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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

July 7, 2013

Harmonium memories

evelyn @ 11:41 am

I wonder how many people remember the days of the harmonium?  Until the era of electronic organs, it was the standard substitute in churches without pipe organs. Now they are collectors’ items.

The harmonium was a reed organ, based on the harmonica principle  and indeed it sounded like a giant mouth-organ.  It was powered by the player’s feet (who needs electricity?) working a couple of large pedals which pumped the air into the organ.  The faster you pedalled, the louder it got.  If there was a hole in the bellows inside the instrument, you could hear a constant hiss and you had to pedal even harder.  It was all good weight-reducing exercise.

My harmonium keyboard had a single line of stops, as in the picture below, with organ-like names, such as Dulciana, Flute, etc.  The actual sounds, however, were all very similar, and adding or reducing didn’t seem to make any difference.  What did work well were two flaps under the keyboard, which could be held open with the knees (they appear to be visible in the picture above).  These produced a deep sound, good for last verses.


In my church, the ancient harmonium was at the front and to one side.  I was facing the congregation, who could see only my head and shoulders. I always tried very hard to look serene and absorbed in the music, but underneath it all – literally – my feet were pedalling furiously and my knees were wide apart holding open the ‘crescendo’ flaps.  The whole instrument was rumbling and shaking, and the first seven or so pews and their occupants were also vibrating.

One version of the harmonium is known as the ‘American organ’, although I’ve never been able to work out the difference.  In the USA itself, however, the harmonium has a different name.  When American reader Michael mentioned a ‘pump organ’ in a comment, I had to ask him what it was.  In his reply (comment 3), he described a typical harmonium, then said:

  • I played one once onstage in a college production and found that the vigorous pumping that was required tended to make the organ move downstage. On opening night, the organ began to leisurely perambulate out of my range, causing my legs to stretch more and more, while I quietly hissed to the fellow playing the choir director to help me secure the rogue orgue. He did, and the show went on, but it was a long run, and despite our attempts on the following nights to keep it in place with doorstops and whatnot, it liked to wander off every other night, prompting several close calls.

And this from Bruce, in the north of Scotland (same post, comment 10):

  • I commenced pumping the foot pedals and began playing. After the first few chords I realised that the congregation was accustomed to singing v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and had to moderate the tempo. Halfway through the second verse the webbing attaching the left hand pedal snapped and dropped to the bottom of its travel, leaving the right hand pedal to do all the work. After the service my right leg was throbbing from the exertion and I’d lost several pounds in weight.

Ah, when the electronics came in, it just wasn’t the same …


  1. One of my local churches which I use to practise has one in addition to the organ. Nothing beats playing chromatic, precious victorian tunes on an asthmatic old harmonium!

    Comment by Ryan — July 10, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

  2. I think the difference between a harmonium and an American organ is that one blows air across the reeds and the other sucks the air across the reeds. No idea which is which or even if it’s true!

    Comment by Bruce Fletcher — July 17, 2013 @ 7:53 pm

  3. Yes, Ryan, they do evoke the past splendidly. Im sure many churches are sorry to have got rid of them. I wish mine were still there.

    Comment by evelyn — July 19, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

  4. Bruce, I now vaguely remember someone telling me that, too, and I think it was the American organ which did the blowing. But I never noticed any difference in the sound – they were all just like overgrown harmonicas!

    Comment by evelyn — July 19, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

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