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The White Hat Guide to the



& American Organ

Harmonium and interior of an Alabama church - Walker Evans (photographer) [American, 1903 - 1975]
Harmonium and interior of an Alabama church
Walker Evans (photographer) [American, 1903 - 1975]


& American Organ

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.

Single manual harmonium
A typical single manual harmonium

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.

Some related resources on the harmonium and American Organs

  • Hugo Wertheim - the name on many an Australian harmonium

  • The harmonium was the central instrument for the eccentric composer and performer Ivor Cutler.

More on the difference between the Harmonium and the American Organ

In a recent newsletter we asked if any of our readers could tell us the difference between a harmonium and an American organ (or is that AN harmonium and A American organ?). Michael replied:

“One cannot help rising to the challenge (bait?) offered by the latest White Hat newsletter.

Both the harmonium and American Organ are ‘reed organs’ but are not one and the same thing. The main difference is technical, with a harmonium differing from an ‘American organ’ in blowing air through its reeds, whereas the American organ sucks the air. There is also a noticeable difference in sound (not unlike that of blowing and sucking air through a harmonica) in that the harmonium has a more vibrant, brilliant sound, and the American-organ a sweeter and more mellow one.

There are other differences, some rather more subtle. The harmonium is more likely to be French or British in origin, and usually flat-topped in design, rather desk-like if that's the right term, with the veneers more commonly in oak, but also in burr-walnut or rosewood. American organs were typically American or Canadian in origin and were considered by their makers as being slightly more advanced technically in that the 'reeds' were easily accessible for cleaning and tuning. It will come as no surprise, especially to owners of Jaguars and Citroens, to learn that the French and British harmoniums were somewhat more difficult to service. Just to muddy the waters, it is possible that a harmonium might indeed be American ... but these instruments are considered (historically) as ‘transitional by the Americans and a prelude to the latter ‘American-organ’.”

Some forthcoming Australian concerts and performances featuring the harmonium:

Selected harmonium sheet music:

Product Cover
look inside
Petite Messe Solennelle Composed by Gioachino Antonio Rossini. Edited by Nancy Fleming. Choral Works (inc. Oratorios). Classic Choral Works. Standard Choral Works. Performing score. 176 pages. Duration 77'. Oxford University Press #9780193380455. Published by Oxford University Press (OU.9780193380455).