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Church Harmonium Restoration Project

This high quality harmonium was presented to St.Peter's by John Parkinson Hall in 1893, and was used for services for about 80 years.

Our harmonium being played by Carrie Spencer (2015)

Carrie writes:

"These Victorian firms built their harmoniums to withstand damp and mice and neglect in musty churches, so hats off to them for doing such a good job with Clippesby's!  Now it's up to our generation to continue the good work and preserve these increasingly rare instruments. I don't know if you agree, but to my mind 'our' harmonium has a unique sound, ~ a sweetness to it, far removed from the throaty diapasons of the typical Norman and Beard pipe organ found in many local village churches."

Harmonium factory

Harmonium factory, Alexandre, Pere & Fils,

founded 1843

Some notes on harmoniums written for us by Carrie Spencer (whose mother, Eva Moore, played this harmonium for Clippesby's services for many years).  It gives some insight into why we are keen to restore this instrument to its former glory.


What is a harmonium?


A harmonium, also known as a ‘pump organ,’ ‘reed organ’ or ‘melodeon’, is a type of musical instrument which generates sound as air flows past a vibrating piece of thin metal in a frame.    This piece of metal is called a ‘reed’.


Who invented the harmonium?


A professor of physiology from Copenhagen, called Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723-1795), who exhibited the first ever prototype harmonium at the Imperial Academy in St Petersburg in 1780, and which won their annual prize for that year.


Why did they become so popular?


Principally because they were more portable than pipe organs or pianos – and a lot cheaper. Since their invention, they spread rapidly throughout Europe and America, transforming church and chapel worship, and gaining a place in every home from the grandest mansion to the humblest cottage.  Everything from classical pieces (there is a version of Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’ adapted for the harmonium!) and hymns, to folk and popular parlour songs could be played on these adaptable instruments.  They took up less space than a piano – some could even be folded up to the size of a suitcase -  and were less damaged by transport over poor roads or by sea.  Also, unlike the piano, the harmonium holds its tuning regardless of heat, cold, and humidity - a characteristic which made them popular worldwide.


Who made Clippesby’s harmonium?


One of the leading harmonium manufacturers of the day – Alexandre, Pere et Fils. (Alexander, Father and Son). Founded in 1843 by Jacob Alexandre, this innovative company flourished for over 20 years, turning out every size of harmonium from the ‘100 franc organ’ to monumental instruments with several manuals (keyboards) with many varieties of stops, as well as accordions and pianos. Jacob was soon joined in the business by his talented son, Edward, who developed the company and was rewarded for his efforts by being made a Knight of the Legion of Honour in 1860. Other awards for the firm soon followed, but then in 1868 fortunes changed and two bankruptcies over the next 30 years resulted in the firm’s take~over by the Fortin brothers in 1907, although harmoniums continued to be manufactured in the original Paris factory until production ceased in 1955.  The factory was finally demolished in 1977 to make way for other buildings.


Why did harmoniums decline in popularity?


Having reached a peak of popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they began to lose their appeal in the 1930s, when the invention of the electronic organ made possible a much greater range of sounds, and which did away with the physical effort of foot pedals to pump air over the reeds.  By the mid 1950s, almost all the harmonium manufacturers in Europe and America had ceased trading, although a couple of Italian companies continued into the 1970s.  Many harmoniums were ‘modernised’ by having electric blowers fitted, often very unsympathetically to the appearance and sound of the instrument.


Why preserve harmoniums?


After all, a harmonium is constructed using old technology, and today’s electronic organs offer a huge variety of musical sounds to suit every taste and budget. They do however have the disadvantage of sensitivity to varying temperatures and humidity.  After only a few years, sometimes five or less, an electronic organ left in a village church subject to a cold damp atmosphere for many months of the year is subject to tuning and general functional problems which in many cases render it unplayable.  It simply gives up, and repairs are difficult and very

expensive, even if replacement parts can be found.  A harmonium on the other hand was made to withstand temperature variations and neglect for years on end, and  even when a hundred

years old, and ailing, with keys that stick, stops that don’t work, and bellows in tatters, it can still make a recognisable sound to sing along to.  Replacement  parts can be made and fitted, and when repaired, the old harmonium is then set up for another hundred years of loyal service!

Report and estimate from Holmes & Swift, Organ Builders

Copy of email 16 July 2014

(click to enlarge)

Capture Harmonium 6
Capture Harmonium 2
Capture Harmonium 4

Report received 26th July 2016 (excerpts)

Capture Harmonium 5
Capture Harmpnium 1
Capture Harmonium 3
edmund & family

Amount already in our fund: £2,750

Discussions now to take place regarding our options.

August 12th

Edmund Holmes, who will be restoring our harmonium, & his family on their visit to Clippesby Church to collect it.

August 10th 2016  Latest News


Holmes & Swift  are coming to collect the harmonium this Friday to take it back to their workshop for a complete restoration. We look forward to its return in good condition when we will have much pleasure from listening to it.


John Parkinson Hall donated the harmonium to St.Peter's Church one hundred and twenty three years ago and it was in the 1980s that the PCC puchased an electronic replacement organ, since which time four or more successive electronic instruments have succumbed to the church's atmosphere, but the Harmonium still has its lovely full tone. So it seems to make sense to restore it to proper working order  and we are assured that it will outlast any electronic alternative.                                               


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