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About the harmonium

The harmonium or orgue expressif is a foot powered positive pressure reed organ, developed and brought to height of perfection in France, Germany and England in the nineteenth century.

In reed organs air is forced over reeds - small tongues of brass or similar metal - which vibrate in inverse proportion to the size of the reed.

By careful selection of metal, size and placement a wonderful array of tone colours can be produced. The complex palette of sounds created has been used to great purpose by such composers as Karg-Elert.

The origins of the harmonium are obscure - some attributing it to a particularly large sheng (chinese mouth organ) given to the moghul emporer in the c11, others with attempts to get Jew's Harps to vibrate in currents of air - but by the middle of the c19 it had become an established instrument with factories in Europe and the United States producing many thousands every year.  The new instruments were popular for their relative inexpense (for church and domestic use) and for their new tone colours (for composers). As an art music instrument it was highly prized by the composers of the time, and much fine music was written for it (although often played on pipe organs today).

The Harmonium By King Hall
reprinted from Novello's Primer

The Harmonium Sketch of the Free Reed

The harmonium is one of a large family of instruments owing their origin to the invention or, more properly speaking, the revival of the free reed.

The production of sound by the vibration of an elastic tongue has many claimants to its invention; formeost amongst whom may be mentioned Kratzenstein, a German, living at St. Petersburg in the reign of Caterine II.., and Greniť, a Frenchman. The former applied the free reed to certain organ stops; the latter constructed two free reed instruments, called by him Orgues expressives, in the year 1810, which were sent to the Conservatoire des Arts.

But the free reed instruments, in various forms, notably in those of Chinese organ and the Jew’s harp, was in existence long before its application by Kratzenstein and Greniť.

The Jew’s harp (many years ago known by the name of crembalum, and also called biambo by the Greeks of Smyrna), is an early form of the free reed, and was known as afar back as the year 1619, possibly earlier even than that.

The cheng or Chinese organ, which is still in use, claims precedence in point of age; and it is even asserted by the Chinese that in the time of Confucius, who died about 479B.C., the cheng was used in the religious rites which were performed in his honor. Be this as it may, the instrument is undoubtedly of high antiquity, and its original form has undergone very slight modification. The cheng contains a number of tubes of bamboo reed (genreally 13,17,19 or 24) placed upright in a calabash. The calabash serves the purpose of an air hest, and has a sprout or mouthpiece attached to it. Each tube is provided with a metal tongue, and also has an aperture which, except when stopped by one of the fingers, effectively prevents the tube from sounding.

Formerly the cheng was tuned to the following notes: -

It will be perceived that these notes yield the intervals of the chromatic scale. The modern instrument gives the pentatonic scale:-

It was on seeing the cheng that Kratzenstein, who was an organ-builder, conceived the idea of applying the free reed to the organ. This has since led to some very beautiful registers in that king of instruments.

But the man who first thought of using the free reed in the form in which it is now employed in the harmonium, i.e., independantly of the tube, was far in advance of Kratzenstein. It would be exceedingly interesting to know who was the author of this employment of the free reed, and what suggested the idea. The only information which it appears possible to obtain, however, is that a small instrument, called the "Mundharmonica," made its appearance at a fair in one of the minor towns of Germany, probably about the same time that the free reed was introduced into the organ. The instrument consisted of a metal plate having oblong apertures in it, over which were placed metal springs or tongues. Each tongue was fixed at one end of the plate, and was so placed that its other end could vibrate freely through the aperture. The tongues were made to vibrate by means of the breath; and the novelty and extreme simplicity of the instrument, combined with the pleasing character of its sound, made it extremely popular.

In an improved form, and under the name of "∆olina", it was subsequently introduced to an English public at the Royal Institution, in May, 1828 by Mr. Wheatstone (afterwards Sir Charles Wheatstone) The accompanying figures represent the several forms of the instrument made by him. They chords they yield are placed above the figures.

In Fig. 4 it will be seen that the tongues were placed on both sides of the plate; so that expiration would produce one chord, and inspiration another. The same result was attained in Fig. 5, two pates being employed instead of one.

