Portugal revives royal pomp with Mafra pipe organs

Wed Dec 23, 2009 7:01am EST
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By Andrei Khalip

LISBON (Reuters Life!) - All six historical pipe organs of the Mafra Palace Basilica resounded in public for the first time this month, reviving some of the former grandeur of Portugal's kings.

The Baroque Mafra ensemble, built in the 18th century just north of Lisbon to rival the magnificence of Spain's Escorial and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, boasts the largest number of pipe organs in any church designed to play simultaneously.

"There are no parallels in the world for six organs of that size built specifically to be a set," said organ master Dinarte Machado, 50, who led a restoration effort which lasted seven years and cost more than 1 million euros ($1.43 million).

Hundreds of meters (yards) of labyrinthine galleries connect the towering instruments -- two in the chancel and two on each side of the Basilica's transept -- providing the nimble, mustachioed Machado and his tuning tools access to the pipes and trumpets above the ornate wooden balconies where the organists sit.

"This is the first time that the general public can hear the six organs' basic sonority," added Machado, who will continue fine-tuning the instruments through the end of April after the first test in public.

Even King John VI, who was regent to his mad mother at the time that the organs were finished in 1807, hardly had a chance to enjoy them before they were silenced by the drums of war.

Napoleon invaded Portugal in 1807, prompting the royal family to flee to Brazil -- then Portugal's largest colony and the source of the gold that had financed the lavish expenses and construction of the grandiose palaces for Portuguese royalty.

Upon the king's return in 1821, with Brazil about to declare independence the following year, five of the organs were being repaired. "The remaining organ was dismantled in 1831, and it was I who assembled it back again," said Machado.   Continued...

<p>Music technician Dinarte Machado fine-tunes one of the six organs at Mafra monastery 40km (24.8 miles) north of Lisbon December 18, 2009. The six organs of the Mafra monastery, which were constructed in 1835, were played for the first time to the public in preparation for an inaugural concert in May 2010. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro</p>