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The world’s most ancient organ is in a Swiss Alps basilica

the worlds most ancient playable organ in the Basilica of Valère

Sthullen | CC BY-SA 3.0

V. M. Traverso - published on 02/05/24

The organ of the fortified Basilica of Valère, Sion, Switzerland, dates back to 1435, but it was made playable again in the 1960s.

Since the dawn of Catholicism, music has played a key role in creating a spiritual connection with the divine. Pipe organs — instruments where sound is produced by driving air pressure through pipes by pressing keys on a keyboard — have come to symbolize sacred music perhaps more than any other instrument. Widely used since the 14th century, organs have come in many shapes and forms, including the portable barrel organ and the band organ.

Dating to 1435, the world’s oldest playable organ is found in Switzerland, inside the hilltop fortified Basilica of Valère, a towering church built in the 13th century above the Swiss city of Sion. Its pipes, arranged to recreate the outline of a church – with two sets of taller pipes on each side of a triangular-shaped set of pipes – have remained unchanged since their creation more than 500 years ago, save for the introduction of a series of special pipes designed to play Baroque music in the 18th century.

Valère Castle and Haut de Cry in February 2021
Dating to 1435, the world’s oldest playable organ is currently preserved inside the 13th century Basilica of Valère in Switzerland.

As explained in a blog about ancient instruments, this centuries-old organ is best suited for ancient music tuned in D, F, or G chords. Music lovers from across the world flock to this corner of the Swiss Alps during summer, when the basilica hosts its annual International Ancient Organ Festival. Spanning 20 days from mid-July until the end of the month, the festival includes performances and talks about ancient organ music.

Organ Sion, Swiss Alps
The organ’s pipes are arranged to recreate the design of a church, with two sets of taller pipes standing on each side of a triangular shaped set of pipes.

“We were surprised to see how many people showed up for the first concert held to celebrate this ancient instrument,” says Maurice Wenger, who founded the International Ancient Organ Festival.

Wenger had learned about the ancient instrument while growing up in the Valère region. When he discovered that this heritage organ could not be played because of lack of maintenance, he reached out to experts who could turn the 600-year-old organ into a live performing instrument again. 

Thanks to the efforts of various experts and of donors who stepped in to sponsor the organ restoration, Wenger was able to hear solemn music played once again from the world’s most ancient organ. Touched by this experience, he decided to share it with other organ music lovers and started the International Ancient Organ Festival in 1969.

The next edition of the festival will take place in July 2024 and the program will be available in early June.

Hear how the world’s most ancient organ sounds in the video below.

CatholicismHistorySacred Music
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