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The glass harmonica, also known as the glass armonica, bowl organ, hydrocrystalophone, or simply the armonica (derived from αρμονία ("harmonia"), the Greek 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. 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 Pockrich is typically credited as the first to play an instrument composed of glass vessels by rubbing his fingers around the rims. Beginning in the 1740s, he performed in London on a set of upright goblets filled with varying amounts of water. His career was cut short by a fire in his room, which killed him and destroyed his apparatus. A friend of Benjamin Franklin and a fellow of the Royal Society, Edward Delaval, extended the experiments of Pockrich, contriving a set of glasses better tuned and easier to play. During the same decade, Christoph Willibald Gluck also attracted attention playing a similar instrument in England.
The word "glass harmonica" (also glassharmonica, glass armonica, harmonica de verre or armonica de verre in French, Glasharmonika in German) 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 instrument consisting of a set of wine glasses (usually tuned with water) is generally known in English as "musical glasses" or "glass harp."
The word hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica is also recorded, composed of Greek roots to mean something like "harmonica to produce music for the soul by fingers dipped in water," (hydro- for "water," daktul (daktyl) for "finger," psych- for "soul") The Oxford Companion to Music mentions that this word is "the longest section of the Greek language ever attached to any musical instrument, for a reader of The Times wrote to that paper in 1932 to say that in his youth he heard a performance of the instrument where it was called a hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica." The Museum of Music in Paris displays a hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica.
Benjamin Franklin invented a radically new arrangement of the glasses in 1761 after seeing water-filled wine glasses played by Edmund Delaval at Cambridge in England in May of 1761. Franklin, who called his invention the "armonica" after the Greek 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 treadle-operated version, 37 bowls were mounted horizontally on an iron spindle. The whole spindle turned by means of a foot pedal. The sound was produced by touching the rims of the bowls with water 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 under some acidic water conditions helped produce a clear tone.
Some attempted improvements on the armonica included adding keyboards, placing pads between the bowls to reduce vibration, and using violin bows. These variations never caught on because they did not sound as pleasant.
Another supposed improvement claimed in ill-informed post-period observations of non-playing instruments 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 it much harder to make the glass speak, and muffled the sound.
In 1975, an original armonica was acquired by the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota and put on display, albeit without its original glass bowls (they were destroyed during shipment). 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.
An original Franklin armonica is in the archives at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, having been donated in 1956 by Franklin's descendants after "the children took great delight in breaking the bowls with spoons" during family gatherings. It is only placed on display for special occasions, such as Franklin's birthday. The Franklin Institute is also the home of the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Frideric Handel, Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and more than 100 other composers composed works for the glass harmonica; some pieces survived in the repertoire in transcriptions for more conventional instruments. Since it was rediscovered during the 1980s composers have written again for it (solo, chamber music, opera, electronic music, popular music) including Jan Erik Mikalsen, Regis Campo, Etienne Rolin, Philippe Sarde, Damon Albarn, Tom Waits, Michel Redolfi, Cyril Morin, Stefano Giannotti, Thomas Bloch, and Guillaume Connesson.
George Benjamin's renowned new opera "Written on Skin" premiered at the 2012 Aix-en-Provence Festival includes a prominent part for Armonica which was performed by Alasdair Malloy, later by Philipp Alexander Marguerre (Amsterdam, London, Vienna, Munich, Bonn, Paris, Detmold and Lissabon) and by Dennis James for the U.S. premiere at the 2013 Tanglewood Festival.
A song played almost entirely on a glass harmonica.
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European monarchs indulged in it, and even Marie Antoinette took lessons as a child from Marianne Davies. Camille Saint-Saëns used this percussive instrument in his The Carnival of the Animals (in movements 7 and 14).
Gaetano Donizetti originally included it in Lucia di Lammermoor as a haunting accompaniment to the heroine's mad scenes, though before the premiere he rewrote the part for flute. Some older references say that Tchaikovsky's first draft of the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from the ballet The Nutcracker called for glass harmonica, and that he changed it to celesta before the premiere. However, this story is inaccurate, as Tchaikovsky was always going to use the celesta.
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 mad. 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.
The harmonica 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 kind of 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.
Marianne Davies, who played flute and harpsichord — and a young woman said to be related to Franklin — became proficient enough at playing the armonica to offer public performances. After touring for many years in duo performances with her celebrated vocalist sister was also said to have been afflicted with a melancholia attributed to the plaintive tones of the instrument.
Marianne Kirchgessner was an armonica player; she died at the age of 39 of pneumonia or an illness much like it. However, others, including Franklin, lived long lives. By 1820 the glass armonica had disappeared from frequent 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.
