1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Harmonium

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HARMONIUM (Fr. harmonium, orgue expressif; Ger. Physharmonika, Harmonium), a wind keyboard instrument, a small organ without pipes, furnished with free reeds. Both the harmonium and its later development, the American organ, are known as free-reed instruments, the musical tones being produced by tongues of brass, technically termed “vibrators” (Fr. anche libre; Ger. durchschlagende Zunge; Ital. ancia or lingua libera). The vibrator is fixed over an oblong, rectangular frame, through which it swings freely backwards and forwards like a pendulum while vibrating, whereas the beating reeds (similar to those of the clarinet family), used in church organs, cover the entire orifice, beating against the sides at each vibration. A reed or vibrator, set in periodic motion by impact of a current of air, produces a corresponding succession of air puffs, the rapidity of which determines the pitch of the musical note. There is an essential difference between the harmonium and the American organ in the direction of this current; in the former the wind apparatus forces the current upwards, and in the latter sucks it downwards, whence it becomes desirable to separate in description these varieties of free-reed instruments.

By courtesy of Metzler & Co.
Fig. 1. — Free Reed Vibrator, Alexandre Harmonium.

The harmonium has a keyboard of five octaves compass when complete, Britannica Harmonium Compass.jpg, and a simple action controlling the valves, &c. The necessary pressure of wind is generated by bellows worked by the feet of the performer upon foot-boards or treadles. The air is thus forced up the wind-trunks into an air-chamber called the wind-chest, the pressure of it being equalized by a reservoir, which receives the excess of wind through an aperture, and permits escape, when above a certain pressure, by a discharge valve or pallet. The aperture admitting air to the reservoir may be closed by a drawstop named “expression.” The air being thus cut off, the performer depends for his supply entirely upon the management of the bellows worked by the treadles, whereby he regulates the compression of the wind. The character of the instrument is then entirely changed from a mechanical response to the player's touch to an expressive one, rendering what emotion may be communicated from the player by increase or diminution of sound through the greater or less pressure of wind to which the reeds may be submitted. The drawstops bearing the names of the different registers in imitation of the organ, admit, when drawn, the wind from the wind-chest to the corresponding reed compartments, shutting them off when closed. These compartments are of about two octaves and a half each, there being a division in the middle of the keyboard scale dividing the stops into bass and treble. A stop being drawn and a key pressed down, wind is admitted by a corresponding valve to a reed or vibrator (fig. 1). Above each reed in the so-called sound-board or pan is a channel, a small air-chamber or cavity, the shape and capacity of which have greatly to do with the colour of tone of the note it reinforces. The air in this resonator is highly compressed at an even or a varying pressure as the expression-stop may not be or may be drawn. The wind finally escapes by a small pallet-hole opened by pressing down the corresponding key. In Mustel and other good harmoniums, the reed compartments that form the scheme of the instrument are eight in number, four bass and four treble, of three different pitches of octave and double octave distance. The front bass and treble rows are the “diapason” of the pitch known as 8 ft., and the bourdon (double diapason), 16 ft. These may be regarded as the foundation stops, and are technically the front organ. The back organ has solo and combination stops, the principal of 4 ft. (octave higher than diapason), and bassoon (bass) and oboe (treble), 8 ft. These may be mechanically combined by a stop called full organ. The French maker, Mustel, added other registers for much-admired effects of tone, viz. “harpe éolienne,” two bass rows of 2 ft. pitch, the one tuned a beat too sharp, the other a beat too flat, to produce a waving tremulous tone that has a certain charm; “musette” and “voix celeste,” 16 ft.; and “baryton,” a treble stop 32 ft., or two octaves lower than the normal note of the key. The “back organ” is usually covered by a swell box, containing louvres or shutters similar to a Venetian blind, and divided into fortes corresponding with the bass and treble division of the registers. The fortes are governed by knee pedals which act by pneumatic pressure. Tuning the reeds is effected by scraping them at the point to sharpen them, or near the shoulder or heel to flatten them in pitch. Air pressure affects the pitch but slightly, being noticeable only in the larger reeds, and harmoniums long retain their tuning, a decided advantage over the organ and the pianoforte. Mechanical contrivances in the harmonium, of frequent or occasional employment, besides those already referred to, are the “percussion,” a small pianoforte action of hammer and escapement which, acting upon the reeds of the diapason rows at the moment air is admitted to them, gives prompter response to the depression of the key, or quicker speech; the “double expression,” a pneumatic balance of great delicacy in the wind reservoir, exactly maintaining by gradation equal pressure of the wind; and the “double touch,” by which the back organ registers speak sooner than those of the front that are called upon by deeper pressure of the key, thus allowing prominence or accentuation of certain parts by an expert performer. “Prolongement” permits selected notes to be sustained after the fingers have quitted their keys. Dawes's “melody attachment” is to give prominence to an air or treble part by shutting off in certain registers all notes below it. This notion has been adapted by inversion to a “pedal substitute” to strengthen the lowest bass notes. The “tremolo” affects the wind in the vicinity of the reeds by means of small bellows which increase the velocity of the pulsation according to pressure; and the “sourdine” diminishes the supply of wind by controlling its admission to the reeds.

