Recording Studio: History of the Harmonium I

Recording Studio: This is the story of a musical instrument that was birthed, died, and was reborn in the 230 or so years of its existence. The harmonium was conceived in the West, but today largely resides in the East, particularly in the Indian subcontinent; so much so that many mistakenly think it to be an Indian instrument.

Recording Studio: Harmonium Origins

To go into the past and locate the precise starting point of an idea or an invention is tricky, but one must start somewhere. The prototype of the harmonium was designed by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, a professor – not of music but physiology – at the University of Copenhagen. As an academic, Kratzenstein experimented with the effects of electricity on the human body. It is believed that Mary Shelley was so fascinated by his research that he became one of the inspirations for her classic novel, Frankenstein. She even adapted his surname for her fictional scientist

Recording Studio: Harmonium French connection

Professor Kratzenstein did not produce a monster; his creation was quite the opposite. When he was not conducting physiology experiments, Kratzenstein indulged in music. He was fascinated by the sheng, a Chinese free-reed instrument shaped like a vertical pipe. Marco Polo had introduced the sheng to Europe centuries earlier, and by the 1700s shengs were being brought to Europe in fair quantities. One had wound its way along the Copenhagen streets and in through the door of Kratzenstein’s house.
The professor was charmed by the free reed, as much by the physics behind it as with the crystal-clear notes it produced. In 1779, the Academy of Science at St Petersburg offered a prize for an essay on the formation of vowel sounds on an instrument similar to the “vox humana” of an organ. Kratzenstein built a small pneumatic organ fitted with free reeds, presented it to the Academy and bagged the award.
Continued in the next blog…