The Glass Harmonica, originally named the Armonica was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761 after hearing a concert of 50 tuned water glasses during a trip to Europe. Deeply touched and inspired Ben Franklin did away with water tuning, connecting the glass together, put them on a rotating spit and the Armonica was born. By making the glasses tuned, rather than relying on water, the glass could be put sideways and connected to be able to play faster rhythms and melodies. Playing water glasses, a fancy parlor trick, became a real musical instrument and the first instrument invented by an American (Finkenbeiner).
The Glass Harmonica was never produced on a large scale but between the late 18th and the early 19th century 400 works were written for it by composers, including Beethoven and Mozart (Pollack).
Structure of Harmonica
One full octive (48 notes, two octaves above and below middle C) of finely tuned glass cups were turned on their side and fit within each other almost to the point of touching. They were all mounted on a driveshaft controlled by a motor powered by the users foot and were seperated and secured to the driveshaft by corks inserted into the bottom of the bowls. Sometimes a moisturizer was used spraying the cups lightly at the bottom of the instrument to keep them constantly moisturized. However, most of the time, the moisture came from the players fingertips. This became an improvement on the traditional musical glass arrangement because, "The instrument could be played much more like a piano; chords and faster musical passages would be easier to achieve, since one would not awkwardly have to coordinate turning one's finger around the rim of each glass." (Finkenbeiner 139)
Creating porperly tuned glass bowls was extremely difficult. Each bowl was hand blown making every set different from the others. In fact, only one bowl out of every 100 blown was the proper size and tune. Thus, the completion of an entire four-octave Glass Harmonica was a strenuous and inconsistant task. The glass used also is believed to be one of the reasons for its downfall and disapperance into obscurity. There was a high amount of lead in the glass and many years later it was theorized that people went mad when they played it. The lead would, "Leach through the fingertips into the bloodstream.. causing nerve damage." (Finkenbeiner 140)
Foot Pedals and Framing
Inspired by a performer playing musical glasses, Franklin invented the glass armonica. He was not, however, alone in being inspired; various composers created music based on the unique sound produced by this instrument. Some of the most notable music composers of the glass armonica are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Though the instrument of the glass armonica is a digital media, with a set number of octaves and 48 notes, to put it into practice is an analog technique. The composer or player of a glass armonica can arrange and rearrange the 48 notes to produce a different melody each time.
Now it's your turn to play the armonica!
As the popularity of the glass armonica increased, professionals and technicians began to utilize its unique sound to produce a variety of effects. Soon, the glass armonica developed a reputation of having calming, even healing, qualities.
Mesmer and His Practice
One of the most interesting and creative uses of the glass armonica was by "Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, who employed hypnosis to treat a variety of ills, used the ethereal sound to induce deeper trances in his patients" (Fox). Though the glass armonica did not have a direct impact on any of his treatments, Mesmer had learned that his discovery of animal magnetism was propagated by music (Pattie) as it would "induce deeper states of hypnosis in his patients" (Finkenbeiner 140).
Mesmer's practice began in Vienna, but he was discredited upon the treatment of Maria Theresa von Paradis, a well known pianist who was also blind (Pattie 67). Though she had tried various methods to cure her of her blindness, everything failed aside from Mesmer's animal magnetism. She regained a minimal amount of vision, but nonetheless fell into a bout of depression because she could not readjust herself to the sensory aspects of sight. Her musical talent suffered as well. Upon this failure, Mesmer then moved to Paris, where he experimented on aristocrats, surgeons, and his own right-hand man, Dr. Charles d'Elson (Pattie 103). These treatments were all conducted in a private manner, with minimal lighting and the only noise intrusion being the sound of the glass armonica. And while his discoveries were never really legitimized, they were nonetheless investigated by the Faculty of Medicines, despite the fact Franklin himself did not believe in animal magnetism.
The word "mesmerize" is a direct derivation from Mesmer's practice. As Mesmer himself began to lose credit, "perhaps this use of the instrument was enough to give it a bad reputation, encouraging people to fear it and think it evil" (Finkenbeiner 140).
While Franklin may not have entirely bought the concept of animal magnetism, he did believe that the glass armonica some special healing quality. In 1772, Franklin went to Prince Adam Czartoryski, heir to the throne of Poland, about his wife who had been suffering of melancholia (Lipowski). She recounts Franklin's visit, saying:
"I was ill, in a state of melancholia, and writing my testament and farewell letters. Wishing to distract me, my husband explained to me who Franklin was and to what he owed his fame… Franklin had a noble face with an expression of engaging kindness. Surprised by my immobility, he took my hands and gazed at me saying: pauvre jeune femme ["poor young lady']. He then opened an armonica, sat down and played long. The music made a strong impression on me and tears began flowing from my eyes. Then Franklin sat by my side and looking with compassion said, "Madam, you are cured." Indeed in that moment I was cured of my melancholia. Franklin offered to teach me how to play the armonica - I accepted without hesitation, hence he gave me twelve lessons" (Lipowski 362).
Phantasmagoria The glass armonica was a one-way communication media. Those who made use of it often had a goal of evoking some sort of emotion in their audience. While its use in medical practices was to induce a tranquility in patients, a man by the name of Étienne-Gaspard Robertson wanted to capitalize on its more harmonic qualities.
Robertson's favorite instrument was the glass armonica. He believed that "it contributed powerfully to the effects of the fantasmagoria, in preparing not only the minds but the very senses for strange impressions by a melody so sweet that it sometimes gave great irritation to the nervous system" (Heard). Thus, he used its haunting melodies in conjunction with the magic lantern to put "thought to sleep; all the ideas seem to concentrate on one and the same object and one and the same impression" (Heard).
While those like Robertson and Mesmer basked in the glass armonica's hypnotic qualities, it was less than half a century when it began to disappear because of public fear of its power. It was "believed that it caused insanity, nervous disorders, convulsions in dogs and cats, marital disputes, and even that it woke people from the dead" (Finkenbeiner 140) and "rumors spread that the music itself could cause mental illness. The author of a 1788 manual on the armonica advised that some people avoid playing the instrument, 'in order that their state of mind not be aggravated'" (Fox). In fact, it was only a matter of time before "people so feared to touch it that a keyboard form of the instrument was devised: by striking a key, a spring would activate a wooden hammer covered with wet leater, which would reach out and make contact with the glass rim, producing a note in the same manner as direct contact with the natural finger would have" (Finkenbeiner 140). The variety of symptoms has led to speculation that the lead in the paint and glass resulted in lead poisoning, it has never been proven (Smithsonian). Therefore, while minute details (such as the paint along the glass rims) may seem to serve no purpose, it is unclear whether or not they in fact hold a greater purpose in the story of the glass armonica.
- Finkenbeiner, Gerhard, and Vera Meyer, "The Glass Harmonica: A Return from Obscurity." Leonardo, Vol. 20, No. 2, Special Issue: Visual Art, Sound, Music and Technology (1987): 139-142. JStor. NYU. 8 Nov. 2007.
- Fox, Catherine C., "Second Time Around." Smithsonian 01 Feb. 2007. 10 Nov. 2007 <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/10023801.html>.
- Heard, Mervyn, Phantasmagoria: The Secret Life of the Magic Lantern, (Hastings: The Projection Box, 2006). ISBN 1903000122
- Pattie, Frank A., Mesmer and Animal Magnetism: A Chapter in the History of Medicine, (Hamilton, NY : Edmonston Publishing, Inc, 1994).
- Lipowski, Z.J., "Benjamin Franklin as a Psychotherapist: a Forerunner of Brief Psychotherapy." Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 27 (1984): 361-366.