Instruments | Harmonium | Keyboards
Often regarded as the country cousin (and hence the bumpkin) of the organ family, the harmonium did add a touch of warmth to many nineteenth-century rural homes, where the purchase of a piano would have been an unaffordable luxury. But the two instruments often cohabited, too.
Today, unlike the piano, the harmonium is a rarity, ousted among other things by its electronic successors, but it was never a bumpkin. Many distinguished composers have taken it very seriously, among them Tchaikovsky, Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868), Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904), César Franck (1822–90), Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), Max Reger (1873–1916), and the lesser-known (though famous to organists) Siegfried Karg Elert (1877–1933), who not only wrote a book on the art of registration on the harmonium but toured as a recitalist on it.
Saint-Saëns wrote a set of six pieces. Franck arranged his own Prelude, Fugue, and Variations and composed many other pieces specifically for the instrument. The original scoring of Rossini’s Petite Messe solenelle was for two pianos and harmonium. The only keyboard music Louis-Hector Berlioz (1803–69) ever wrote are three pieces for harmonium (1845), and nothing in the chamber-music repertoire exceeds the charm and warmth of Dvořák’s delectable Bagatelles (Op. 47) for two violins, cello and harmonium.
The harmonium belongs to the family of ‘free-reed’ instruments that includes not only the accordion and concertina but such ancient instruments as the near-universal jew’s harp and the sheng of China, whose importation to St Petersburg in the eighteenth century is said to have directly inspired the precursors of the harmonium.
In all of these, the sound is produced by ‘reeds’ (generally brass in the case of the harmonium) mounted in a frame and set vibrating by gusts of air, usually activated by bellows. In the case of many early, portable harmoniums – especially in America, where they are often called melodeons – the instrument rested on the knees, the bellows being operated by one elbow while the hands attended to the keys.
At the grander end of the spectrum there is the handsome two-manual instrument, like the harpsichord and smaller organs, the reeds now encased in an impressive cabinet, while the bellows are pumped in alternation by the feet. The volume of tone, and a measure of shading too, is directly affected by the speed of the pedalling, and multiple ranks of reeds constitute stops of varying tone quality and register, analogous to those of a pipe organ. In the larger harmoniums there are two ‘knee swells’, one of which, by a sideways pressure of the knee on a projecting piece of wood, brings the full power of the instrument into action, while the other operates on the principle of the swell pedal of the organ. The standard repertoire consisted of many hymns and sentimental songs, offset by a soufflé of polkas, waltzes, marches and simple arrangements of operatic arias.
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