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
Media:franklin.mov Inspired by a performer playing musical glasses, Franklin invented the glass armonica. He was not, however, the only one moved to create music for this instrument; various composers were inspired to create music based on the sound produced by these instruments. Some of the most notable music composers of the glass armonica are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.
Because the armonica was the "first American instrument," there were still quite a few kinks to work out. It became problematic to listen to famous compositions as "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'" (Smithsonian).
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 healing or calming qualities.
One of the most known and creative use 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" (Smithsonian). Though the glass armonica did not have a direct impact on any of his mesmerizing treatments, he believed it to be a fundamental aspect of his treatment.
"I was ill, in a state of melancholia, and writing my testament and farewell letters. Wishg 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, Z. J. (1984), Benjamin Franklin as a psychotherapist: A forerunner of brief psychotherapy. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 27, 361-366. p.362
Phantasmagoria The glass armonica was Robertson's favored instrument. He noted 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'. The armonica can produce a somewhat monotonous sound, if desired, and Robertson put that to use: he observed that 'a uniform noise puts thought to sleep; all the ideas seem to concentrate on one and the same object and one and the same impression' Heard, M. (2006); Phantasmagoria: The Secret Life of the Magic Lantern; The Projection Box; Hastings; ISBN 1903000122