By courtesy of Metzler & Co.
Fig. 2. — Free Reed Vibrator, Mason & Hamlin American Organ.

The American Organ acts by wind exhaustion. A vacuum is practically created in the air-chamber by the exhausting power of the footboards, and a current of air thus drawn downwards passes through any reeds that are left open, setting them in vibration. This instrument has therefore exhaust instead of force bellows. Valves in the board above the air-chamber give communication to reeds (fig. 2) made more slender than those of the harmonium and more or less bent, while the frames in which they are fixed are also differently shaped, being hollowed rather in spoon fashion. The channels, the resonators above the reeds, are not varied in size or shape as in the harmonium; they exactly correspond with the reeds, and are collectively known as the “tubeboard.” The swell “fortes” are in front of the openings of these tubes, rails that open or close by the action of the knees upon what may be called knee pedals. The American organ has a softer tone than the harmonium; this is sometimes aided by the use of extra resonators, termed pipes or qualifying tubes, as, for instance, in Clough & Warren's (of Detroit, Michigan, U.S.). The blowing being also easier, ladies find it much less fatiguing. The expression stop can have little power in the American organ, and is generally absent; the “automatic swell” in the instruments of Mason & Hamlin (of Boston, U.S.) is a contrivance that comes the nearest to it, though far inferior. By it a swell shutter or rail is kept in constant movement, proportioned to the force of the air-current. Another very clever improvement introduced by these makers, who were the originators of the instrument itself, is the “vox humana,” a smaller rail or fan, made to revolve rapidly by wind pressure; its rotation, disturbing the air near the reeds, causes interferences of vibration that produce a tremulous effect, not unlike the beatings heard from combined voices, whence the name. The arrangement of reed compartments in American organs does not essentially differ from that of harmoniums; but there are often two keyboards, and then the solo and combination stops are found on the upper manual. The diapason treble register is known as “melodia”; different makers occasionally vary the use of fancy names for other stops. The “sub-bass,” however, an octave of 16 ft. pitch and always apart from the other reeds, is used with great advantage for pedal effects on the manual, the compass of American organs being usually down to F (FF, 5 octaves). In large instruments there are sometimes foot pedals as in an organ, with their own reed boxes of 8 and 16 ft., the lowest note being then CC. Blowing for pedal instruments has to be done by hand, a lever being attached for that purpose. The “celeste” stop is managed as in the harmonium, by rows of reeds tuned not quite in unison, or by a shade valve that alters the air-current and flattens one row of reeds thereby.

