jouanno
Illustrations and photo : Eric Dabancourt