New Information on PEK1869

9 May 2020

Prof. Urrows writes:

Last month I received an interesting citation from my colleague, Lionel Hong, at Fu Jen University in Taiwan. This is a reference to PEK1869, the Fermis et Castay organ in the New ‘Old’ Beitang in Beijing, about which very little is actually known. The information I received, although slight, helps us to understand more about this mysterious installation, an organ that was at the center the of a minor political struggle between France and China (and the French Lazarists in Beijing) in the 1880s (see Keys to the Kingdom, pp. 178-79, 181-186, and 209-210 for the story of the organ and the church.)

The immediate source for the citation is an article published last year by Liu Qinghua, of Central China Normal University, in Wuhan (who I happened to meet at a conference in Belgium in 2012.) Liu’s article (in Chinese, with a somewhat problematic parallel English translation) is entitled: Textual Research on “The Scenic Illusion Painting of the Feast of the Sacred Heart in Beitang” in National Library of France [sic.], published in Chinese Arts Quarterly (Vol. 6/2, June 2019, pp. 1-35.) Liu’s citation relevant to PEK1869 comes in turn from a document found in the Number One Palace Archives in Beijing, and originally published in Beijing in 1998 in a volume entitled Late Qing-era Studies (清末教案. 第1版. 中囯近代史资料丛刊续编. 北京市: 中華書局, 1998, see pic below.)

The palace document in question is an inventory prepared by Qing government officials in December 1887. This inventory was made immediately after the retrocession by the French Lazarists of the New ‘Old’ Beitang site to the Chinese government. The actual handover of the deeds and the keys to the church was accomplished with a procès-verbal signed by the Bishop, Alphonse Favier, on 14 December 1887. But it had been long preceded by a negotiated agreement, known as the Convention Favier-Detring of August 1886. This agreement between Bishop Favier, Gustav Detring (the French customs chief at Tianjin), and the Chinese, represented by veteran diplomat Li Hongzhang, enraged the French government which considered the site of the old Cathedral to be sovereign French territory. However that may be, in exchange the Chinese government agreed to provide a new site and a build new church (the present Beitang, or ‘North Church’, at Xishiku). It is also known that the Dowager Empress Cixi wanted the organ left in the old church, which she planned to renovate into an audience hall and a kind of theater, and this condition was stipulated in the 1886 Convention. Here is the comment contained in the December 1887 inventory that mentions the organ:

The first [i.e. upper] floor of the church. (Note: In the center of the hall, one large [pipe] organ, inside are 941 pipes in total, outside [the case, near the balcony] railing are 58 additional pipes.

The first thing of interest is the very specific number of pipes – 941. It strains credulity to think that the Chinese officials could have counted the pipes inside the case, and so they probably got this number from Favier and the other Lazarists at the center of the negotiations over the fate of the church and its grounds. I have translated as additional where the Chinese text uses the characters for ‘spare’ (备 用). Of course, they could easily count the pipes in the façade, either from the floor of the building or up in the organ gallery over the South door.  But they could not count the ones they could not see, and so in this case I think these 58 façade pipes should be counted within, and not on top of the total of 941 pipes.  A less-likely scenario is that the use of the term for ‘spare’ meant that the officials had been told that these pipes in the façade were dummy pipes.

(A further suggestion has been made by one of our visitors that this comment (‘outside the balcony railing’) might refer to a rueckpositif. However, attractive as this idea may be, there are several problems. Rueckpositif divisions were not typical of French organs, although as was pointed out to us the organ at the Abbey in Foix, partly built by the Castay firm in 1869, has one. But this is a large, 40-stop organ. 58 pipes, while reasonable for an organ facade, is too many for the facade of a rueckpositif, and if this was the total interior count, why build a separate division for only one rank? And what, then, would have been under expression? The Grand orgue? The more information we acquire, the larger the number of questions about this organ.)

In any event, these functionaries didn’t even know the accepted term for pipe organ in Chinese, calling it 大風琴 (big harmonium) rather than the established 管風琴 (pipe organ), and repeatedly using the characters 笛 (transverse flute) or 筩 (tube) instead of 管 (pipe).       

If the façade contained an entire rank of pipes, perhaps a 4ʹ Montre, or a collection of 8ʹ and 4ʹ diapasons, then we may suppose that the manuals had a range of 58 notes. This is possible, though it is slightly larger than the 56 notes which were characteristic of the organs of Cavaillé-Coll at this date. Based on this manual range, and assuming a 30-note pedal board, I propose the following reconstructed rough specifications:  

Total pipes:                                                 941                          

1 Pedal rank (usually a 16ʹ Bourdon)        -30                             

1 Plein jeu V (5 x 58 notes)                        -290                                                                           

                                                                621 pipes available for the other manual stops  



So, say 11 manual stops, several of which, perhaps including a Viola and a Viola célesté, ran from Tenor C with only 44 or 46 notes, and which would account for the .3 shortfall in the division above. Eleven stops are too many for a single manual organ; so there must have been two manuals.                

Result: two manuals and pedal (II/12+Ped):     

        Grand orgue: 5 stops           

 Récit: 6 stops (including the possible célesté)      

 Pedal: 1 stop            

 and the usual couplers

It would, of course, be most interesting to compare this hypothetical back-calculation with the actual specs of the organ, should they surface someday. And other specs could be worked out from the total pipe count, especially if one removes the hypothetical Plein jeu, and substitutes a simpler mutation such as Nazard.           

Finally, the other important thing about this new information is that it has come from a primary source that has absolutely nothing to do with music or the arts. This anomaly has been very characteristic of the research and research approaches developed by The Project since its founding in 1989. It is also at the heart of a fundamental misunderstanding, one by which doors to libraries and archives have been slammed in my face over the years, with the remark “we have nothing about music” offered as some sort of excuse for not wanting to hear me out or help with my research. In this instance, a bit of ‘bean counting’ by palace bureaucracy quite inadvertently preserved important data about one of the pipe organs in nineteenth-century China. It is also significant that this is one of the few bits of data to have emerged from the problematic Chinese ‘palace archives’, which have a very crossed history and of which large parts have been lost since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.