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).
The word "glass harmonica" refers to any instrument played by rubbing glass or crystal goblets or bowls. When Benjamin Franklin invented his mechanical version of the instrument, he called it the "armonica", based on the Italian word "armonia", which means "harmony". The German name for Franklin's instrument is Glasharmonika. The free reed wind instrument called harmonica was not invented until 1821, sixty years later. The instrument consisting of a set of wine glasses (usually tuned with water) is generally known in English as "glass harp".
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 2300 BC. The phenomenon of rubbing a wet finger around the rim of a wine goblet to produce tones 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 (see angelic organ) by rubbing his fingers around the rims; although it is not entirely certain that 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, both Puckeridge and his instrument 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 early 1762, played by Marianne Davies.
In Franklin's version, 37 bowls were mounted horizontally nested on an iron spindle. The whole spindle turned by means of a foot-operated treadle. The sound was produced by touching the rims of the bowls with moistened fingers. Rims were painted different colors according to the pitch of the note. A's were dark blue, B's purple, C's red, D's orange, E's yellow, F's green, G's blue, and accidentals white. 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. The armonica was the first musical instrument invented by an American (although Franklin invented the armonica well before the American Revolution and was thus still staunchly English at the time).
Some attempted improvements on the armonica included adding keyboards, placing pads between the bowls to reduce wobbling, and using violin bows. These variations never caught on because they did not sound as pleasant.
Another supposed improvement was to have the glasses rotate into a trough of water. However, William Zeitler put this idea to the test by rotating an armonica cup into a basin of water: the water has the same effect as putting water in a wine glass — it changes the pitch. With several dozen glasses, each a different diameter and thus rotating with a different depth, the result would be musical cacophony. It also made the glass much harder to make speak, and muffled the sound.
In 1975, an original armonica was acquired by the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota and put on display. It was purchased through a musical instrument dealer in France, from the descendants of Mme. Brillon de Jouy, a neighbor of Benjamin Franklin's from 1777 to 1785, when he lived in the Paris suburb of Passy. 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.
Dean Shostak, the resident armonica player of Colonial Williamsburg, demonstrates during his recitals that each of the glass bowls of an armonica vibrates at a single frequency, without producing overtones. This is what gives the glass harmonica its unique, ethereal sound. (On the other hand, see Rossig's article in JASA in which spectral analysis of armonica notes demonstrates the presence of overtones.)
Mozart, Beethoven, Donizetti, Richard Strauss, and Camille Saint-Saëns all composed works for the glass harmonica. European monarchs indulged in it, and even Marie Antoinette had taken lessons on it as a child from Marianne Davies. One of the best known pieces is the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from the ballet The Nutcracker; Tchaikovsky's first draft called for glass harmonica, but he changed it to the newly-invented celesta before the work's premiere performance in 1892.
The instrument's popularity did not last far beyond the 18th century. Some claim this was due to strange rumors that using the instrument caused both musicians and their listeners to go insane. (It is a matter of conjecture how pervasive that belief was; all the commonly cited examples of this rumor are German, if not confined to Vienna.)
One example of fear from playing the glass harmonica 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 (of pneumonia or an illness much like it. See her obituary, written by her manager Heinrich Bossler in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung May 10, 1809), 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 the increasingly large 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. Objects made of lead (such as fishing or tire weights) may be safely handled although one should avoid touching food after handling lead, and also avoid inhaling its dust. Meanwhile, 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 master glassblower and musician, Gerhard B. Finkenbeiner (1930–1999) in 1984. After thirty years of experimentation, Finkenbeiner's prototype consisted of clear glasses and glasses with gold bands. Those with gold bands indicate the equivalent of the black keys on the piano. Finkenbeiner Inc., of Waltham, Massachusetts, continues to produce these instruments commercially.
Bernard Baschet invented a variation of the glass harmonica in 1952, the crystal organ or Cristal baschet, which consists of 52 chromatically-tuned glass rods that are rubbed with wet fingers. The main difference to the glass harmonica is that the rods, set horizontally, are attached to a heavy metal block to which the vibration is passed through a metal stem. The crystal organ is a fully acoustic instrument, and amplification is obtained using fiberglass cones fixed on wood and by a tall cut out metal part in the shape of a flame. Metallic rods resembling cat whiskers are placed under the instrument to increase the sound power of high-pitched sounds to the right.
Notable armonica players
* Marianne Davies
* Benjamin Franklin
* Marianne Kirchgessner
* Franz Mesmer
* Thomas Bloch (France)
* Cecilia Gniewek Brauer (United States)
* Jean-Claude Chapuis (France)
* Lynn Drye (United States)
* Mayling Garcia (United States)
* Martin Hilmer (Germany)
* Dennis James (United States)
* Alasdair Malloy (England)
* Vera Meyer (United States)
* Alisa Nakashian-Holsberg (United States)
* Christa Schönfeldinger (Austria)
* Dean Shostak (United States)
* Carolinn Skyler (United States)
* William Zeitler (United States)
* The instrument has been used in several film soundtracks, including Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles and March of the Penguins (performed by Thomas Bloch who also played Ondes Martenot and cristal Baschet with Tom Waits, Marianne Faithfull, Radiohead, Vanessa Paradis, in "Amadeus" by Milos Forman - long version in 2001 -...).
* As part of his role as Franz Mesmer in the 1994 movie Mesmer, Alan Rickman played the glass harmonica in several scenes.
* On MTV's airing of the special "Korn Unplugged", the song "Falling Away From Me" was set to the tune of a Glass Harmonica.
* In his novel Mason & Dixon Thomas Pynchon fictionally describes Franklin's armonica: "If Chimes could whisper, if Melodies could pass away, and their souls wander the Earth… if Ghosts danced at Ghost Ridottoes, 'twould require such Musick, Sentiment ever held back, ever at the edge of breaking forth, in Fragments, as Glass breaks."
* In the manga and anime DNAngel, a living painting of a unicorn would constantly kidnap little girls to be playmates of the girl inside of the artwork. Whenever it arrived, the sound of a glass harmonica playing would be heard.
* In Bruce Sterling's short story "We See Things Differently" (published in Semiotext(e) SF, 1989, and collected in his own collection, Globalhead, as well as The Norton Book of Science Fiction), the near-future rock musician/insurrectionary Tom Boston plays it in concert: "...legend said that its players went mad, their nerves shredded by its clarity of sound. It was a legend Boston was careful to exploit. He played the machine sparingly, with the air of a magician, of a Solomon unbottling demons. I was glad of his spare use, for its sound was so beautiful that it stung the brain."--ClaudiusReich 04:08, 28 February 2007 (UTC)
* In his sci-fi novel Requiem for a Ruler of Worlds Brian Daley mentions in passing a paternity suit regarding a child prodigy on the "eerie Martian glass harmonica".