The Glass Armonica. Franklin always said that of all of his many inventions, this musical instrument, which could produce the pure dulcet tones of an angelic choir, was his very favorite. He got the idea while in London, as a representative of the Pennsylvania Legislature to Parliament in the late 1750s. He attended a concert at which music was played on a set of water-tuned wine glasses. He was captivated by the sound, but having an inventive turn of mind, he sought a more efficient and convenient method by which to produce it
Franklin introduced his invention in England in 1762, less than two years after George III had become king. Though he had originally dubbed it the "glassychord," he later changed the name of this instrument to the "glass armonica." In England it was also known as the "glass harp" or "musical glasses." Like Franklin himself, this instrument was very well received and it is estimated that more than four hundred musical works were composed for it. Over the course of the next seventy years at least five thousand instruments were constructed and played throughout Europe and America. Yet, by the death of George IV, it had almost completely disappeared from the musical scene.
At 36 Craven Street, his London residence for more than fifteen years, Franklin set to work on his musical invention. Instead of a set of wine glasses filled with different levels of water, Franklin’s glass armonica consisted of a series of lead crystal bowls in descending diameters nested within one another. This set of bowls was secured with cork to an iron spindle which could be turned by means of a foot pedal. The musician, with fingers moistened, could then play very complex chords with only a small range of movement. Franklin painted the inside of each bowl with a different color, this color-coding system easily allowing him to distinguish the note each bowl would play. The Franklin Institute has an entire page devoted to this amazing invention, with a number of illustrations of Franklin’s own glass armonica.
Marianne Davies, a young musician whose musical family was befriended by Franklin, played his glass armonica at its 1762 debut concert in the Great Room of Spring Gardens, London. It was a great triumph and she gave many more concerts in England over the course of the next two years. Franklin had a glass armonica made for Marianne and she and her family began an extended tour of Europe. Miss Davies gave lessons in playing the instrument to the young Marie Antoinette, the future Queen of France. Mozart and Beethoven both learned of the instrument, probably through her concerts, and composed music for it. Franz Mesmer also became enamored of the instrument. He acquired one of his own, and became an accomplished player. He often used glass armonica music as part of his treatments.
By the Regency, the glass armonica was beginning to fall out of favor. It was an instrument meant for an intimate chamber concert or musicale in a grand house or small hall. It tones were soft and ethereal, they did not project well in a large public concert hall or theatre. As with the harpsichord, it was over-powered by the pianoforte and other instruments which could project their sound into the larger concert halls that were growing in favor by the early years of the nineteenth century.
Perhaps because it was invented by Benjamin Franklin, who was strongly associated with electricity, the glass armonica also suffered from the perception that its angelic music could have a deleterious effect on the nervous system of some people. Though in some circles it was believed this heavenly music could cure any number of ills, there were others who believed that prolonged exposure to glass armonica music could exacerbate nervous disorders. Some even believed that the pure sweet tones could bring on melancholia, even madness in extreme cases. Because the bowls of the armonica were made of lead crystal to achieve the clearest tones, the belief grew that those who played it could be poisoned by the lead in the glass. Though this is, of course, completely impossible, there was no way to prove or disprove this theory with the scientific methods known in the early years of the nineteenth century.
Thus, though the glass armonica was very seldom used for public concerts, there were still many of these unique instruments extant during the decade of the Regency, most in private hands. They were expensive and fragile and most would have been found in the music rooms of the wealthy or those who highly valued its special sound. I have yet to read a Regency novel in which the author includes a glass armonica, but they did exist and it would not be historically inaccurate to include one in a novel set during that time.
Glass armonicas made a comeback during the last decades of the twentieth century, due to the dedication of men like Gerhard Finkenbeiner and William Zeitler. Please visit William Zeitler’s Video page to view several glass armonica videos. There are now a number of recordings of glass harmonica music available. To find them, just check your favorite music sources.
For further glass armonica reading and listing:
PBS: Benjamin Franklin’s Glass Armonica
PBS: Ask the Scientists – Gerhard Finkenbeiner
William Zeitler’s Glass Armonica History
ThinkQuest: Glass Armonica History and Experiment
Wall Street Journal: Founding Father of The Glass Armonica
Massachusetts Music: Benjamin Franklin as Musician
History of the Armonica: Ben Franklin and Glass Armonica
The Science Corner: Glass Armonica
Elijah Wald: History of the Glass Harmonica
Glass Music & the Glass Armonica
Yatri’s Glass Armonica
The Glass Armonica: Samples by Alisa Nakashian-Holsberg
The Glass Harp