The harmonium may seem an unexpected instrument to find on a listener's guide to classical music. After all, in the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century it was mainly associated with parlour music or with the sort of smaller chapel that couldn't afford 'the real thing' - a pipe organ.
However, there were a few composers of this period who were prepared to give he harmonium a prominent role in some of their works - particularly as a 'binding' texture for small ensembles. Perhaps the most prominent examples are Dvořák's Bagatelles for strings and harmonium, and Rossini's Little Solemn Mass for 2 pianos, harmonium, soloists and choir. Both Liszt and César Franck also wrote for the harmonium. However, the composer who possibly treated the harmonium with the most respect was Percy Grainger, and he uses the instrument with delicacy and intelligence in many of his smaller ensemble works.
The sound from a harmonium is produced, as with the accordion family, by a stream of air being blown (or sucked in the case of an American Organ) through a reed. While reed stops on a pipe organ usually have a resonating pipe, in the case of the harmonium there is usually no additional resonator. A piano-like keyboard controls the notes to be played and the stream of air is usually provided by the player pumping a pair of foot bellows. Like a pipe organ, there will usually be a number of different banks of reeds with different timbres which are controlled by 'stops'. Like a pipe organ, a harmonium may have more than one keyboard, but the foot bellows usually preclude a pipe organ style pedalboard. Also, like many pipe organs, many harmoniums will have their reeds in a semi-enclosed box with an opening shutter system to allow some volume control. In the case of the harmonium these shutters are usually controlled by outwards movement of the players knees pressing against a pair of levers.
Small portable harmoniums became popular with mission groups such as the Salvation Army for street corner performances. Even smaller ones where the player pumps a bellows with one hand and plays the keyboard with the other hand often play a role in Indian classical music.
The nature of the reeds means that, even though there may be large number of stops available, there is not a great range of timbres. Nor are the reeds suitable for fast delicate articulation in the style of a chamber pipe organ. The harmonium is probably at its best providing a sustained harmonic foundation for instrumentalists, vocalists and choirs.
In Renaissance Europe, a reed organ called the regal with a quite aggressive tone (similar to a consort of crumhorns) was commonly used. Its almost snarling tone made it ideal for accompanying villains and other-worldly characters in the early operas of Monteverdi and his contemporaries. The harmonium was a development of this instrument with a more 'refined' tone suited to nineteenth century sensibilities.
Although the harmonium may not have the snob value of some 'higher class' instruments, it remains one of the simple glories of western music to sit in a drawing room and listen to a Stephen Foster song performed by a good lyric tenor with a fine harmonium.
Petite Messe Solennelle By Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). Arranged
by Nancy Fleming. For 2 pianos, harmonium, SATB choir, SATB soloists.
Mixed Voices. Classic Choral Works. Standard Choral Works. Performing
score. 176 pages. Duration 77'. Published by Oxford University Press
(1) ...more info
Hugo Wertheim - the name on many an Australian harmonium
The harmonium was the central instrument for the eccentric and performer Ivor Cutler.