by Thomas Bloch Translation to English by Michelle Vadon
Glasses filled with more or less water so as to alter the pitch of the sounds obtained by striking them with sticks were already used by the Persians, the Chinese (Shui Chan), the Japanese and the Arabs (the Tusut was mentioned in 1406). But the technique took a decisive turn in 1743 when an Irishman, Richard Puckeridge, had the bright idea of rubbing with wet fingers the glasses standing on the table.
Benjamin Franklin saw for the first time that instrument, also played by Gluck, the composer, at a concert given by the English virtuoso Delaval. It was called angelic organ, then musical glasses or seraphim. B. Franklin, fascinated by the "soft and pure sound of the musical glasses", modified them so as to increase their possibilities. In a letter to Pr Beccaria, of Torino, in 1762, be explained how he had improved them. He called the new instrument glassharmonica because of its harmonious sounds. He had glasses of different diameters blown, each corresponding to a note, instead of filling glasses with water. When the bowls are chromatically fitted into one another, but not in contact, with a horizontal rod - whose rotation is controlled by a pedal - going through their centers, complex chords can be played and virtuosity is increased.
A number of instruments derived from the glassharmonica have been built since that time : the melodion,the eumelia, the clavicylindre, the transpornierharmonica, the sticcardo pastorate, the spirafina, the parnasse instrument, the glassharfe, Tobias Schmidt piano harmonica (he also built the first guillotine), the uranion, the hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica and others. The glassharmonica was very popular from the start. 400 works were composed for it, some unfortunately now lost, and probably about 4000 instruments were built in 70 years.
The instrument, adored or hated, roused passion. Paganini said "such a celestial voice", Thomas Jefferson claimed it was "the greatest gift offered to the musical world of this century", Goethe, Mozart, Jean-Paul, Hasse, Theophile Gautier praised it. A dictionary of instruments mentions that the sounds 'are of nearly celestial softness but can cause spasms", In a Treaty on the Effects of Music on the Human Body by J.M. Roger, 1803, we can read that "its melancholy tone plunges you into dejection ( ) to a point the strongest man could not hear it for an hour without fainting".
True, some interpreters ended their lives in mental hospitals, among them one of the best, Marianne Davies. In his Method to Teach Yourself Armonica (1788), J.C. Miller retorts- "It is true that the Armonica has strange effects on people . If you are irritated or disturbed by bad news, by friends or even by a disappointing lady, abstain from playing, it would only increase your disturbance". The Armonica was accused of causing evils such as nervous disorder, domestic squabbles, premature deliveries, fatal disorders, animal's convulsions. The instrument was even banned from a German town by police decision for ruining the health of people and disturbing public order (a child died during a concert). Franz Anton Mesmer, a Vienna doctor known for his experiments (Mesmerism) and for using hypnosis to treat his clients, would condition them by playing the glassharmonica for them. He was expelled from Vienna after a blind pianist, Marie Paradies, recovered sight but to the detriment of her mental health. Spread by rumor, this contributed to the death of the Armonica considered in 1829 as "the fashionable accessory of parlors and sitting-rooms".
Although Rollig tried to associate a keyboard with it in order to avoid the possible danger caused by rubbing your fingers against the glasses, few later composers were interested in the instrument. The increasing intensity of the sound of orchestras deterred musicians from using a fragile instrument with such a delicate sound. Yet, there were two outstanding exceptions : Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti in 1835 (the Mad Scene! ... ) in which the glassharmonica was soon replaced by two flutes (the part recorded here is the original version crossed out on the manuscript) and Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss (1914-1917).
Thanks to a German interpreter, Bruno Hoffmann - who did not play a glassharmonica but a glasharfe (glasses standing on a table) - and also thanks to a German born master glass-blower, Gerhard Finkenbeiner who has settled near Boston (USA), a new generation of interpreters (still very few of them), of composers and of instrument makers have re-discovered the glassharmonica since 1982.
To build a glassharmonica, G. Finkenbeiner now uses quartz - the purest glass - in the shape of a long cylinder, heated to 3100'F and blown out into a special shape,which is then cut in half, so as to get two bowls. In the 18th century, 40% lead glass was used, The bowls were worn and tuned with an emery grind wheel. As the depth of a bowl decreases, the pitch becomes higher. Sometimes, the seven colors of the rainbow were used to symbolize the seven diatonic degrees, black figuring the inflected notes. G. Finkenbeiner uses transparent glass - and gold for the brims of the bowls corresponding to the black keys of a keyboard, as Rollig did in the 18th century.
Glassharmonicas belong to the family of autophone rubbed instruments. The glasses start vibrating according to a relaxation principle : when a finger rubs a bowl, it alternately catches and releases. This creates a series of impulses which set the bowl into vibration. The phenomenon is complex, so the master glass-blower must be very gifted to give the instrument its personality. A number of parameters can play a part, modify the tone, the mode and the harmonic composition of the bowls. Thus, two bowl,.; giving the same note will have different tones according to the materials used, to their shapes, their thicknesses, their dimensions, their hidden defects.
It is said that sounds and noises are closely related to each period of time. It would be interesting to know what has caused the renewal of the glassharmonica at the end of the 20th century and the passion it has aroused - maybe simply the new demands of both music specialists and interpreters in quest for authenticity.
...as Lucia said : "Un' armonia celeste, di', non ascolti?" ("Can't you hear a celestial harmony ?")
- Wikipedia Article: Glass Harmonica
- Wall Street Journal: Founding Father of the Glass Armonica
- American Music Preservation: History of Ben Franklin
- Scientific American Frontier's Q&A with Gerhard Finkenbeiner
- Glass Music International
- The Franklin Museum
- The Glass Armonica
- Elijah Wald's article "Glass Armonica"
- Benjamin Franklin House