Posted on

The History of the Glass Armonica

glass armonica

The History of the Glass Armonica

“Of all my inventions, the glass armonica has
given me the greatest personal satisfaction”
– Benjamin Franklin

A young lady’s level of accomplishment, during Jane Austen’s day, was in part dependant upon her musical abilities. One of the strangest instruments to gain popularity during the Regency was the Glass harmonica. An example of this can be seen in the 1999 film version of Mansfield Park. Although not mentioned in Austen’s novels, it is a sound that would not have been unfamiliar to her audience.

Listen to Lesley Barber’s interpretation of a period Armonica piece from the Mansfield Park soundtrack.The glass harmonica, also known as glass armonica or simply armonica (derived from “armonia,” the Italian word for harmony) is a type of musical instrument that uses a series of glass bowls or goblets graduated in size to produce musical tones by means of friction (instruments of this type are known as friction idiophones).

Because its sounding portion is made of glass, the glass harmonica is a crystallophone. Sets of glasses struck with sticks as a percussion instrument have existed since ancient times. The phenomenon of rubbing a wet finger around the rim of a wine goblet to make it sing is documented back to Renaissance times; Galileo considered the phenomenon (in his Two New Sciences), as did Athanasius Kircher.

The Irish musician Richard Puckeridge is typically credited as the first to play a set of such glasses by rubbing his fingers around the rims; although it is not entirely certain he was the first, he certainly popularized it. Beginning in the 1740s, he performed in London on a set of upright goblets filled with varying amounts of water. During the same decade, Christoph Willibald Gluck also attracted attention performing in England on a similar instrument.


Benjamin Franklin invented a radically new arrangement of the glasses in 1761 after seeing water-filled wine glasses played by William Deleval. (By this time Puckeridge and his instrument both had perished in a fire.) Franklin, who called his invention the “armonica” after the Italian word for harmony, worked with London glassblower Charles James to build one, and it had its world premiere in January of 1762, played by Marianne Davies.

In Franklin’s version, the bowls were mounted nested on a horizontal spindle and the whole spindle turned by means of a foot-operated treadle. The sound was produced by rubbing the rims of the bowls with moistened fingers. With the Franklin design it is possible to play ten glasses simultaneously if desired, a technique that is very difficult if not impossible to execute using upright goblets. Franklin also advocated the use of a small amount of powdered chalk on the fingers which helped produce a clear tone in the same way rosin is applied to the bows of string instruments.

Some 18th and 19th century specimens of the armonica have survived into the 21st century. Franz Mesmer also played the armonica and used it as an integral part of his Mesmerism.

Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Armonica, along with works by Beethoven, Donizetti, Richard Strauss and Camille Saint-Saëns were composed for the instrument. European monarchs indulged in it, and even Marie Antoinette had taken lessons on it.

The instrument’s popularity did not last far beyond the 18th century, partially because of a strange rumor that using the instrument caused both musicians and their listeners to go insane.

One example of fear from playing the glass armonica was noted by a German musicologist Friedrich Rochlitz in Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung where it is stated that “the armonica excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood that is apt method for slow self-annihilation. If you are suffering from any nervous disorder, you should not play it; if you are not yet ill you should not play it; if you are feeling melancholy you should not play it.”


While one armonica player, Marianne Kirchgessner, is known to have died at the age of 39, others (including Franklin himself) lived long and full lives. By 1820 the glass armonica had disappeared from public performance, perhaps because musical fashions were changing — music was moving out of the relatively small aristocratic halls of Mozart’s day into larger and larger concert halls of Beethoven and his successors, and the delicate sound of the armonica simply could not be heard. The harpsichord disappeared at about the same time — perhaps for the same reason.

A modern version of the “purported dangers” claims that players suffered lead poisoning because armonicas were (and some still are) made of lead glass. However, there is no known scientific basis for the theory that merely touching lead glass can cause lead poisoning. On the other hand, it is known that lead poisoning was common in the 18th and early 19th centuries for both armonica players and non-players alike: doctors prescribed lead compounds for a long list of ailments, lead oxide was used as a preservative in food and beverages, food was cooked in tin/lead pots, and acidic beverages were commonly drunk from lead pewter vessels. Even if armonica players of Franklin’s day somehow received trace amounts of lead from their instruments, that would likely have been dwarfed by the lead they were receiving from other sources.

