Chamber Music for the Hell of It
Hellgate Harmonie is a collaborative of New York City amateur and freelance wind musicians with a special interest in playing octets, generally in bars, beer halls, lounges and other public spaces. We have a passion for the harmonie genre, a late 18th-early 19th century wind band phenomenon in Viennese, Bohemian and Moravian court society. Mozart was perhaps its best known practitioner.
Hellgate is the confluence of the the Harlem and East Rivers off the coast of Astoria in New York City, as well as the name of an imposing railroad bridge that carries Amtrak and freight trains. The bridge stands near where we had our debut with a series of legendary performances at the Bohemian Hall Beer Garden during the Summer of 2005.
What We Do
We perform as much as possible in the harmonie’s natural habitat: beer gardens, bars, restaurants, salons and drawing rooms. We have played at Bubby’s restaurant in Brooklyn, the Bohemian Hall beer garden in Queens, the Underground in Manhattan and many other venues — even diplomatic residences!
The standard Viennese Harmonie consisted of pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and French horns. A double bass or contrabassoon was often added to provide extra depth. Sextet variations, excluding either clarinets or oboes, were also popular.
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A Brief History of Harmoniemusik
Harmonie music began flourishing in the second half of the 18th century, first in royal courts of minor princes and the Habsburg emperors and then among wealthy middle class families. The music was played to accompany meals or as after-dinner entertainment. Bands performed in parks, taverns and the streets of Vienna. For courts that could not afford their own opera companies, harmonie bands made operas — through transcriptions — accessible.
The standard Viennese harmonie ensemble consisted of pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns. A double bass or contrabassoon was often added to provide extra depth to the sound. Sextet variations, excluding either clarinets or oboes, were also popular.
Often, harmonie ensembles were led by musician-servants (“kapellmeister” or “leibkammerdiener”) who also provided fresh compositions for the group. Triebensee, Wendt (oboists) and Heidenreich (clarinetist) were the most prominent. They also arranged popular operas of the day for the wind ensembles. Even Mozart, who composed the two greatest works for harmonie (the Serenades in Eb Major and C Minor), wrote of the need to transcribe his own opera, “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” for harmonie before someone else did and enjoyed the profit (letter of 20 July 1782). As it turns out, it is not certain that Mozart ever made the transcription (it doesn’t seem to have survived, if he did), but Wendt ‘s version exists, and all the other major Mozart operas are available today in harmonie transcriptions by either Wendt, Triebensee or Heidenreich.
Again, it was Mozart who wrote an on-stage harmonie into the dinner scene finale of “Don Giovanni.” The band plays opera transcriptions, of course, including one from Mozart’s own “Marriage of Figaro.” Other composers who helped build the harmonie literature include Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Franz Krommer
The Napoleonic wars marked the end of the harmonie craze. Middle European royalty could no long afford to employ large-scale wind bands in their courts. While composing for wind octet continued well after 1804, the level of output declined dramatically, and the era of harmonie was over by 1840.
HH Plays Opera at The Parlour, Nov. 17
Inaugural performance at The Parlour, Oct. 6
HH plays Mozart, Dvorak and other delights, The West End, March 5
HH Reboot at the West End Lounge, Jan. 31
HH Goes Underground, The Underground Lounge, Jan. 12
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