Sunday's concert features a very unique instrument by today's standards, but one that was much more common at the end of the 1800s. The Harmonium was invented in Paris in 1842 and became quite popular because of its pleasing sound, sturdy construction, and affordable cost. Pianos and pipe organs were both expensive and difficult to maintain, while a Harmonium took up less space and could be moved around without fear of being damaged. It was a practical alternative to the pipe organ for a small community church. The Harmonium is a very expressive instrument. The musician can shape each note, just like a violinist can with a violin. This sets the Harmonium apart from other keyboard instruments.
The Harmonium is often times confused with a reed organ as they both use vibrating reeds to create sound. The Harmonium is unique in that it pushes air through the reeds, rather than sucking it through, which is what happens with reed organs. It also has two sets of bellows. The first set is used to inflate the second set. Air then evenly escapes from the second set which allows the Harmonium to create a continuous sound. In some respects, the Harmonium works like a set of bagpipes rather than an accordion.
Some people refer to the Harmonium as a precursor to what we now know as a synthesizer. The reeds in the instrument were designed to imitate the sounds of other instruments, much in the same way that a pipe organ was used to replace orchestras. The musician playing a Harmonium could create different sounds by pulling out several stops at once, thus combining the sounds from the different sets of reeds.
The British began manufacturing a smaller instrument in India which was also called the Harmonium. This instrument became quite popular for use in religious ceremonies and is still used for that purpose today. The Harmonium being used in today's concert was built in Paris in 1903 by Mustel and Company. It has two manuals or keyboards and ten sets of reeds. Air is diverted to the different sets of reeds by switches or stops, and each set of reeds produces a different set of sounds. Because of the many sets of reeds, this instrument can create up to ten different sounds when one key is depressed. The sounds can have different timbres (reeds versus flutes); or play higher or lower notes, thus providing a fuller sound. This is a bit unusual as the earlier harmoniums had between one and four sets of reeds, with four sets being considered quite special.
To operate the instrument, the Harmonium player slowly pumps a set of pedals at the base of the instrument. These pedals are connected to the first set of bellows which inflates the inner set. Air then leaves the inner set and causes the metal reeds to vibrate. On this Harmonium, the volume of the instrument can be controlled by levers operated by the musician’s knees. Stops are used to turn on and off air flow to the different sets of reeds and a coupler switch connects the lower keyboard to the upper keyboard, meaning that whatever notes are played on the lower keyboard will also be played on the upper keyboard.
The last mass producer of Harmoniums in the west was the Estey Company of Brattleboro, Vermont. We are fortunate that the Founder of the Estey Organ Museum, Ned Phoenix, was willing to lend us the instrument used in Sunday's concert from his own personal collection. This instrument is quite similar in sound to the one that Dvořák had in mind when he composed the Bagatelles.