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harmonium

An instrument in its own right, not just a second-rate substitute for the organ. Cheaper and more robust than a piano, it brought music into thousands of 19th.-century homes. The American organ is similar but less sophisticated.
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Easier to afford and easier to transport than the piano, the harmonium was an obvious choice for domestic music-making. The instrument's powers of expression and the variety of sounds it offered meant it could be used for anything from music-hall to masses, from Reger to Rossini ... But you'll find much more about the history and development of the harmonium on its own substantial home page. What you'll find right here is a little memoire of my own dealings with the instrument.

Since moving to Belgium, I've discovered both the Harmonium Home Page – alas, no longer with us – and the persuasive recordings of Joris Verdin: but my first exposure to the instrument came long before that. 176 Quemerford, the house next door, was the home of Mrs and the two Misses Billet. The 'girls' had lost their fiancés in the Great War; I don't know when Mr Billet had ceased to be an everyday part of the household, but it was clear that his widow – tranquilly? aggressively? piously? – had decided there was no call to make any alterations to the house he had known. So it was that in the late Fifties the house was still gas-lit; so it was that the house still had a parlour with antimacassars, dried flowers ... and a harmonium in the corner. During our rare visits, I was allowed to play as best I could. It may have been no more than an American organ, of course, but in those days I would not have known the difference.

My next encounter was more probably with the real thing, a dusty and unloved instrument in a dusty and unloved parish church in a village somewhere near Orleans. What struck me most was the mechanical transposing keyboard that you could slide four or five keys each way to line up a different note with the sol-fa marked on a dull brass plate. The third encounter was quite definitely a harmonium, which I had to play for a wedding in La Gaude. Thanks to the second-hand music shop in Nice, I had by this stage acquired some good idiomatic music, so when a passing parishioner told me she'd never heard the old instrument sound like that before her remark just might have been appreciative.

The fascinating Harmonium Home Page showed how a well-made site can persuade the visitor to be interested in a topic he or she knows nothing about. Prompted by what I read there, I have gradually built up a reasonable collection of CDs, a highly uneven collection of scores … and just one video, an official copy of a BRT [as it was then] documentary about the instrument and its music. My thanks to Emma Rooksby for contributing a couple of scores, to Chris for bearing with me and for bringing three splendid CDs back from the Victorian Reed Organ and Harmonium Museum in Shipley, and to all the performers who have made it possible to discover the sound of this fascinating instrument.

And my thanks to the community of the William Tyndale-Silo Protestant church in Vilvoorde, for giving me a Lindholm!


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