Tracing the Journey of the Harmonium: Exploring Its Evolution, Peak, and Decline as a Pump Organ

Byvu lita

Aug 28, 2023

So the first sight of Phil and Pam Fluke’s Reed Organ and Harmonium Museum at Saltaire in West Yorkshire was a shock – the jumbled landscape of a hundred or so often vastly different working examples must have transfixed every visitor.

Alas, the museum is no more, leaving barely another of its kind. However, the Flukes continue to make instruments available for use by the likes of the Hallé, Royal Philharmonic, Scottish Chamber orchestras and more. The passion to spread the word remains, fired long ago when Phil, as he explains, ‘popped out to buy Pam the piano she wanted for her birthday and came back with a little harmonium I’d found.’

What is a harmonium?

Also known as a ‘reed organ’ or ‘pump organ’, a harmonium is a type of keyboard that functions much like a small organ. It creates sound by blowing air through metal reeds – these are tuned to different pitches to make musical notes.

How do harmoniums work?

That air is blown through those reeds by pumps that can be operated either by the hands or feet. Much like the instrument’s larger cousin the organ, a typical foot-pumped harmonium will feature two pedals which are connected to a bellows: the latter sends air into the reeds. This leaves the performer’s hands free to play the keyboard.

Conversely, a hand-pumped harmonium requires the performer to push and pull a handle back and forth: this is connected to those all-important bellows. That leaves just one hand to play the keyboard.

‘It’s simplest to call all such instruments “harmoniums” as they do on the Continent,’ says Pam, ‘but the suction instruments are frequently known as American Organs.’ For the purposes of this feature, harmonium it will be.

Most significantly, though, we all need to think beyond that stereotypical image of harmoniums pumping out Cwm Rhondda in rain-ravaged Methodist chapels down in the Welsh valleys, breathing must and mothballs as their players pedal with fury to maintain the supply of air.

Sure, it’s an accurate enough picture in itself, but the range of harmoniums manufactured in the instruments’ heyday is mind-boggling: from cheap mass-produced puffers to self-important instruments in elaborate cases for well-to-do homes; from crowd-pleasers built to conjure music for the silent screen to the noble ‘art harmoniums’.

The harmonium in classical music

For Dutch player Dirk Luijmes, the harmonium should ultimately be judged on what the best instruments are capable of achieving. ‘If you want to give an opinion about the piano, you take the best Steinway and not something being played in a café. Listen to an art harmonium. This can sound like everything from a full or string orchestra and a French Romantic organ to a woodwind or brass ensemble and an accordion.’

‘My concerts always intrigue audiences,’ says organ and harmonium recitalist, Anne Page. ‘There’s amazement at what the finest of these instruments are capable of. So many of the well-known 19th-century composers of organ music also wrote for the harmonium, but perhaps nobody explored its capabilities more than César Franck and especially the German composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert.’

The baseline knowledge which music-lovers possess – that Rossini’s jolly Petite Messe Solennelle features a harmonium – should be seen merely as the tip of a sizeable iceberg. MahlerDvoπákRichard StraussHindemithBergSchoenbergElgarLisztSaint-Saëns… the line of great composers who employed the harmonium goes on and on. One favourite piece is Percy Grainger’s orchestral transcription of Debussy’s Pagodes, which hands the instrument a bizarre but brilliantly effective starring role.

However, back to the beginning. Harmoniums trace their origins back over 4,500 years, says Frans van der Grijn of the Harmonium Museum at Barger-Compascuum in the Netherlands. ‘The oldest image of a free reed is found on a memorial stone dating back to 551 AD,’ he says. ‘However, written documentation goes back to 1100 BC, which in turn refers to the use of free reeds in China in 2500 BC.’

When was the first harmonium made?

Fast forward to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. European instrument-makers were exploring ways of producing a smaller version of the pipe organ. Much smaller. Frenchman Gabriel Grenié made a crucial breakthrough in creating the Orgue expressif, so-called because its sound (once an ‘Expression’ stop was pulled) could be manipulated via the pedal action on the bellows to facilitate close control over crescendo and diminuendo, and a range of tonal colour. The Orgue expressif (which became a generic term) spawned many imitations, from the Adelophone and Harmonikon to the Seraphine and Terpodion.

What did these early ‘blower’ harmoniums provide that held such potential for commercial development? A cheaper alternative to the pipe organ in ecclesiastical settings, of course. ‘But manufacturers were also offering a fun, modern device for making music in the home,’ explains Pam Fluke. ‘They were less expensive than pianofortes, which couldn’t match the Orgue Expressif’s ability to stay in tune and be “expressive”. Nor could the piano sustain a note’s volume.’

