A hum of harmoniums?

I’m not sure what the collective noun for a group of harmoniums might be (or should that be harmonia?), but this blog will take singular appearances by the instrument in some of the repertoire housed in the Naxos group’s catalogues. Maybe you’ve come across a hand-pumped version of the instrument whilst dining to live music performed in an Indian restaurant? Or seen it featured in chapel settings for period movies? It was a popular instrument in both sacred and secular contexts until the electronic organ superseded its popularity in the 1930s. The smaller models of the instrument were portable, robust and reliable in their tuning, making them an ideal resource for itinerant Christian missionaries. The larger ones, however, had a wider range of timbres available on different stops and attracted the interest of a number of classical composers. This blog features five such works that are probably not as familiar as Rossini’s role for the instrument in his Petite Messe Solenelle, a work we’ll leave undisturbed for today.

Camille Saint-Saëns as a youth
Source: Le Courrier musical, 1906, vol. 9, n° 11, 1 juin 1906, p. 370. / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

3 Morceaux, written by a 17-year-old Camille Saint-Saëns, was deemed his Opus 1 and the first work of his to be printed, in 1852. As a child Saint-Saëns had been a rare musical prodigy, the equal of Mendelssohn and Mozart, performing in public at the age of five and taking the solo spot in Mozart’s Piano Concerto K.450 when aged only seven. It’s uncertain as to whether it was Berlioz or Gounod who issued the famous statement about him: “He knows everything, but he lacks inexperience”. Here’s the second movement of his Op. 1, Barcarolle, which we join part-way through.
Barcarolle (CDS7924.02)

Although written only 60 years later, my next pick seems to have beamed in from another planet. It’s Herzgewächse (Foliage of the Heart) for coloratura soprano, celesta, harmonium and harp by Arnold Schoenberg. The conductor on our recording is Robert Craft, who introduces the work as follows:

Harmonium stops
Source: Anke Arnold / via Pixabay

“Completed on 9 December 1911, Herzgewächse was not performed until April 1928, when Marianne Rau-Hoeglauer sang it in Vienna under Anton Webern’s direction. The harmonium, the first instrument to sound, plays more continuously than the other two, having less than a single full beat of rest … The stops employed are flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, muted trombone, violin, viola, cello, and percussion (unspecified). They alternate according to the phrasing of the music … Schoenberg’s setting of the text parallels the sense of the words; thus at “sink to rest” the pitches descend, quietly and without accompaniment, to the lowest vocal note of the piece, and those for “imperceptibly ascending” climb slowly and softly from a low note to C in alt. The vocal range is that of the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute and of Blonde in The Abduction from the Seraglio.”

Herzgewächse (8.557523)

Franz Doppler, 1853
Source: Auguste Alexis Canzi / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Next we have a charming character piece by flautist Franz Doppler (1821–1883). He was born in Poland but moved to Hungary and subsequently to Vienna, in 1858, where he served first as principal flautist in the Court Opera before becoming conductor of the Court Ballet. His Das Waldvöglein (The Forest Bird), scored for flute and four horns, was also arranged for flute and harmonium. The two instruments have simple, distinct roles: the harmonium is the forest background to the flute’s representation of the bird’s singing. But Doppler implanted a curiosity in his footnote to the score: “The performance on the flute must be executed at a distance to the harmonium.” Was this to accommodate the instruments’ disparate timbres, I wonder, or for a touch of theatricality?
Das Waldvöglein (C5421)

Östlind and Almqvist Orgel harmonium (1910)
Source: Musik- och teatermuseet / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The harmoniums heard so far have all been voiced quite modestly, but my next extract features a slightly grander sound for the last movement of Otto Olsson’s Suite for Harmonium. Olsson (1879–1964) was a Swedish Romantic composer and one of the most celebrated organ virtuosos of his time. Composed in 1908, the suite is performed on our recording using a standard harmonium built by Östlind and Almqvist, the harmonium manufacturers for whom Olsson was working as a consultant during the period the work was written. Here’s the last of its five movements, March.
Suite for Harmonium (SCD1123-24)

Wilhelm Fitzenhagen
Source: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Our final work was originally written for four cellos but was subsequently arranged for solo cello and piano, and for solo cello and harmonium. It’s Wilhelm Fitzenhagen’s Ave Maria. Although the composer’s name may not be immediately familiar to many, he has probably been a silent attribute during many a concert-goer’s enjoyment of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, the nearest Tchaikovsky came to writing a full-blown cello concerto. He composed it in the winter of 1876–77 and dedicated it to his friend Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a cellist and a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire. Fitzenhagen premiered the piece in Moscow in 1877; he also made substantial edits to the score. The arrangement of Ave Maria for harmonium accompaniment certainly helps to generate an appropriate air of piety.

Ave Maria (OC702)

1 thought on “A hum of harmoniums?”

Leave a Reply