The six organs in the Basilica of the Palace of Mafra are widely known around the world. What makes of them a unique ensemble is not their number – a remarkable feature in itself – but the fact that they were built at the same time and originally conceived to play together.
The six instruments were built by the two most important Portuguese organ builders of the time – António Xavier Machado e Cerveira and Joaquim António Peres Fontanes – and were completed between 1806 and 1807. The last two were inaugurated on the 4th of October 1807 and a substantial
number of compositions involving all the six organs was produced during that year.
Shortly after their completion, the French invasion and ensuing exile of the Portuguese Court into Brazil led to certain decay in the use of the instruments. One decade later – possibly in connection with the prospect of the return of the Royal Family – the six organs were subject to a major intervention. The intent of these works, undertaken by António Xavier Machado e Cerveira, was not only to repair the instruments but to enlarge them as well. Unfortunately, the works were interrupted a few years later (Machado e Cerveira died in 1828) and several items, such as the reassembling of the organ of São Pedro d’Alcântara, were left unfinished.
Until 1998 the organs were subject to minor interventions only. The global restoration of the ensemble, entrusted to the Portuguese organ builder Dinarte Machado, began on that date and was concluded in 2010. This project included the reconstruction of the organ of São Pedro d’Alcântara, incorporating all the materials recovered since it was disassembled around 1820.
Notwithstanding their differences, the six organs (two in the Chancel, two in the Northern transept and two in the Southern transept), have several common features. Some, like the horizontal reeds or the divided keyboard, are common among Iberian instruments of the time. Other features, like the short-resonator reeds, the Italian Voce umana and especially the double wind chest (allowing the quick cancellation of the plenum stops) are typical of the school of Cerveira and Fontanes.
Prof. João Vaz
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