Fig. 6 represents another form of Mundhamonica (of foreign manufacture), which is still in use today. Each side gives two seruies of notes - one by expiration and onther by inspiration, as shown below: -

We have no direct evidence as tow what suggested Greniť's Orgue expressif, mentioned at the commencement of this sketch; but the instrument so named appears to be the first in which bellows were combined with the free reed to form a distinct musical instrument. The orgue expressif consisted of a single set of reeds of five octaves compass, and it had four bellows joined together in pairs. We may infer from the compass that both hands were used in playing upon the key-board. This inference is strengthened by the fact that the instrument was essentially expressive; we are therefore justified in assuming further that the wind was in direct contact with the reeds, and that the performer's feet were both required to keep the column of air constant. Here, then, in principal, we have the harmonium proper; though, no doubt, the instrument differed greatly in construction, and was in every aspect vastly inferior to the harmonium of the present day.

The orgue expressif paved the way for an immense number of instruments constructed on the free reed principle, only a very few of which we have space to refer to.

The Organo-violine was invented by Eschenbach, of KŲnigshofen, in Bavaria, about the year 1814. After this came the ∆oline, invented by Schlimbach, of Ordruff, in 1816; and the ∆olodican by Voit, of Schweinfurt. These were succeeded by the Phys-harmonica, invented by Anton Hackel, of Vienna, about 1821. The compass of the latter instrument was six octaves, and the the reeds, which were placed outside the wind-chest, were set in vibration by inspiration instead of expiration.

Then came the ∆olomelodiconby Brunner, of Warsaw, with brass tubes over the reeds; the ∆olsklavier, by Schortmann, of Buttelstšdt, about 1825; and the ∆olophon of Day and MŁnch, which was patented in London, June 19 1829. In the last-named instrument, attempts were made to alter the form of the reed, and tubes of various sizes and shapes were introduced to modify the sound.

It is an interesting fact that on the same day the ∆olophon was [atented, a patent was also taken out by Wheatstone for a most ingeniously constructed instrument called by him the Symphonium, of which the Concertina, also invented by him, was a modification.

In the symphonium the apertures, over which the reeds were placed, were closed at the back by valves or pallets, which effectively obstructed the passage of the air. These valves were opened by means of studs, or keys, placed on both sides of the instrument.

In Fig. 7 the reeds are shown at a, the front of the wind-chest being, of course, removed. b is the front plate, with aperture against which the mouth was placed. c is a side view, showing positions of little ivory keys, and the embouchere or mouthpiece.

Florid passages could be played upon the symphonium with ease; and full chords like those in the following passage were practicable and effective:-

The instrument was, hoever, extremely fatiguing to the performer, and has, in consequence, long ago sunk into disuse. The symphonium was, of source, made in various shapes and sizes and shapes. Fig. 7 being a correct drawing of one of the smaller ones.

The Seraphine is supposed to have been invented by Green; but the oldest patent is dated July 20, 1839, and was taken out by Myers and Storer.

To ALexandre Debain must be ascribed the credit of bringing the harmonium t (so named by him) to a far greater state of perfection than any of his predecessors. His first patent was taken out in Paris, and is dated August 9, 1840.

The invention of the expression in its present form, and without which no harmonium can be considered complete, is attributed to the Alexandres.

The Percussion action has several claimants, viz. Martin, of Paris, 1842; Kaufmann, of Dresden, date unknown; Daniel CHandler Hewitt, whose patent is dated November 9, 1844; and Joseph Storer, patent dated Jun 27, 1846. In point of date, however, Martin appears to claim precedence, and is, in fact, usually accredited with the invention.

It is worthy of notice that, since 1840, the harmonium has, in principle, though with slight differences of detail, retained the construction originally given to it by Debain.

The most important addition which has been made of late years is the Double Expression, invented by Victor Mustel, of Paris, a brief description of which will be found in another part of this Primer.

Mustel's harmoniums, for exquisite blowing, for perfection of mechanism and workmanship, and for beauty of timbres of the registers individually, are, without doubt, unequalled. A very high pitch of excellence, however, has been attained by a clever and ingenious English manufacturer Gilbert J Bauer, whose instruments are remarkable for the simplicity of their mechanism, and the variety of timbres of the various registers.

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