The day I played the glass armonica

(at Benjamin Franklin House, London)

From: A Slight Trick of the Mind (2014) by Mitch Cullin:

“She didn’t like being alone in the attic, and she found it difficult creating music on the armonica. She was also bothered by the curious tones produced by the glasses as her fingers slid across their brims. The resonance of them, she explained, made her all the more sad.”

From pbs.org:

“Of Benjamin Franklin’s many achievements, probably the least well-known are his accomplishments in music. Not only did Franklin play viola da gamba and compose music, he also invented an instrument for which both Mozart and Beethoven composed music—the armonica, also known as the glass armonica or glass harmonica.

In 1761, while living in England, Franklin heard a performer playing musical glasses. Franklin wrote: “He collected a number of glasses of different sizes, fixed them near each other on a table, and tuned them by putting into them water, more or less as each note required. The tones were brought out by passing his fingers round their brims.”

Franklin was charmed by the music, but felt that there was a better way to create the same sound. He had a glassmaker create thirty-seven hemispheres made of glass, with each hemisphere being a different size and thickness to produce different pitches. Franklin ran an iron rod through a hole in the top of each hemisphere so that they could nest together from largest to smallest. He linked all of this to an apparatus like a spinning wheel, with a foot treadle that turned the rod, making the glass hemispheres rotate. Franklin moistened his fingers and held them against the rims of the glass hemispheres as they turned, producing a sound similar to the musical glasses. The glass hemispheres were color coded with paint to identify the notes.

Franklin mastered the instrument and took it to dinner parties and other gatherings to play for his friends and acquaintances. The instrument became popular and other performers started playing armonicas. In fact, it became so popular that thousands were built and sold, and one factory employed over a hundred people to build the instruments. Interestingly, many of the performers were women, which was somewhat unusual for the period. One of the musicians, Marianne Davies performed all over Europe and even gave lessons to the French queen Marie Antoinette.

Composers were also struck by the haunting sounds produced by Franklin’s instrument. Mozart wrote two pieces for the armonica, including “Adagio and Rondo 617,” and in 1815, Beethoven wrote a short melodrama where a narrator told a story while accompanied by armonica.

Some of the people who performed regularly on the armonica complained that the instrument was upsetting them emotionally. They said that the vibrations were entering their fingertips and causing mental anguish. There has been some conjecture that these conditions were caused by lead poisoning that the performers acquired from lead in the glass hemispheres of the instrument. Lead was a commonly used metal in the eighteenth century, so it is difficult to determine if these players’ maladies came from the lead in the armonica or from other sources.

The popularity of the instrument faded early in the nineteenth century, but it is still played occasionally today.”

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