December 23, 2009 / 12:05 PM / in 8 years

Portugal revives royal pomp with Mafra pipe organs

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.

<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>

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.

More than 2,000 people crammed into the Basilica for a free concert earlier this month, during which one traditional music piece was performed on the six pipe organs.

Machado said the sound was “spectacular and emotional,” likening the organs to six choirs with 50-60 singers each.

“I loved it. It was like ascending to heaven,” said Fernanda Capela, a smartly dressed woman in the audience.

Machado said that apart from repairing the organs which had been “all rotten inside” due to water damage, tuning the six to sound harmoniously was a great challenge, even with all the modern electronic equipment.

After all the tuning work is done in April, he says Portugal should use Mafra for high-level international music events.

“It has a great potential that could promote the country’s culture ... We should open this place for organists from all over the world to come here to play concerts.”

Additional reporting by Miguel Pereira, editing by Paul Casciato

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