update: 19-07-2009

This article has been copied from a Dutch newspaper, after receiving permission of both the author and the newspaper "Trouw".
This article is copyrighted by Trouw, Amsterdam. Copying, multiplication and publication prohibited without written permission of both Trouw and the author.





Back to music


One of the most negative nicknames of reed organs in Holland refers to a circular saw. Almost everyone knows the sound of this saw, a very high pitched sound.
The main reason we used this comparison seems to be the fact that the circular saw was invented in Holland. In the 16th Century.
About the same time we founded Brooklyn and Manhattan.




© Trouw 2009, this article is copyrighted by ‘Trouw’ 
Amsterdam – 21 November 1996 published in ‘Trouw’

Initially I translated the Dutch article myself and was proud about that. However, harmonium creates 'harmony' and I received a better translantion, made by a native speaker. Thank you for that effort !






The worldly counterpart to the
‘circular saw of faith’.


An odour of Calvinism certainly adheres to the harmonium. Is it really a worthwhile musical instrument? For some years now the Flemish organist Joris Verdin has sought to reinstate the harmonium within musical performance-practice. This is [also to be] a story of opposition between wind-pressure and wind-suction instruments.[The original text then listed a number of concerts to be given in 1996.  This list is here omitted.]

Many Dutch people of protestant stock share similar memories of the harmonium. [In Holland, as in England, the word ‘harmonium’ covers all reed organs, both pressure and suction.] Through its association with a Calvinist upbringing it is strongly redolent of ‘Return to Oegstgeest’ [a reference to Jan Wolker’s famous novel ‘Terug naar Oegstgeest’ and its portrayal of a Reformed-Church austere family life]. Not for nothing was it dubbed the ‘circular saw of faith’. It did not seem to be a worthwhile musical instrument, but at best a nostalgic item of furniture, a memento of the past, and all but finished with.

Despite this negative picture, for many years now the Flemish organist Joris Verdin has been prominent as a successful advocate for the harmonium as a concert instrument in both solo and chamber-music performance. On Sunday a concert series begins in which he introduces the Dutch public to this scorned instrument in a secular role.
To discover what it was that led Joris Verdin to promote this supposedly fusty instrument, in an interview with him I chose to characterise the harmonium as a ‘Psalmenpumpe’ [hymn-grinder]. He retorts: “That was true enough of the harmonium at the start of the twentieth century, by which time it was common throughout Holland, England, America, and Northern Germany; but the harmonium is not just a protestant instrument, intended merely for congregational accompaniment. The harmonium that I play is, in terms of sound, construction, and especially in performance technique, a completely different instrument, namely a wind-pressure harmonium such as appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century in France, Belgium, and other countries to the south of Holland. This type best accommodates a romantic aesthetic.

Verdin believes that the harmonium arose from the same urge for dynamic expressivity as had previously led to the invention of the piano. He is emphatic: “In this regard it originally had nothing to do with a church instrument.  A new keyboard instrument was wanted, on which loud and soft was possible. It was primarily meant for the salon. A harmonium was much cheaper than a piano, and consequently soon found a huge market.  This is also demonstrated by the vast quantity of original and arranged works for harmonium published in the nineteenth century. And it wasn’t just little-known composers who wrote for it. There are real masterpieces in the works of, for example, Franck, Gounod, Karg-Elert, Boëllmann, Guilmant, Saint-Saëns and Widor.”

These are by no means all tedious, pious works; they can often be light-hearted, witty, virtuoso compositions, or poetic sound-pictures, or substantial sonata-form structures.

Verdin explains that originally the harmonium evolved according to southern [i.e. French, etc.] principles of design. The earliest instruments operated according to the wind-pressure system: the ‘orgue expressif’ of Gabriel-Joseph Grenié, constructed in 1810 in Paris; the ‘Physharmonica’ of 1818 by the Viennese maker Antoine Haeckl; and the first Harmonium, patented in Paris in 1842 by Alexandre Francois Debain. This system built up wind pressure in the reservoir through treadling the bellows. On depressing a note on the keyboard a valve opened, thereby emitting sound from the instrument. But with the suction instrument that reached us much later from America and Germany, exactly the opposite happens: a partial vacuum is created through the treadling such that, on depressing a key, air is drawn into the instrument. This kind of instrument ‘swallows’, as it were, the tone; so it sounds much more inward [introverter] than does the outgoing [brutale] harmonium.

The sound generator of a harmonium may be compared with that of a woodwind instrument or the reed stop of a pipe organ (not for nothing is the English name ‘reed organ’). As air is forced past a membrane—the ‘tongue’—this is excited into vibration, resulting in a musical tone. This tongue, as found in both the harmonium and the accordeon, is a small strip of brass that does not require a resonator for amplification. With these so-called free reeds the fundamental pitch does not vary with different wind pressures, only the dynamic. That is the essence of harmonium tone production.

