• By: OLM Staff

Legendary organ virtuoso Xaver Varnus to perform at the Notre-Dame Cathedral

Music aficionados of the capital region can look forward to a unique cultural experience to kick off the summer season.

The legendary organ virtuoso Xaver Varnus will offer a concert at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Ottawa on June 1, 2022, in support of refugees from Ukraine.

Mr. Varnus, one of the greatest organists of our time, has attracted over 30 million views on his YouTube Channel with his unrivalled performances. Tickets for his European concerts are sold out months in advance, and his magical music can fill arenas of up to 20,000 people. His Quadruple Platinum Disc award-winning album “From Ravel to Vangelis,” released by SONY in 2007, is the best­selling collection of organ recordings ever.

It is no surprise that Mr. Varnus has played every important organ in the world, including those in Bach’s Saint Thomas Church in Leipzig, Washington Cathedral, Notre Dame, Saint­-Sulpice and Saint-­Eustache in Paris, Berliner Dom, Canterbury Cathedral, as well as the largest existing instrument in the world, the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ in Philadelphia.

A Hungarian-Canadian, Xaver Varnus resides in Berlin, Germany, and in Brooklyn, Nova Scotia, where he is the artistic director of his international music festival hosted in his own concert hall within a 19th-century church.

Like most of us, Maestro Varnus is deeply affected and distressed by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and decided to help those fleeing the ravages of war in his own unique way. He has organized several charity concerts: one in Budapest, Hungary, one in Brooklyn, Nova Scotia, and the third one in Ottawa will take place on June 1 at the Notre Dame Cathedral, where Maestro Varnus will perform with his musician friends, Carissa Klopoushak (violin), Ania Hejnar (soprano) and Csongor Korossy-Khayll (violin). These concerts have attracted overwhelming support and interest from the public.

All proceeds of the concert on June 1, which is co-organized by the Embassy of Hungary in Ottawa, will go to a charitable organization* helping refugees from Ukraine on the ground. Tickets for the concert can be purchased by clicking this link.

Ottawa Life had the chance to ask Mr. Varnus a few questions about Ukraine, Hungary, and, of course, organs and churches. 

Ottawa Life Magazine: Do you have any connections with Ukraine that made this event more personal for you?

Xaver Varnus: A few years ago, I once gave a concert over Bach's grave in the legendary St. Thomas's Church in Leipzig, and when I stepped out onto the square after the concert, there was a young man sitting by the famous Bach statue, playing Bach's works on the accordion, so beautifully that tears came to my eyes. I approached him, and he told me that he was from Ukraine. A few weeks ago, I arrived in Europe on the first day of the war. Two weeks later, I wrote him a message asking if he was well. He replied that, although he was safe for now, he was patrolling Kiev with a machine gun on his back and fearing death by stealth. I was deeply shocked by this message. War is the greatest misfortune not only because it destroys millions of human lives – an epidemic, a change of weather, can wipe out hundreds of thousands of human lives – but more because of the terrible destruction it wreaks on the human soul and culture.

Ottawa Life Magazine: You came from Hungary at 15, a country that has its own history with Russia. As a world-renowned organist who has traveled Europe extensively, what are your feelings about a conflict so close to your home country?

Xaver Varnus: I am convinced that the majority of people in every country in the world want to live in peace and security. Goethe said that it is always in the lowest social classes that the power-hungry rulers and politicians recruit their supporters for the hatred of nations against each other. The higher educated classes we look at, the more understanding we find among the children of different nations since the questions of art, literature, or science are more important to them than the racial or national animosities which are reminiscent of the lower levels of human evolution. Truly demonic personalities can hypnotize almost entire societies temporarily, but there will always be sober-minded humanists even in those societies who will resist the devil even at the cost of their lives. 

Ottawa Life Magazine: Do you plan to play any traditional Ukrainian music as part of the concert or make any homages to Ukrainian culture or history?

Xaver Varnus: European culture, with its Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles, is one big, organic and indivisible whole. Ukraine is part of thousands of years of European culture, so if I play Bach in the cathedral of Ottawa, it's music from Ukraine as much as any other European country. Nor do I find it necessary to play works by Ukrainian composers, as art has nothing to do with the reality of everyday life. I deeply believe that the artist must not depict reality but the vision that the experience of reality evokes in the human soul. This surplus is art. Because beyond the wonder of nature, humanity has added something more to nature; he has added a further creation to the divine creation, and this human creation is collectively called art. The sea, the valley, the forest, the river, the plain is absolute. But a fugue by Bach, a sonnet by Shakespeare, a painting by Monet or Goya, a building by Palladio, a thought by Goethe, a sculpture by Phidias or Rodin is the gift that humanity, alone among all living beings, has added of his own free will to the wonderful work of the world. And therefore, for man, art is all that really matters. All else is but a compound of existence, matter and force, and their interaction. God has been spoken by man's words or art three times since the beginning of history. The first was Jesus, the second was Shakespeare, and the third was Bach. Everyone else just repeated them or lied. Bach is the musical voice of God, and we musicians must call upon him when the greatest need arises. 

Ottawa Life Magazine: You've performed worldwide and bought your own church in Brooklyn, Nova Scotia, to play the organ. Have you ever played the organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral In Ottawa before? Are you looking forward to this performance in Ottawa?

Xaver Varnus: Of course, I’ve played at Notre Dame in Ottawa before, and one of the films on my 29 million-view YouTube channel was shot there. The moment I bought my beautiful 19th-century church and my concert organ on Canada's Atlantic coast, I fulfilled the greatest dream of any organist who has ever lived. I have a wonderful church, a monumental concert organ, and I'm the boss. In my youth, there was a magical meeting place on the Cote d'Azur in France for the world of organists. It was the private concert hall of my former master Pierre Cochereau, then organist of Notre Dame in Paris. Since his death, there has been no such meeting place for the world's organists, and I intend to create one in Nova Scotia. 

Ottawa Life Magazine: You'd like to transform your church into a concert hall that other musicians can use. Are you planning on using your venue for fundraising events in the future?

Xaver Varnus: This fundraising concert is an extraordinary event in the history of my concert hall because people are being killed again in a murderous war, and there is only one thing we can do: help in any way we can. But in peacetime, my ambition is to help the severely undervalued and underpaid organ society as congregations die out worldwide, leaving these fantastic artists with less and less income, while most of them play the most clear word of God, the works of Bach.

Ottawa Life Magazine: It is expected that this concert will be a signature event in Ottawa this June. We wish Maestro Varnus the best of luck. 

Tickets for the concert can be purchased by clicking this link.

*The charity is the Hungarian Interchurch Aid, which has been actively helping refugees from Ukraine since the beginning of the war. It was founded in 1991 and is one of Hungary’s largest charity organizations that also has gained international recognition. It assists those in need and deprivation through its expanding community of experts, volunteers, donors, and corporate partners. It provides assistance regardless of nationality, religion, and ideology. The organization helps in accordance with the strictest professional and transparency rules in Hungary and in the international field as a member of the international community. https://segelyszervezet.hu/en/

Photo: Courtesy Xaver Varnus