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Rossini Petite Messe Solennelle harmonium/piano tuning

Has anyone had the misfortune of trying to tune a piano with a harmonium/reed organ in this lovely work? We had the misfortune of having rented an 1880's reed organ for our performance and discovered upon delivery (at the dress rehearsal no less) that it was tuned at A=435. Other than retuning a piano to match this, does anyone have a solution to this problem? We ended up using an electric piano that had a harmonium option that we grabbed from a student in the piano lab and plugged speakers into it. It sounded fine in a pinch but was NOT even close to authentic for obvious reasons.
Replies (5): Threaded | Chronological
on May 21, 2013 3:56am
Hi Andrea,
If you tune down the piano from A440 to A435 there is a risk that the tuning is unstable and needs to be redone. It depends on the instrument. I would ask the piano tuner about that.
A slightly more expensive, but safe, method would be to replace all reeds of the reed organ. Each reed can easily be pulled out and replaced by a new one tuned to A440. You only need a crooked tool for the pulling, which you can make yourself by bending a piece of wire (3-4 mm thick).
Before ordering the complete set of new reeds just pull out the old ones from both ends of the key scale, take a digital photo of them (which also shows the engraved tone names on the reeds), and send it to the shop where you order new pieces of these two plus all others in between.
These reeds (both new and old ones) are extremely robust against detuning and can be pulled in and out of an instrument as often as you like.
Good luck,
Martin Braun
Neuroscience of Music
S-66492 Värmskog
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 23, 2013 12:57pm
When planning the Rossini, or other 'Harmonium' works from the 19th C like Mahler 8, one of the European Harmoniums from the era should be sought rather than the later American form of harmonium or pump organ.  The European harmoniums were generally 5 octave C-C and blown rather than suction instruments, and usually have a much brighter sound.  Score markings on the Rossini suggest that an instrument similar to the French Alexandre style with at least 4 ranks of reeds (16-8-8-4) should be used with contrasting tone between the two 8' ranks.  The majority of these instruments - particularly those made in England - are on high pitch (A~453) but with the modern interest in authentic instruments it is worth bringing them down to A~440 as part of a restoration (most are pretty sad instruments when they turn up in churches etc).  Unlike the American units, reeds need to be removed (each held by 2 screws) for tuning - accomplished by scraping the tip of the tongue to raise the pitch and the root of the tongue to lower it. (A trick to avoid damage is to have a piece of brass shim 0.01" thick to slide under the tongue prior to scraping.)  If an organ is very sharp then consider moving the whole lot up a position and finding a replacement reed for the bottom of each rank - even one recovered from an American pump organ with the ends drilled for the fixing screws, adding some lead (solder) to the tip of the bottom C of the 16' rank if necessary.  In my experience, Alexandre harmoniums made after about 1865 (say serial number 41000) are often on 435+ and when the reeds are cleaned come up to 439-440.  Reeds can be cleaned effectively by soaking in vinegar for a couple of minutes but wash them well in hot water to remove the last traces of acid that could make them brittle.
If a few people undertake a restoration of one of these under-rated instruments then there will be plenty of resources to do the Rossini etc.  (A fully restored Alexandre on A~440 lives with me here in Melbourne Australia - and will get to do 3 different productions of the Rossini in 2014 and did a Mahler 8 in 2013.)
Rod Reynolds
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 22, 2013 12:09pm
Thank you Martin! We were using a Bosendorfer so if we retuned that I would have lost my job! I think folks will find your suggestion very helpful, and many will decide to using a regular organ rahter than deal with the challenges. Very lovely work all the same.
Andrea Goodman
on December 24, 2013 4:48am
We are performing the work also but the harmonium we have acquired (the owner also performs) we are assured is tuned to 438 so not as much a problem as you folks.  It was used by another area chorus (Massachusetts) and worked well.
Bob Eaton
on December 24, 2013 5:44am
I am seeking to do this work this year and am wondering about the best method of obtaining an appropriate harmonium (can live with the American version). I feel like around here (Chattanooga, TN, USA), it's going to be a shot in the dark without some sort of online resource. Ideas?
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