However, in the case of suction instruments, stronger or weaker treadling has little effect. This is due to the reservoir, which maintains a constant wind supply. Pressure harmoniums have the same reservoir, but this can be by-passed through use of a special stop, the ‘Expression’.

Verdin says that, in his opinion, the Expression stop must always remain open: “This is the very soul of the harmonium. Through use of the Expression the dynamic is entirely under the control of the player’s feet. Treadling may perhaps seem to be a lowly or crude occupation, but it is fundamental to the harmonium. The technique of treadling, comparable with a violinist’s bowing, demands enormous coordination. It took me several months to master.

The day after my conversation with Joris Verdin, whilst playing a Debain harmonium in the collection of harmonium expert Maarten Stolk, I realised for myself that the slightest irregularity in treadling causes the tone to falter or to gush. Stolk has filled with harmoniums his impressive late nineteenth century polder-residence on the outskirts of Spijkenisse, and chiefly with those pressure-wind types so rarely seen in our country.

He is extremely proud of this early instrument by Debain, the official inventor of the harmonium. The design—an elegant, low, rectangular wooden chest—and the disposition with separate registers for bass and treble, and the Expression, are the most noteworthy features of Debain’s model. They were taken up by all builders of pressure harmoniums, among them the renowned Parisian firms of Alexandre and Mustel. When Maarten Stolk then played on the Debain a piece from the well-known collection for harmonium ‘L’Organiste’ by César Franck,  I realised that Joris Verdin was right to say that this instrument—with its rich dynamic expressivity and very powerful, overtone-rich sound—is in essence no church instrument.

It sounds more like a tremendous accordeon.

Verdin says: “The harmonium is really to be found in churches only at the end of the nineteenth century. It was cheap to buy and to maintain. And it needed no assistant to pump the bellows. At this point, you find that the use of the Expression is abandoned. In religious pieces there often appears an instruction not to use the Expression. This also explains why it was that the suction reed organ—which as a rule does not have an Expression stop— achieved such success in church. Its sound is primarily directed towards a nuanced sound palette.”

“That is in itself useful, but for me it always takes second place, for the Expression comes before everything. So previously I wanted nothing to do with suction reed organs. Nowadays I’m more discriminating and recognise that in among them can appear some first-rate instruments, even if only now and then. Most suction reed organs are of course cheaply mass-produced. Much of their bad reputation comes from that. In America especially, what they were after was an imposing piece of furniture, with a mirrored centre-piece or built-in book shelves, rather than the instrument itself.”

It is not only in dynamics that the differences between pressure and suction organs are apparent. Maarten Stolk demonstrates this on the show-piece of his collection, an instrument built in 1875 in Paris by Victor Mustel. Last year Stolk discovered that this instrument had been owned by Jacques Nicolaus Lemmens, the famous Belgian organ composer. During the time that he lived in London, he had used it both at home and on concert tours.

Stolk explains that the division between bass and treble is an essential feature. Composers exploited this with subtlety, with one hand bringing out the melody. Then he brings into play the ‘Percussion’. When this stop is drawn, miniature wooden hammers strike against the reed tongues, making the sound speak more readily. This permits a furiously fast Scherzando tempo, unimaginable on a suction reed organ. The sound is reminiscent of a Hammond organ.  In a meditative piece by Lemmens, one almost certainly composed on this very instrument, Stolk shows how the Percussion expands the dynamic range, because the reed tongue, struck by the little hammer, is set vibrating even at the lowest wind pressure.

In another room is an instrument of 1912 by Mustel. It sounds less extrovert than the older instrument by his grandfather Victor Mustel. It offers sophisticated registration, including stops such as the ‘Prolongement’, so designed that a bass note once momentarily depressed continues sounding. Martin Stolk says: “This instrument meets the demands placed on the harmonium by Sigfrid Karg-Elert, the most prolific harmonium composer of the period around 1900. Karg-Elert was German, but he wrote for the French ‘Harmonium d’art’ or ‘Kunstharmonium’. That instrument employed a standardised stop designation and keyboard division for the pressure harmonium.  Such instruments had a uniform method of numbering the stops. By using a numbering system, composers could specify exactly the desired registration. These requirements preclude playing the specific harmonium repertoire on a suction reed organ, let alone on a church organ.

Thus Joris Verdin would never perform harmonium music on an organ. He even cautions against assuming that the marking ‘pour orgue’ found in French harmonium publications means that it is intended for church organ. “In that case it will always say ‘pour grand orgue’. That leads again and again to wholly false interpretations of original harmonium music.”

Clearly, the harmonium is a more worthwhile musical instrument than is commonly thought. That brings us to the question whether it might enjoy a comeback comparable to that of the harpsichord and now the fortepiano. Verdin remains sceptical. He thinks that the time is not yet ripe. “Only when the harmonium is no longer to be found in any church will it have a hope of any true rehabilitation.”