Harmoniums and American organs are the result of many experiments in the application of free reeds to keyboard instruments. The principle of the free reed became widely known in Europe through the introduction of the Chinese cheng[1] during the second half of the 18th century, and culminated in the invention of the harmonium and kindred instruments. The first step in the invention of the harmonium is due to Professor Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein of Copenhagen, who had had the opportunity of examining a cheng sent to his native city and of testing its merits.Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag His essay was crowned and was republished with diagrams in Paris[2] in 1782. Meanwhile, in 1780, a countryman of Kratzenstein's, an organ-builder named Kirsnick, established in St Petersburg, adapted these reed pipes to some of his organs and to an instrument of his invention called organochordium, an organ combined with piano. When Abt Vogler visited St Petersburg in 1788, he was so delighted with these reeds that in 1790 he induced Rackwitz, an assistant of Kirsnick's, to come to him and adapt some to an organ he was having built in Rotterdam. Three years later Abt Vogler's orchestrion, a chamber organ containing some 900 pipes, was completed, and, according to Rackwitz,[3] was fitted with free-reed pipes. Vogler himself, however, does not mention the free reed when describing this wonderful instrument and his system of “simplification” for church organs.[4] To Abt Vogler, who travelled all over Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, exhibiting his skill on his orchestrion and reconstructing many organs, is due the credit of making Kratzenstein's invention known and inducing the musical world to appreciate the capabilities of the free reed. The introduction of free-reed stops into the organ, however, took a secondary place in his scheme for reform.[5] Friedrich Kaufmann[6] of Dresden states that Vogler told him he had imparted to J. N. Mälzel of Vienna particulars as to the construction of free-reed pipes, and that the latter used them in his panharmonicon,[7] which he exhibited during his stay in Paris from 1805 to 1807. Kaufmann suggests that it was through him that G. J. Grenié obtained the knowledge which led to his experiments with free reeds in organs. It is more likely that Grenié had read Kratzenstein's essay and had experimented independently with free reeds. In 1812 his first orgue expressif was finished. It was a small organ with one register of free reeds — the expression stop, in fact, added to the pipe organ and having a separate wind-chest and bellows. It would seem from his description of the orchestrion in Data zur Akustik that Vogler knew of no such device. He used the swell shutter borrowed from England and a threefold screen of canvas covered with a blanket arranged outside the instrument, neither of which is capable of increasing the volume of sound from the organ, or at least only after having first damped the sound to a pianissimo. Vogler explains minutely the apparatus used to conceal the working of the screen from the eyes of the public.[8] The credit of discovering in the free reed the capability of dynamic expression was undoubtedly due to Grenié, although Abt Vogler claims to have used compression in 1796,[9] and Kaufmann in his choraulodion in 1816. A larger orgue expressif was begun by Grenié for the Conservatoire of Paris in 1812, the construction of which was interrupted and then continued in 1816. Descriptions of Grenié's instrument have been published in French and German.[10] The organ of the Conservatoire had a pedal free-reed stop of 16 ft., with vibrators 0.240 m. long, 0.035 m. wide, and 0.003 m. thick.[11] Two compressors, one for the treble and the other for the bass, worked by treadles, enabled the performer to regulate the pressure of wind on the reeds and therefore to obtain the gradations of forte and piano which gained tor his instrument the name of orgue expressif. Grenié's instrument was a pipe organ, the pipes terminating in a cone with a hemispherical cap in the top of which was a small hole. There were eight registers including the pedal, and the positive on the first keyboard had reed stops furnished with beating reeds. Biot insists on the importance of the regulating wires (Fr. rasettes; Ger. Krücken) for determining the vibrating length of the reed tongue and maintaining it invariable. These are clearly shown in his diagram (see article Free Reed Vibrator, fig. 1); they do not essentially differ from those used with the beating-reed stops in his organ (fig. 76, pl. II.), or indeed from those figured by Praetorius.

Isolated specimens of the cheng must have found their way to Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries, for Mersenne[12] depicts part of one showing the free reed. It would seem that still earlier in the 17th century there was an organ in a monastery in Hesse with free reeds for the Posaune stop, for Praetorius gives a description of the “extraordinary” reed (p. 169); there is no record of the inventor in this case.

During the first half of the 19th century various tentative efforts in France and Germany, and subsequently in England, were made to produce new keyboard instruments with free reeds, the most notable of these being the physharmonica[13] of Anton Häckel, invented in Vienna in 1818, which, improved and enlarged, has retained its hold on the German people. The modern physharmonica is a harmonium without stops or percussion action; it does not therefore speak readily or clearly. It has a range of five to six octaves. Other instruments of similar type are the French melophone and the English seraphine, a keyboard harmonica with bellows but no channels for the tongues, for which a patent was granted to Myers and Storer in 1839; the aeoline or aelodicon[14] of Eschenbach; the melodicon[15] of Dietz; the melodica[16] of Rieffelson; the apollonicon;[17] the new cheng[18] of Reichstein; the terpodion[19] of Buschmann, &c. None of these has survived to the present day.

The inventor of the harmonium was indubitably Alexandre Debain, who took put a patent for it in Paris in 1840. He produced varied timbre registers by modifying reed channels, and brought these registers on to one keyboard. Unfortunately he patented too much, for he secured even the name harmonium, obliging contemporary and future experimenters to shelter their improvements under other names, and the venerable name of organ becoming impressed into connexion with an inferior instrument, we have now to distinguish between reed and pipe organs. The compromise of reed organ for the harmonium class of instruments must therefore be accepted. Debain's harmonium was at first quite mechanical; it gained expression by the expression-stop already described. The Alexandres, well-known French makers, by the ingenuity of one of their workmen, P. A. Martin, added the percussion and the prolongement. The melody attachment was the invention of an English engineer; the introduction of the double touch, now used in the harmoniums of Mustel, Bauer and others — also in American organs — was due to Tamplin, an English professor.

