Anne Page – The Expressive Organist 1

 These four articles by Anne Page were originally published in Organists’ Review between November 2001 and August 2002.

They are reproduced here by kind permission of the editor, and we also thank Anne Page for her support. Any typographical or other errors are the sole responsibility of the editor of this blog.

The Expressive Organist – 1 by Anne Page
In a new series of four articles, Anne Page muses over the performance of music of the 19th and early 20th centuries in the light of an instrument popular and inspirational in its day, but latterly rather rare or even derided: the harmonium.
This first contribution is based on a lecture-recital she presented at the 2001 Southern Cathedrals Festival. It considers the history and development of the harmonium and outlines the special playing techniques it demands.
(Polish the brass candle-holders, trim the wicks, light the taper …Ed Ed)

L’orgue expressif
The instrument we know as the harmonium had its origins in the fairly recent past, the early 1800s; it reached the peak of its development in the later 1800s, but by the 1930s was no longer being built. In following its rise and decline we can see a barometer of musical aspiration and taste during the Romantic and early modern periods. While not belonging so much to the mainstream as its keyboard cousins, the piano and organ, it reveals some aspects of the Romantic aesthetic in a new light.
A precise artistic ideal informed the creators of the harmonium: they sought to combine in one instrument the capacity to sustain pitch (the traditional attribute of the organ) with the facility for immediate and instantly controllable dynamic nuance (the attribute of the more recently developed piano). Experiments took place during the later 18th century to enhance the dynamic flexibility of the pipe organ, with which we are familiar: enclosed divisions and increased numbers of ranks (especially at fundamental pitch) to blend together are still the usual means of achieving a gradual increase in dynamic level.
The goal however, was still far off: to make a sustained sound generated by wind as flexible in expression as a note from a string instrument such as the violin, proved elusive. Ultimately, the pipe organ was recognised as unsuitable for the purpose, as changes in wind pressure to change dynamic inevitably led to changes in pitch.
The breakthrough came through adopting a new way of producing sound, which seems to have made its way to Europe from China. An instrument blown by mouth with a cluster of bamboo pipes, called a Cheng, suggested the way forward: its sound was produced by free reeds. These can be blown with variable pressure without changing pitch. The free reed gave rise to the harmonium and a whole range of reed organs, as well as to the accordion and the mouth organ.
The free reed differs from the beating reed familiar from the pipe organ and wind instruments such as the clarinet, in which a reed vibrates against a fixed cavity of wood or metal. It is more like a Jew’s harp, being a small metal tongue fixed at one end and vibrating in a pendulum-like motion freely and equally on either side of its point of rest.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries inventors in several countries, such as Eschenbach of Konigshofen and Cavaillé-Coll, were experimenting with the possibilities offered by the free reed. Each gave his instrument a different name, but their defining characteristic gave rise to the generic name L’orgue expressif. The expressive organ was born.
In 1842 another breakthrough came when the French maker Alexandre-Francois Debain patented his instrument with the name Harmonium. This established the type which became standard from then on, and upon which further developments were based.

Here are its main features:
1   5-octave keyboard (CC – ccc) divided at middle e/f.
2   Wind supplied by bellows operated by pedals.
3   Expression device that bypasses the reservoir so that wind goes directly to the reeds.
4   4 ranks of stops divided into treble and bass and numbered    as follows:
Set 1: 8 foot – Cor Anglais /Flute (like ‘jeu de fonds’ placed at front)
Set 2: 16 foot – Bourdon/Clarinette (also placed at front)
Set 3: 4 foot – Clairon/Fifre (like ‘jeu d’anches’, placed at rear)
Set 4: 8 foot – Basson/Hautbois (also at rear)
5   Grand Jeu stop, which operates a lever to draw all ranks.
6   Forte Fixe (or General), which removes a cover to the stops placed at the rear of the instrument, which gives more amplitude to their already harmonically more brilliant sound.
In addition to these basic stops, a Set 5 was often added to the treble half, a Voix Céleste at 16 foot pitch, drawn with and beating against the Set 2.
Franck’s set of Magnificat Versets (L’Organiste), to which he returned at the very end of his life, show some of the ways the treble and bass stops can be combined: Example 1a has the two 8′ stops in the treble to reinforce the melodic line. Example 1b exploits the division by using 16′ and 4′ stops in the treble against 8′ in the bass. Note that the left hand never rises above middle E.


Example 1a

Example 1b

Example 1c shows an even more subtle use of pitch/timbre combinations: the left hand is at 4′ pitch, whilst the right hand, at 16′ pitch, plays two octaves above, thus adding a different colour in the same range. Here we see that the left side of the keyboard was by no means confined to the lower pitches. This registration allows dialogue effects between the two halves of the keyboard, used later in the same piece.

Example 1c Sept pièces en FA # mineur et sol Þ majeur

A technical refinement to the basic harmonium was to have important consequences for the style of music written for it: this was the percussion system, invented by Martin de Provins (patented 1841) and soon applied to almost all harmoniums. Small hammers, modelled on a miniature piano action, were introduced to strike the reeds, to overcome their tendency to speak slowly especially when played pianissimo. Percussion was usually applied to the Set 1 stops.

Boléro de concert by Lefébure-Wély (Example 2) shows how the percussion is used by the right hand doubling the left to give rhythmic definition to the unison opening. The left hand chords under the melody are purely pianistic in style.

