The Classical Free-Reed, Inc.
A Short History of the Free-Reed Instruments in Classical Music

The Classical Harmonium

by Henry Doktorski
© 1998

As mentioned before, the accordion and concertina early on became associated with the folk tradition and lost favor among classical music lovers. However, not all free-reed instruments lost popularity. The harmonium (essentially a free-reed organ) is said to have been invented in 1842 by the Frenchman, Alexandre Debain (1809-1877), although its prototype, Kirsnik's Harmonica, appeared more than fifty years earlier.

By the second half of the nineteenth century the harmonium had evolved into a sophisticated instrument. The bellows were pumped by two foot pedals and the more expensive models had two keyboard manuals (each encompassing a range of five octaves) with up to thirteen stops (ranging from a sixteen foot Bourdon to a two foot Harpe eolienne), including tremolo and one or two knee-pedals to control volume. It was a popular instrument for churches which could not afford a pipe organ. In addition, it was favored for home music-making alongside the piano and in the cinema as a means of musical illustration in the era before sound films. Many nineteenth-century composers wrote serious music for the harmonium.

Illustration 11. Harmonium.
(from the archive of A. Mirek)

The French composer and organist, Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921), wrote several pieces for harmonium, including Trois Morceaux pour Harmonium, op. 1 (1852), Six Duos (1868) for harmonium and piano, Romance, op. 27 (1866) for violin, piano and harmonium, Marche Religieuse de Lowengrin (1868), arranged for violin, piano and harmonium, and Barcarolle, op. 108 (1898) for violin, cello, piano and harmonium.

Another French composer and organist, Cesar Franck (1822-1890), wrote Quasi marcia, op. 22 (1862), Five Pieces (1863), Forty-four Short Pieces for Organ or Harmonium (1863), Offertoire on a Bretan Air (1871), Prelude, Fugue and Variation (1873) — an arrangement for harmonium and piano of his own opus eighteen, and L'Organiste (1889-1890) — fifty-nine pieces for harmonium.

The Italian opera composer, Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), wrote Petite Messe Solennelle (1863) for chorus, four vocal soloists, two pianos and harmonium. The Czech composer, Anton Dvorak (1841-1904), composed a set of Five Bagatelles, op. 47 (1878), for two violins, cello and harmonium. The work was conceived as haus musik: music for amateurs to play at home music-making soirees.

The German composer, Max Reger (1873-1916), wrote the beautiful Romanze A-Moll (1904), his only composition for solo harmonium. The piece, in rounded binary form, is sophisticated and harmonically interesting.

Example 4. Max Reger, Romanze A-Moll for solo harmonium,
measures 1-12.
© 1932.
Used by permission of C. F. Peters Corporation.

The German organist-composer, Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933), wrote twenty-seven works for harmonium, including Passacaglia, op. 25 (1905), Sonata No. 1, op. 36 (1905), Drei Sonatinas, op. 14 (1906), Scenes pittoresques, op. 31 (1906), Ostinato e fughetta, op. 34 (1906), Madrigale, op. 42 (1906), Zwei orchestrale Konzertstudien, op. 70 (1907), Intarsien, op. 76 (1911), Sonata No. 2, op. 46 (1912), Die hohe Schule des Ligatospiels, op. 94 (1913) for harmonium and piano, Portraits: Dreiundreissig Stilstudien von Palestrina bis Schonberg, op. 101 (1913), Schule fur Harmonium, op. 99 (1915), and Sieben Idyllen, op. 104 (1915). Karg-Elert also compiled instructional manuals and registration rules for the harmonium, such as Das Harmonium und die Hausmusik (1906), Die Kunst des Registrierens fur Harmonium, op. 91 (1911-14), and Gradus ad Parnassum, op. 95 (1913-14).

The French organist Louis Vierne (1870-1937) composed Messe basse (1912), Vingt-quatre pieces en style libre (1913) and Messe basse pour les defunts (1934) for organ or harmonium. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) used the harmonium to accompany a violin solo in his ballet, Schlagobers, op. 70 (1922).

Arnold Schonberg (1874-1951) adapted two waltzes by Johann Strauss for salon orchestra (piano, harmonium and string quartet) which were performed in Vienna, Alban Berg playing the harmonium. Schonberg also wrote a version of Busoni's Berceuse elegiaque for the harmonium and permitted his own Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16, to be arranged for chamber orchestra with harmonium by Felix Greissle in 1925. As mentioned earlier, Shostakovich used the harmonium in his ballet The Golden Age in 1929.

The Australian-born composer, Percy Grainger (1882-1961), wrote many pieces which included the harmonium, such as Beaches of Lukannon (1898), Tiger Tiger (1905), Bold William Taylor (1908), Shepherds Hey (1909), Shallow Brown (1910), County Derry Airs (1920), The Old Woman at the Christening (1925), Soldier Soldier (1925), Spoon River (1929), Let's Dance Gay in Green Meadow (1932) for three players at one harmonium, The Merry King (1936), Early One Morning (1939), Harvest Hymn (1940), and English Dance (1952).

Although the harmonium was a popular instrument in the late-nineteenth century, changes in musical taste led to its decline early in the 1900's. Alfred Berner wrote in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "The harmonium reached the peak of its technical perfection in the first quarter of the 20th century; since that time its popularity waned. The decline of interest, which began about 1930, was due to a change in musical taste. Music in the home as well as musical education in general turned increasingly away from the musical style of the 19th century. The harmonium and everything connected with it fell under the heading of 'kitsch.' Even in light music it was ousted by its more wieldy cousin, the accordion. Above all, however, with the advent of a whole range of electronic instruments, rival instruments have appeared which not only far surpass the sound combinations and expressive possibilities of the harmonium as a solo or accompanying instrument, but match completely the world of modern musical sounds. In sacred music, where the harmonium . . . had taken the place of the organ, it has in its turn been replaced by either a small portable organ or an electronic organ. Just when the harmonium had reached its peak technically it became musically redundant and was laid aside."

Back to History of the Free-Reed Instruments

Back to The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. Home Page