The great organ in the Duomo was built in 1938 by the Mascioni firm of Cuvio (Varese) and by Tamburini of Crema, and was restored and repositioned entirely in the Presbytery by Tamburini in 1986. It remains firmly in second place in Europe for the number of pipes and ranks (only to the instrument in Passau cathedral in Germany surpasses it), and it is one of the fifteen largest organs in the world.
The specifications of this “giant” instrument are truly impressive:
• 15,800 pipes, the longest being over nine metres long, and the smallest just a few centimetres
• Five organs (Great organ North and South sides – Positive and Recitative North side - Solo and Echo South side – Choir level with altar)
• Five consoles (principal five-manual console, altar-side three-manual console, choir two-manual console, two single-manual apse consoles)
Although these figures are amazing in themselves, the artistic characteristics are even more outstanding: the great cathedral organ was built by two of the most significant families of 20th century organ-makers. It combines the incomparable voice of Italian tradition with a decidedly eclectic range of stops, which guarantee the perfect interpretation of most works written for the organ, an instrument with a truly exceptional timbre for the execution of a Romantic and symphonic repertoire, on a par with Europe’s most important cathedral organs.
To this we must add the excellent craftsmanship of the processes and technologies employed by the organ-makers: there is nothing standardised or “industrial” in this organ, and every element was designed to create a unique instrument for a unique environment.
The organ was conceived in 1938 with a truly grandiose plan: seven organs were positioned in different points about the cathedral, in this order:
• Positive organ – corresponding to the 1st manual, high up in the large window above the altar of St. Tecla.
• Great organ – corresponding to the 2nd manual, in the two artistic cases on either side of the high altar.
• Recitative organ – corresponding to the 3rd manual, high up in the large window overlooking the ambulatory behind the choir (on the mass Sacristy side).
• Choir organ – corresponding to the 3rd manual, on the choir stall platform at the end of the Chapter choir; the principal five-manual console was located on the same choir stall, while the single-manual “choir” console was placed behind the high altar where it could be used to accompany the services of the Canons,
• Solo organ – corresponding to the 4th manual, high up in the window that overlooks the statue of St. Bartholomew.
• Echo organ – corresponding to the 5th manual, high up in the window that overlooks the ambulatory behind the choir (Chapter sacristy side).
The organ had its first performance on November 4, 1938 (the quatercentenary of the birth of St. Carlo Borromeo), with a performance of Lorenzo Perosi’s “Missa Sancti Caroli”. It was officially inaugurated in two memorable concerts on November 17 and 22 that same year by some of the best Italian organists of the day, Adolfo Bossi, Luigi Ferrari Trecate, Santo Spinelli, Ulisse Matthey and Fernando Germani. It lent itself superbly to the needs of the liturgy in the following decades until the mid-1960s when it became necessary to dismantle it completely so that unavoidable work could be carried out to reinforce the structure of the Duomo itself.
To compensate for a temporary lack of an organ, the Tamburini firm built a new choir organ with mechanical action, mounted on a motorised mobile trolley, which could be moved around to positions not affected by the building work.
When the conditions for the relocation of the original body of the organ were realised in 1984, the proposal was analysed carefully and an ambitious technical-architectural solution was adopted, grouping the various organ elements in the Presbytery. The many thousands of pipes formerly “scattered” around the cathedral were positioned behind the large windows above the sacristies. Two completely new cases were created, one on either side of the 16th century cases which, although perhaps aesthetically questionable, do have the advantage of grouping the sound material together, avoiding the significant problems of controlling the whole instrument and the stability of the tuning that were commonplace with the previous arrangement.
The large five-manual console (a true masterpiece) was positioned on the right side of the Presbytery, where it was the same distance from all the sound sections, while a secondary console with three manuals was positioned at ground level, on the left side of the altar opposite the choir organ, which it is linked to electro-mechanically This solution made it easier to accompany the choir, intervening in the case of solo performances or when a large sound was necessary, with part of the Presbytery divisions (Great organ North – 1st manual and Great organ South – 3rd manual).
The entire structure of the restored organ was ceremoniously inaugurated on September 8, 1986 with a concert by Luigi Benedetti, who was then the principal organist at the Duomo.
In the hands of the two principal cathedral organists, the instrument enhances all the services on the eve and the day of religious holidays, but has also proved its worth for concert performances given by some of the world’s most outstanding musicians.