Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Glass Armonica

By J. M. Hochstetler

I run across some pretty curious things while doing research. Sometimes they make it into my books and sometimes they don’t. Today I want to take a look at one object that I haven’t been able to work into a story, at least so far: the Glass Armonica.

If you’ve ever run a wet finger around the rim of a glass with liquid in it, you’ve discovered that it gives off a tone that varies depending on how much liquid the glass contains. It’s an effect that’s been observed for centuries. In fact, people in Europe began to perform music with sets of tuned water glasses dates as early as 1492—the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And by the 17th century, this kind of music was very popular among the upper classes. An Irish man, Richard Pockridge, built and performed on a set of tuned wine glasses he called an“Angelic Organ” in 1743, his repertoire including Handel’s “Water Music”. And in 1746, the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Verrillon”, played on glasses delighted audiences in Europe.

Benjamin Franklin playing the Glass Armonica
While lobbying Parliament on behalf of Pennsylvania’s legislature in 1761, Benjamin Franklin attended a concert played on the musical glasses. Already a famous scientist and inventor, he began to ponder the problem of creating more convenient form “brought together in a narrower compass, so as to admit of a greater number of tunes and all within reach of hand to a person sitting before the instrument.” He eventually began working with London glassblower Charles James to create such an instrument. They eliminated the need to tune each glass with water by creating graduated glass bowls of the right diameter and thickness to give the desired pitches. A cork was inserted into a hole in the center of each bowl, then the bowls were nested compactly in descending sizes on a horizontal spindle. A fly wheel operated by a foot treadle turned the spindle, and as the bowls turned they were partially submerged in water so that the player could simply rub the wet edges.

Franklin called his instrument the Glass Armonica, after the Italian word for harmony. He took it with him when he went to France during the American Revolution to lobby for the French to enter the war on the side of the Americans. The Armonica became a huge hit in both France and England. Queen Marie Antoinette took lessons. The famous hypnotist, Dr. Franz Mesmer, used the instrument to put his patients into a deeper trance. Composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Donizetti, Haydn, Richard Strauss, and many others wrote music for it. Paganini called its music “a celestial voice,” and Thomas Jefferson thought it “the greatest gift offered to the musical world of this century.”

Glass Armonica
In Hamburg in 1787, Karl Leopold Rollig designed a keyboard version. The instrument was manufactured and sold throughout Europe, but by the mid-1800s it had lost its popularity. Armonicas were said to drive performers mad and evoke spirits of the dead through its eerie, haunting sound, which might have been the result of lead poisoning from paint applied to the bowl edges and the 40% lead content of the glass itself. But the move away from chamber music toward full orchestras performing in large halls as the century moved into to the Victorian age also contributed to the Armonica’s demise. But the Glass Armonica had a rebirth of sorts in 1982 through the efforts of master glass blower Gerhard Finkenbeiner of Waltham, Massachusetts. It even had a cameo part in the movie Mansfield Park.

Watch this brief video about the Armonica to see how it is played and how it sounds. There are lots of other videos of the Armonica on YouTube that you might want to check out too.


What do you think of the instrument? Personally, I think the sounds are lovely and ethereal. Do you like it, or do you think it’s creepy? Does it sound like something that would drive you mad? Would you like to learn to play one? Please share your thoughts!
~~~
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Book 6, Refiner’s Fire, releases in April 2019. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 Indie Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, received the 2017 Interviews and Reviews Silver Award for Historical Fiction and was named one of Shelf Unbound’s 2018 Notable Indie Books. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year and a finalist in the Carol Award.

10 comments:

  1. I think it's a beautiful instrument but I don't think I could listen for extended periods of time as it's a bit "sharp" in tone. Understandable that it got a bad rap if the performers got lead poisoning! Thanks for the interesting post!

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  2. That's a good point, Connie. It's a very appealing sound if you just listen for a little while. But if you listened to an entire concert, all those sharps could drive you a bit "mad". LOL! Music is reputed to tame the savage beast, but it could also have the opposite effect! Thank you for stopping by and sharing your insights!

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  3. Very interesting post today. I kind of like it. But, it does have an eerie sound to it although, it does sound like something angels would play. I had never even heard of it until wrote about it today. Working on RF and hopefully have done by this week-end.

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    1. It is kinda eerie, isn't it, Bev? Since so few people play it today, I imagine very few people have ever heard of it. I sure hadn't! Yes, I'm working diligently! I may not have anything out to you by the weekend, but hopefully the following week. :-)

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    2. I had never heard of this either. And, I'm still working on what you sent a few weeks ago!

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  4. It always amazes me how people can play music on a water glass. It's very interesting to listen to.

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    1. I wonder who first discovered that running a wet finger around a glass will make sounds, Vickie! Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. What an amazing article, I had read about this a long time ago...but really didn't realize the BF version was a 'machine'. Definitely an eery sound, I wonder if you can alter the 'tone' by the type of touch you might use, or how fast it would spin? video---is really excellent.

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    1. Sandi, I would imagine doing that would change the tone. Learning how to do it well enough to play music must take a ton of practice!

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  6. I love the sound! I am reminded of a synthesizer I owned back in the day. Now I believe that I know which instrument inspired the "patch" I am thinking of. Thank you for your article!

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