The glass armonica was re-invented by a German glassblower and musician, Gerhard B. Finkenbeiner (1930–1999) in 1984. After thirty years of experimentation, Finkenbeiner’s prototype consist of clear glasses and glasses with gold bands. Those with gold bands indicate the equivalent of the black keys on the piano. G. Finkenbeiner Inc., of Waltham, Massachusetts, continues to produce these prototypes.

*****

Enjoyed this article? Browse our music section at our Jane Austen Giftshop.

Posted on

The Harp as a Status Symbol

The Harp as a Status Symbol

A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself, and both placed near a window, cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man’s heart.

Mansfield Park

Next to the Pianoforte, the Harp is the most mentioned instrument in Jane Austen’s Novels. Lessons on the Harp were reserved for the privileged daughters of indulgent parents. While the piano was necessary and functional, the harp was stylish. It was an expensive indulgence taught by visiting “Masters”. Some music training, along with art and dancing lessons was deemed necessary to finish off the training provided by the family governess, regardless of Whether the family daughters were sent to school or not.

Indeed, the level of education obtained by Jane Austen’s heroines is in direct proportion to her family’s financial and social status. Jane Fairfax, Marianne Dashwood and Anne Elliot play the piano, but Catherine Morland, daughter of a country curate neither draws or plays. Mary Crawford, Georgiana Darcy and Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove, wealthy, fashionable young ladies, all, play the harp.

In his essay on female accomplishments, Henry Churchyard notes, “For women of the “genteel” classes the goal of non-domestic education was thus often the acquisition of “accomplishments”, such as the ability to draw, sing, play music, or speak modern (i.e. non-Classical) languages (generally French and Italian). Though it was not usually stated with such open cynicism, the purpose of such accomplishments was often only to attract a husband; so that these skills then tended to be neglected after marriage (Lady Middleton in Sense and Sensibility “had celebrated her marriage by giving up music, although by her mother’s account she had played extremely well, and by her own was very fond of it”, while Mrs. Elton in Emma fears that her musical skills will deteriorate as have those of several married women she knows). In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet displays her relatively detached attitude towards the more trivial aspects of this conventional game by adopting a somewhat careless attitude towards her “accomplishment” of playing the piano, and not practicing it diligently.”

The harp’s origins may lie in the sound of a plucked hunter’s bow string. The oldest documented references to the harp are from 4000 BC in Egypt and 3000 BC in Mesopotamia. While the harp is mentioned in most translations of the Bible, King David being the most prominent musician, the Biblical “harp” was actually a kinnor, a type of lyre with 10 strings. Harps also appear in ancient epics, and in Egyptian wall paintings. This kind of harp, now known as the folk harp, continued to evolve in many different cultures all over the world. It may have developed independently in some places.

The lever harp came about in the second half of the 17th century to enable key changes while playing. The player manually turned a hook or lever against an individual string to raise the string’s pitch by a semitone. In the 1700s, a link mechanism was developed connecting these hooks with pedals, leading to the invention of the single-action pedal harp. Later, a second row of hooks was installed along the neck to allow for the double-action pedal harp, capable of raising the pitch of a string by either one or two semitones. With this final enhancement, the modern concert harp was born.

The European harp tradition seems to have originated in ancient Ireland over a thousand years ago. In Irish mythology, a magical harp, Daurdabla is possessed by The Dagda. Most European-derived harps have a single row of strings with strings for each note of the C Major scale (over several octaves). Harpists can tell which strings they are playing because all F strings are black or blue and all C strings are red or orange. The instrument rests between the knees of the harpist and along their right shoulder. The Welsh triple harp and early Irish and Scottish harp24s, however, are traditionally placed on the left shoulder. The first four fingers of each hand are used to pluck the strings; the pinky fingers are too short and cannot reach the correct position without distorting the position of the other fingers, although on some folk harp25s with light tension, closely spaced strings, they may occasionally be used. Plucking with varying degrees of force creates dynamics. Depending on finger position, different tones can be produced: a fleshy pluck (near the middle of the first finger joint) will make a warm tone, while a pluck near the end of the finger will make a loud, bright sound.

 

Enjoyed this article? Browse our non-fiction books at our online gift shop.