For a time the armonica achieved a genuine vogue. Like most vogues, that for the armonica eventually passed. The sound-producing mechanism did not generate sufficient power to fill the large halls that became home to modern stringed instruments, brass, woodwinds, and percussion. That it was glass, and subject to easy breakage, did not help either.
A modern version of the "purported dangers" claims that players suffered lead poisoning because armonicas were made of lead glass. However, there is no known scientific basis for the theory that merely touching lead glass can cause lead poisoning. Furthermore, historical replicas by Eisch use so-called 'White Crystal' replacing the lead with a higher potash content, many modern devices, such as those made by Finkenbeiner, are made from pure silica glass. 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, and lead or lead oxide was used as a food preservative and in cookware and eating utensils. Trace amounts of lead that armonica players in Franklin's day received from their instruments would likely have been dwarfed by lead from other sources, such as the lead-content paint used to mark visual identification of the bowls to the players.
The somewhat disorienting quality of the ethereal sound is due in part to the way that humans perceive and locate ranges of sounds. Above 4,000 Hertz we primarily use the volume of the sound to differentiate between each ear (left and right) and thus triangulate, or locate, the source. Below 1,000 Hertz we use the 'phase differences' of sound waves arriving at our ears to identify left and right for location. The predominant timbre of the armonica is in the range of 1,000–4,000 hertz, which coincides with the sound range where the brain is 'not quite sure' and thus we have difficulty locating it in space (where it comes from), and referencing the source of the sound (the materials and techniques used to produce it).
Benjamin Franklin himself described the armonica's tones as "incomparably sweet". The full quotation, written in a letter to Giambattista Beccaria, an Italian priest and electrician, is "The advantages of this instrument are that its tones are incomparably sweet beyond those of any other; that they may be swelled and softened at pleasure by stronger or weaker pressures of the finger, and continued to any length; and that the instrument, once well tuned, never again wants tuning."
Music for glass harmonica was all-but-unknown from 1820 until the 1930s (although Gaetano Donizetti intended for the aria “Il dolce suono” from his 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor to be accompanied by a glass armonica, and Richard Strauss specified use of the instrument in his 1919 opera Die Frau ohne Schatten), when German virtuoso Bruno Hoffmann began revitalizing interest in his individual goblet instrument version that he named the glass harp for his stunning performances. Playing his "glass harp" (with Eisch manufactured custom designed glasses mounted in a case designed with underlying resonance chamber) he transcribed or rearranged much of the literature written for the mechanized instrument, and commissioned contemporary composers to write new pieces for his goblet version.
Franklin's glass armonica was reworked yet again 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, later equipped with gold bands mimicking 18th-century designs. Those with gold bands indicate the equivalent of the black keys on the piano, simplifying the multi-hued painted bowl rims with white accidentals as designed by Franklin. Finkenbeiner Inc., of Waltham, Massachusetts, continues to produce versions of these instruments commercially.
French instrument makers and artists Bernard and François Baschet invented a modern variation of the Chladni Euphone in 1952, the crystal organ or Cristal di Baschet, which consists of up to 52 chromatically-tuned resonating metal rods that are set into motion by attached glass rods that are rubbed with wet fingers. The Cristal Di Baschet differs mainly from the other glass instruments in that the identical length and thickness glass rods are set horizontally, and attach to the tuned metal stems that have added metal blocks for increasing resonance. The result is a fully acoustic instrument, and impressive amplification obtained using fiberglass or metal cones fixed on wood and by a tall cut out multi-resonant metal part in the shape of a flame. some thin added metallic wires resembling cat whiskers are placed under the instrument supposedly to increase the sound power of high-pitched frequencies..
Dennis James recorded an album of all glass music, Cristal: Glass Music Through the Ages co-produced by Linda Ronstadt and Grammy Award-winning producer John Boylan. James plays the glass armonica, the Cristal di Baschet and the Seraphim on the CD in original historical compositions and new arrangements for glass by Mozart, Scarlatti, Schnaubelt, and Fauré and collaborates on the recording with the Emerson String Quartet, operatic soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, and Ronstadt. James played glass instruments on Marco Beltrami's film scores for The Minus Man (1999) and The Faculty (1998). "I first became aware of glass instruments at about the age of 6 while visiting the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. I can still recall being mesmerized by the appearance of the original Benjamin Franklin armonica then on display in its own showcase in the entry rotunda of the city's famed science museum.".
Another instrument that is also played with wet fingers is the hydraulophone. The hydraulophone sounds similar to a glass armonica but has a darker, heavier sound, that extends down into the subsonic range. The technique for playing hydraulophone is similar to that used for playing armonica.
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