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To the general musical public, the harmonium suffers from an image problem, a slightly asthmatic poor relation to its more glamorous relatives, the piano and the organ. Yet its invention in the 1840s was the outcome of decades of experimentation which produced the answer to a much older question: how to combine the sustained sound of the organ with the piano’s immediately flexible dynamics. The French pressure instrument patented by Debain quickly established itself as a standard which developed a specific repertoire and was highly regarded by all the composers whose names are familiar to organists – Franck, Lefébure-Wély, Widor, Vierne, Guilmant and Saint-Saëns, to name but a few. The instrument was developed further by the firm of Mustel into the highly sophisticated ‘Art-harmonium’ of which Karg-Elert was the greatest exponent. From its invention to its decline in the 1930s, the harmonium acts as a barometer of musical aesthetics from the high romantic to early modern periods.

Since the 1980s, worldwide interest in the harmonium has steadily increased, given added impetus by the movement for historically informed performance based on original instruments and source research. Joris Verdin has since that time been one of the chief proponents of the harmonium as performer, researcher, pedagogue and instrument collector. His Handbook contributes a valuable resource to an international readership, providing a comprehensive introduction to the instrument, its history and its unique playing technique. Drawing on his extensive knowledge and experience, he guides the reader through this perhaps unfamiliar territory in an engaging and practical way, explaining the mysteries of playing with ‘expression’ along with the main features of the instrument as it evolved over the decades. In the interests of a cohesive and comprehensive narrative he writes specifically about the pressure instrument as developed principally by French manufacturers, adding relatively brief remarks about the instruments operated by suction (so-called American organs) which, as he remarks, deserve their own dedicated study. The most important source materials are thoroughly discussed and compared, with national differences between French and German use highlighted.

As organists, our appreciation of the 19th century remains incomplete without knowledge of this fascinating instrument, created in response to one of its chief musical imperatives – expressivity through dynamic control. This Handbook makes that knowledge of the art of the harmonium accessible to a wider public as well as to those with a professional interest in it.

ANNE PAGE Read the full review on Agora Classica


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