Czech pianist revives unique half-forgotten microtonal harmonium

Miroslav Beinhauer is a pianist and player of the sixth-tone harmonium, an instrument conceived by the Czech pioneer of microtonal music Alois Hába in the 1930s. Beinhauer, who is probably the only person in the world to master this unique instrument, only started to play it a few years ago, when he took part in the first ever performance of Hába’s sixth-tone opera Thy Kingdom Come. Since then, he has also encouraged contemporary composers to create new repertoire for the half-forgotten instrument.  

I met with Miroslav Beinhauer in the Czech Museum of Music in the centre of Prague, where he goes to practice the sixth-tone harmonium, which is part of the museum’s collections.

Miroslav Beinhauer | Photo: Matěj Procházka

“The sixth-tone harmonium looks basically like a normal pump organ or harmonium. What makes it special is the system of the keyboards. This is a sixth-tone harmonium, which means that each tone is separated not into two halves like a normal harmonium but into six sixth-tones.

“So Hába, together with the company which built this instrument which is August Forster, invented a new system to make it easier to play. It isn’t easy, but once you learn it, it makes sense and it is very clever.

“It contains three keyboards which are completely different from a piano keyboard, and there are three colours of keys: blue, white and black. There are also different white keys which are the special keys for the sixth-tones.”

Can you tell us a little bit more about the man who conceived this unique musical instrument, Alois Hába? I understand he actually had to have these instruments built in order to play his own compositions…

“Yes, you are right. Hába was a Czech composer born at the end of 19th century in Vizovice in Moravia and he was born into a musical family. He trained as a musician from his early childhood. He played mostly violin and all the string instruments.

Photo: Matěj Procházka

“It was very popular at the time in Moravia to “vykrúcať” which means that the singers were adding some special small tones, or melismatic tones, into the melody. And since Hába had a very good pitch he knew that these tones were not part of the regular system.

“So this was his first touch with microtones. Later, when he was in Vienna for military service, he met people from other parts of Europe, for example from Croatia or Slovenia, where microtones are part of their folk music.

“When Hába was studying in Vienna and Berlin he became really interested in microtonal music and it became a huge part of his legacy. In 1920s he composed many pieces for micro-tonal instruments, for example quarter-tone string quartets or pieces for quarter-tone piano.

“In 1927 the first sixth-tone harmonium was built and in 1928 he wrote Six pieces for the sixth-tone harmonium, Opus 37. The funny thing is that nearly a century later it still hasn’t been played in public.”

So what happened to the harmonium? As far as I know, it ended up in the museum of music which is part of the national museum and for decades it was lying there unused…

“Yes, that is correct. It is kind of sad, but you’re right.”

But luckily, it has been rediscovered.

“Yes it was in 2018. The Ostrava Centre of New Music who organize the festival New Opera Days asked me if I could try to play something from Hába’s opera Thy Kingdom Come.

“So it was my first encounter with this instrument. Of course I wasn’t able to play it properly, because the part for the harmonium was so difficult.

“Unlike with string instruments or wind instruments, you don’t have to search for the tones. You just press the key and you have the pitch, which is perfect.”

“But I did my best and afterwards I realized that there was also this solo piece for the harmonium. So I tried to learn it and it worked and I kind of fell in love with this instrument, because it’s so different and authentic.

“But I am not actually sure if Hába ever played that instrument in public. I think he mostly used it to show his students how the sixth-tones work. Unlike with string instruments or wind instruments, you don’t have to search for the tones. You just press the key and you have the pitch, which is perfect.”

So when did you yourself discover Alois Hába’s sixth-tone harmonium? Was it only in 2018, when you were approached by the organizers of the Ostrava music festival?

“I fell in love with the sound possibilities, the sound quality and the fact that each of the new pieces which were written for this instrument are so completely different.”

“Yes, that was in 2018. Of course I knew Alois Hába’s name. I knew he was a very good and prolific composer and I knew for example his quarter tone pianos, which are much more known than the sixth-tone harmonium. This is probably one of the reasons why let’s say 99% of the musicians don’t know about the existence of this instrument.

“Later on I got in touch with a person who takes care of Alois Hába’s legacy, Mr. Andreska, and he told me that after Hába’s death this instrument was found lying somewhere in the corner of his house and nobody knew how special it was.”

How difficult is it for a professional pianist like you to master this instrument and how much does it actually have in common with a regular piano?

“I would say it doesn’t have anything to do with the piano because the keys are different, they are smaller and narrower. The system of playing is also completely different from anything in the world.

“Of course it is a big advantage that I am a musician, because I know how the harmonies work and so on. But it simply requires a lot of patience and a lot of time.

“For example 2019 when I decided that I wanted to learn the Opus 37, the six pieces for the harmonium and I wanted to make a recording of this piece, I cancelled all my concerts for two months and I moved here to Prague and I was here at the museum everyday practicing the instrument.

“So it required a lot of patience and a lot of energy. But I wouldn’t say you need any special skills. You just need patience and you need to believe that what you do is important.”

You also mentioned that you also initiated new compositions to be written for this particular instrument. So who is writing them and where can listeners have a chance to hear them?

“This is the most fascinating thing about this project. When I was recording Opus 37 I didn’t know it would have such an impact.  But after publishing this recording on the internet, several composers contacted me, saying that it was fantastic that this instrument works and there is someone who can actually play it.

Ian Mikyska and Miroslav Beinhauer | Photo: Matěj Procházka

“Since then I would say at least twenty new compositions were written for this instrument, not only solo pieces but also chamber pieces or pieces for harmonium with an accompaniment by a chamber orchestra.

“This year there are two special events. One is here in Prague at the end of April, which is called MicroFest. There will be world premieres of three new pieces.

“One of them will be by Ian Mykiska, the Czech composer, who already wrote a piece for me. I would say his pieces are very suitable for this instrument and I am always happy to play his music.

“And then there will also be a world premiere night at the Ostrava Days at the end of August. There will be six or seven new compositions by international composers, such as Phill Niblock, Bernhard Lang and others.”

How difficult is it to write a composition for an instrument when you don’t have a chance to actually play the music?

“That’s the main issue for all the composers. Some of them come here to Prague to make things easier for themselves, which is also then less difficult for me.

“When someone composes a new piece for the instrument and doesn’t have a chance to play it, we make video calls or they send me the score and I try if it possible to play it. If not I give the score back and tell them to rewrite it. So, it’s a difficult process for everyone.”

And how difficult is it for you to keep switching between the sixth-tone harmonium and a regular piano is it difficult?

Ian Mikyska | Photo: Matěj Procházka

“I was worried about this when I started to practice the harmonium and I had both concerts for the piano and concerts for the harmonium. But I realized it was really easy because the instruments are really different. So it is actually two different things and it is not a problem at all.”

Would you say the music written for this instrument and maybe micro-tonic music in general is only intended for a niche audience? Can people who are untrained in music appreciate it?

“I would say it’s definitely for everyone because you have so many possibilities how to use the micro tones in this instrument. It can sound completely out of this world and crazy, let’s say, and it can also sound very nice and even more beautiful than a standard semi tone system. So, I would suggest for everyone who is interested to come to a concert and see if they like it on or not.”

What about you yourself what do you find the most fascinating about this instrument, what is it that made you fall in love with it?

“The sound possibilities, the sound quality and the fact that each of the new pieces which were written for this instrument are so completely different. I just can’t be bored.”