The principle of the American organ originated with the Alexandres, whose earliest experiments are said to have been made with the view of constructing an instrument to exhaust air. The realization of the idea proving to be more in consonance with the genius of the American people, to whom what we may call the devotional tone of the instrument appealed, the introduction of it by Messrs Mason and Hamlin in 1861 was followed by remarkable success. They made it generally known in Europe by exhibiting it at Paris in 1867, and from that time instruments have been exported in large numbers by different makers. (A. J. H.; K. S.)


  1. See Allg. musik. Ztg. (Leipzig, 1821), Bd. xxiii. pp. 369-374. The cheng was made known in France by Père Amiot, who published a careful description of the instrument in Mémoire sur la musique des Chinois, p. 80 seq., with excellent diagrams.
  2. “Essai sur la naissance et sur la formation des voyelles” in Rozier's Observations sur la physique (Paris, 1782), Supplement, xxi. 358 seq., with two plates. The description of the instrument begins on p. 374, § xxii.
  3. See “Über die Erfindung der Rohrwerke mit durchschlagenden Zungen,” by Wilke, in Allg. musik. Ztg. (Leipzig, 1823), Bd. xxv. pp. 152-153 and Bd. xxvii. p. 263; also Thos. Ant. Kunz, “Orchestrion,” id., Bd. i. p. 88 and Bd. ii. pp. 514, 542; and Dr Karl Emil von Schafhäutl, Abt Georg Joseph Vogler (Augsburg, 1888), p. 37.
  4. Data zur Akustik, eine Abhandlung vorgelesen bey der Sitzung der naturforschenden Freunde in Berlin, den 15ten Dezember 1800 (Offenbach, 1801); also published in Allg. musik. Ztg. (1801), Bd. iii. pp. 517, 533, 565. See also an excellent article by the Rev. J. H. Mee on Vogler in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
  5. See Data zur Akustik, and a pamphlet by Vogler, “Über die Umschaffung der St Marien Orgel in Berlin nach dem Voglerschen Simplinkations-System, eine Nachahmung des Orchestrion” (Berlin); also “Kurze Beschreibung der in der Stadtpfarrkirche zu St Peter zu München nach dem Voglerschen Simplifikations-System neuerbauten Orgel” (Munich, 1809).
  6. See Allg. musik. Ztg. (1823), Bd. xxv. pp. 153 and 154 note, and 117-118 note.
  7. A description of Malzel's panharmonicon before the addition of the clarinet and oboe stops with free reeds is to be found in the Allg. musik. Ztg. (1800), Bd. ii. pp. 414-415.
  8. In the article in Grove's Dictionary the screen is said to have been in the wind-trunk.
  9. See Allg. musik. Ztg. Bd. iii. p. 523.
  10. See J. B. Biot, Précis élémentaire de physique expérimentale (Paris, 1817), tome i. p. 386, and his Traité de physique (Paris, 1816), tome ii. p. 172 et seq., pl. ii.; “Über die Crescendo und Diminuendo Züge an Orgeln,” by Wilke and Kaufmann, Allg. musik. Ztg. (1823), Bd. xxv. pp. 113-122; and Allg. musik. Ztg. Bd. xxiii. pp. 133-139 and 149-154, with diagrams on p. 167 which are not absolutely correct in small details.
  11. J. B. Biot, Traité, tome ii. p. 174.
  12. Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1636), livre v., prop. xxxv.
  13. Wien. musik. Ztg. Bd. v. Nos. 30 and 87.
  14. Allg. musik. Ztg. Bd. xxii. p. 505, and Bd. xxxv. p. 354.
  15. Id. Bd. viii. pp. 526 and 715.
  16. Id. Bd. xi. p. 625.
  17. Allg. musik. Ztg. Bd. ii. p. 767, and Wien. musik. Ztg. Bd. i. No. 501.
  18. Id. Bd. xxxi. p. 489.
  19. Id. Bd. xxxiv. pp. 856 and 858; and Cäcilia, Bd. xiv. p. 259.