Example 2

While Debain created the harmonium and also pioneered many other improvements which were later perfected by others, the builder of the most advanced type of instrument was the house established by Victor Mustel in the 1850s. His sons carried on the business and his grandson Alphonse Mustel combined technical with musical and didactic skills: he played and composed for the harmonium and in 1903 published a major two-volume treatise dealing with the instrument’s history, anatomy, artistic qualities and playing technique (L’orgue expressif ou harmonium by Alphonse Mustel, published in 1903 by MUSTEL PERE & FILS EDITEURS).

Alphonse Mustel’s treatise opens with an assessment of the century ‘just gone’:

“The distinctive character of the 19th century was the popularisation of science and the arts as much by teaching as by the production of materials which concerns them. This popularisation had, in the special field of musical instrument manufacture, and in particular for the harmonium, grave consequences…”

He goes on to point out that mass manufacture and consequent loss of artistic standards applied to other instruments as well. In the case of the piano and violin, for example, their established reputations meant that players could tell the difference between the inferior versions and those of quality. However

“The harmonium, being born at this moment of intense manufacture, found itself vulgarised before having acquired the first perfecting touches … from which the artists, after the defective models which proliferated, judged the instruments without musical value”.

Mustel’s treatise is therefore intended as a work of edification concerning the qualities of an instrument he regards as having been perfected through successive improvements, and having its own specific repertoire and playing techniques. He is keen to define the harmonium as distinct from both the organ and the piano: in its first phase, it was often considered as a diminutive pipe organ suitable for plainsong accompaniment and for pieces in a smooth contrapuntal style. Percussion brought a danger of its being subsumed and trivialised as a mini-piano, playing operatic transcriptions and losing the ‘serious style’. Finally, a third epoch in its evolution regained a “breadth of style unknown in the second period, with a delicacy of detail inaccessible to the first”.

The evolution from normal to art-harmonium had thus been achieved by his grandfather Victor Mustel; he was no mass-manufacturer but an artist (highly esteemed by Cavaillé-Coll and many composers of the day) whose workshop produced only about 15 instruments per year. For the 1855 Exhibition he brought out a model with several new features, which defined the next stage of development and made possible a new range of musical effects:

Comparing the harmonium with the pipe organ, he notes that, although superior in power and number of stops, the organ lacks expression, that supreme quality which organists and builders have sought in vain

1 Forté Expressif (an alternative to Forté Fixe) operating on the rear stops but responsive to wind pressure, opening more fully the more pressure is given.

2 Double Expression (operated by knee levers) allowing each half of the keyboard to be independently controlled by restricting the wind supply until the lever is engaged. This prevents the bass from being too prominent (otherwise a common fault in the basic type), gives much more flexible use of contrasted effects for melody and accompaniment, and the possibility of orchestral effects – allowing a melody to emerge from the prevailing texture. Mustel regards this as the major hallmark of the art-harmonium.

3 Harpe Eolienne: a half stop in the bass (Set 5) – a beating 2 foot stop. This, together with its corollary the 32 foot Baryton in the treble, gives each half of the keyboard the character of a complete ‘division’ with wide choice of timbres and four pitches available for each note.

4 Two-rank Voix Céleste in the treble replaced the previous practice of drawing another rank with the beating stop

Two further inventions by Victor’s sons complete the story of the art-harmonium’s development:

1 The Métaphone (Charles Mustel) works on the reedier rear stops like a miniature swell shutter to produce a more foundational quality, giving the effect of a different timbre from the same row of reeds.

2 The Prolongement (Auguste Mustel) works on the bottom octave to hold a note or chord until another is played, or released by heel lever.

Alphonse Mustel devotes a 45-page chapter in his 1903 treatise to the use of the Expression, achieved by the player’s feet operating the pedals without employing the reservoir. Comparing the harmonium with the pipe organ, he notes that, although superior in power and number of stops, the organ lacks expression, that supreme quality which organists and builders have sought in vain:


“The expression is the soul and life of music. The harmonium possesses it, and alone among keyboard instruments, unites it with polyphony and the prolongation of sound: hence its denomination as ‘expressive organ’ given at its origin”.


Alphonse compares the mastery of expression with mastery of the bow of a stringed instrument: to gain full command, the player must spend time and effort studying first how to produce a steady note, then a chord. After this can come expressive nuances of crescendo and diminuendo. The chapter concludes with refinements of technique, sforzando effects and vibrato. Mustel severely prohibits the use of mechanical tremolo effects, but says that a vibrato can be produced from the action of the toe on the pedal by a series of small accents as the pedal continues its descent. He limits its use to single notes rather than chords and describes it as “the most difficult nuance to realise, because it is the most delicate and, perhaps among them all, that which must be done best”.

The opening of the second movement of Karg-Elert’s Second Sonata, Op 46 (Canzone) employs a panoply of effects obtainable from the art-harmonium. See Example 3. Here the right hand provides the bass melody on the 32 foot Baryton which emerges from ppp to mp, is then played with vibrato, while the left hand chords plus Prolongement are played at 4 foot pitch, later changing to Harpe Eolienne with Métaphone plus Set 1 with percussion for the quasi Arpa effects. All that takes practice!

Example 3

The next article will probe more closely the harmonium repertoire, particularly in the light of the new aesthetic it created … and there will be some advice on practising your ‘harmonium management’ in order to achieve the finely judged expressive effects it invites.


(These articles are republished by the kind permission of the editor of the “Organists’ Review”

Any typographical errors are the sole responsibility of the editor of this blog!


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