Fr. harmonium; Ger. Harmonium; It. armonio or Organetto; Sp. armonio
The harmonium is a type of reed organ, and is similar is size and appearance to an upright piano. Instead of pipes, air is sucked or blown through free reeds similar to a concertina, which are played by depressing keys in the manner of a piano. Its small size was designed for use in the home and small places of worship, and most harmoniums usually contained only a single manual keyboard. The player's feet are used to operate bellows to maintain the wind supply whilst playing, and as a result the instrument does not usually feature a pedal keyboard either. The name harmonium can also refer to a smaller portable instrument used in Indian classical music.
The harmonium is similar in appearance to a small organ. It has either one or occasionally two manual keyboards. When a key is depressed, air from the bellows is forced through one or more metal reeds, which vibrate, causing a sound to be heard. Most harmoniums have several different sets of reeds with varying timbres and volumes; these are selected by the player using hand stops in the same way as a pipe organ. The player's feet are used to operate a pair of bellows pumps to provide the air supply. The player's knees may also be used to operate loudness controls (one for treble and another for bass). On some larger models the wind supply may be provided by an assistant or electrically, and on these instruments a pedal keyboard was sometimes found.
Due to its free-reed construction, the harmonium has a similar sound to the accordion, concertina and harmonica. In common with the pipe organ, the volume and timbre of the sound is altered by drawing or closing stops, which can vary in number from three up to fifteen. These stops may be given names similar to those of the pipe organ. Many instruments featured couplers which allow octave doubling. The overall volume of the harmonium ranges from piannissimo to a forte equivalent to that of the piano.
Depending on size, the harmonium will have a range of three to five octaves. The addition of couplers or a pedal board may increase this.
Music for the harmonium is written on the grand staff in the same way as that for piano; if the instrument features a pedal keyboard a triple staff may be necessary.
The harmonium can be thought of as a development of other reed instruments such as the accordion, although the means of air supply is slightly more sophisticated. The first instrument to be patented under the name was in 1840 by the Parisian Alexandre Debain. The new instrument had several advantages over the pianoand pipe organ: it was cheaper to produce, physically lighter better able to withstand transportation, did not go out of tune in varying climates and possessed indefinite sustaining of notes as long as the wind supply was maintained. It soon became common in middle- and upper-class European and American homes, as it was ideal for domestic amateur music-making. The increasing availability of printed music meant that in the late nineteenth century there was a large variety of compositions or arrangements for the instrument. With the advent of recorded music and the invention of the electronic organ, however, the popularity of the harmonium began to decline, especially as there was little concert music for the instrument. Today harmoniums are rare but survive through enthusiasts, or else in the hands of performers who specialise in light music of the period.
The harmonium was intended as a solo instrument or as an accompaniment to the voice in a chamber setting. A large part of the music written for it, therefore, consisted of songs, popular melodies or arrangements of classical music, as well as hymns and church music. However, some original compositions featuring the harmonium appeared during the period in which it was in common use. Dvorak's Bagatelles (including the famous 'Humouresque') are scored for an ensemble of two violins, viola and harmonium. The instrument also features in Richard Strauss' opera Ariadne auf Naxos, in which it is used very effectively to accompany the voice. A few twentieth-century scores also call for the instrument. In modern times the harmonium has seen occasional use in film, popular and folk musics; one famous example is 'Music for a Found Harmonium' by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.
The portable harmonium
The harmonium was also designed in a smaller portable version, invented at around the same time. In appearance this is much more similar to the accordion, and consists of a two-octave keyboard attached to a box in which the reeds and mechanisms are contained. The back of the box is hinged and forms the bellows, which are operated by the player's left hand. The right hand plays the keyboard. This type of harmonium has been widely adopted in India by musicians in the classical Rag tradition. Rag music features a drone, something the harmonium is ideal at producing. In addition, the style features only melody and not chordal harmonies, so the apparent disadvantage of being able to play the instrument with one hand only is not a problem.
Notable compositions featuring the harmonium
- Dvorak: Bagatelles
- Laderman: Magic Prison
- Peter Maxwell Davies: Missa Super L'homme arme
- Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos
- Webern: Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10
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