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.