Why are they called harmoniums?

The word ‘harmonium’ was coined in Paris in the 1840s by Alexandre-François Debain. He established a basic standardised model of excellent quality which was imitated widely, not least in the range of stops to colour the sound. By 1867 he employed around 600 workers. That word ‘harmonium’ became the umbrella term it remains, never mind the vast number of individual brand names dreamt up by manufacturers.

Significant innovations by Debain’s fellow Parisian Jacob Alexandre opened up still more expressive options for the player blessed with skill and ear. But the massive expansion of the ‘everyday’ harmonium market in the 19th century was sparked when an Alexandre employee migrated to the US, taking with him a key idea. He proposed using suction as the means of producing sound across the free reeds. The notion was taken up by the Boston-based company, Mason and Hamlin. Their success (nearly a quarter of a million instruments made over the years) helped create a worldwide market for the ‘American Organ’.

The technology behind suction instruments (as, for example, Continental examples show) was capable of offering excellent sound quality and refinement. But many American Organ manufacturers cut corners to keep prices low. Churches and chapels in the UK might pick up an instrument in the later 19th century for as little as £4 (perhaps £350 today). ‘They might also invest in a device which made it possible to play hymn tunes with minimal musical ability,’ Phil Fluke explains. ‘This was a box, secured over the keyboard, displaying rows of numbered push-buttons. Press down the sequence of numbers given for any particular hymn while pedalling away, and down went the appropriate chords.’

Makers of harmoniums in general were to be found right across Europe, including Russia – even in Japan and India, where the instrument has enjoyed a passionate following. ‘Across the history of harmonium manufacture, it’s easy to count over 3,000 manufacturers,’ says Frans van der Grijn. ‘Only a few hundred were outstanding, though.’ The extensive list of British makers of harmoniums focuses naturally enough on London, but also features Cambridge, Leeds, Sheffield, Salisbury, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Cheltenham, Boston – and Wokingham.

As one advert had it: ‘In the concert hall, the theatre, the church, the schoolroom, in the home and even in the street, the harmonium is equal to all emergencies.’ The photographic record shows instruments of varying shapes and sizes being taken on picnic and camping trips, on journeys up the Nile and into Great War trenches. Harmoniums have been pictured on the back of an elephant, on a sledge in snowy wastes and at the South Seas retreat of the painter Gauguin, who is shown playing away trouserless (best not ask).

However, the ‘art harmonium’ remains the highest state of development. Again, the innovator leading the way for others to follow (from the 1860s on) was French – Victor Mustel. Mass manufacture didn’t interest him. Out-and-out quality did. One key feature was an expanded range of stops and hence musical effects. Mustel was swift to point out that more possibilities meant increasing demands on the player. But if you met those demands, this was an instrument for virtuoso performance like any other.

‘The art harmonium is much more difficult to play musically than the pipe organ,’ says Anne Page. ‘What I love, though, is that when the “Expression” stop is engaged you can use the bellows in such a way as to be in total control of the sound – which will always be very personal to the individual player. But it takes a long time to acquire the skills needed, especially pedalling. One basic but really tricky challenge is learning to pedal so as to hold long notes completely steady.’

The harmonium survived well into the 20th century, makers ducking and diving to find new ways of staying commercial. There were the harmonium equivalents of player-pianos, with a revolving perforated roll containing all necessary data for a first class (mechanical) performance without the need to hire a virtuoso for your living room. ‘And various manufacturers built combined piano/harmonium instruments to accompany silent films,’ adds Phil Fluke. ‘The piano provided a percussive edge, the harmonium the sustained expression and range of colour’. Manufacturer Edmund Whomes’s version was the Orgapian (get it?), claimed to be equivalent to a six-piece orchestra: ‘By far the finest proposition for film accompaniment and interludes’.

Why did the pump organ fall out of favour?

The heyday had to end, though. Changes in family and social life took the air out of the domestic market. The electric organ, when it arrived, required no puff. As far as the harmonium’s use as a concert instrument for classical music is concerned, says Frans van der Grijn, one consideration has to be that ‘the relatively small aural footprint of the harmonium doesn’t fit today’s concert halls. A modern concert grand piano is far more powerful than a piano from around, say, 1890.’

Let’s not forget, though, that in our own day the harmonium has found some unlikely and high-flying champions, The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Queen among them.

And don’t suggest to Dirk Luijmes that the instrument has no future. He’s spent years commissioning new works and is baffled that anyone should question the instrument’s suitability for such challenges. ‘Would you say that to a violinist or an organist? The harmonium can only survive if composers and musicians give it new life. It’s a unique instrument.’

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