When news broke in mid April of the catastrophic fire that damaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and caused its spire to collapse, a renowned Vermont musician couldn’t help but think of the times he had played the organ and directed a student chorale there.

Dr. William Tortolano, organist emeritus at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, performed a 45-minute concert at Notre Dame in 1980 and brought his St. Michael’s College Chorale there to sing a concert in 1978 and to sing at a High Mass in 1985.

He was a professor of fine arts at the college for 50 years and founder and first chair of the department.

He reacted with “horror” when he learned of the devastating fire at Notre Dame. “It’s a sacred place, a beautiful place,” he said. “It can be rebuilt, but the original is gone” including “wonderful old beams.”

Tortolano was grateful no one was killed in the April 15 fire that engulfed the centuries-old Gothic cathedral. “Life is more important than wood,” he said.

The cathedral survived two world wars.

“The church is not only a spiritual center, but it has been a national center for France,” Tortolano said. “You can’t separate history from religion. It is a center of faith and identity of France.”

The history of organs in Notre Dame dates to the early 1300’s.

French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll completed work on the current organ — which has 7,800 pipes — in 1868, and some pipes, from previous organs, date back centuries. It has been called “probably the most famous organ in the world.”

Throughout the years, various changes were made including in 1992 when computer technology was installed at a cost of $2.2 million.

“The organ is always being modified,” Tortolano said.

He brought the St. Michael’s College Chorale to sing at Notre Dame “because they were good and I wanted them to sing all over the world.”

Among the other place he brought his singers to: England, Scotland and Belgium. They also sang for Pope John Paul II.

Tortolano recalled that during the Mass in 1985 at which the chorale sang in the sanctuary, a priest who was distributing communion asked him where the group was from. When he heard they were from St. Michael’s, he “almost dropped” the ciborium in his surprise. The priest had studied at the Catholic college. “He was so excited” to make the connection with the chorale, Tortolano said.

Among the members of the chorale in 1985 was Yvon Royer, then a St. Michael’s College senior who was president of the chorale. Now a priest of the Diocese of Burlington, he is pastor of St. Peter Church in Vergennes and St. Ambrose Church in Bristol. “There were 5,000 people at that Mass. It was quite impressive” for a farm boy from northern Vermont, he said.

When he saw coverage of the fire online, Father Royer said he was “sad knowing that a place that has inspired people for hundreds of years had gone up so quickly.”

He is grateful for the opportunity he had to sing there and said Tortolano’s love of music and its history and his “great contacts” throughout the world are impressive.

Tortolano, who began his musical life as a choirboy in Providence, Rhode Island, at the age of 8, is still musically involved at 89. He will present a 7:30 p.m. organ concert May 2 in the St. Michael’s College chapel.

He designed its organ in 1966, and it is dedicated to him.

Tortolano’s career includes Fellowships at four Cambridge University Colleges, Yale University and Conducting Fellowships at the Berkshire Music Center (Tanglewood). Pope Benedict conferred on him the Papal Honor Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice. He also is the longtime director of a Gregorian Chant Schola that is hosted at St. Michael’s College.

The May 2 concert is free and open to the public.

 

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