Saturday, July 12, 2008

An Instument of Melancholy

Touted by its inventor as "the voice of Angels," and blamed for madness, melancholy, illness and even death, the glass armonica is indeed a storied instrument, endowed with a mythology that might've contributed to its near-extinction. It was invented by none other than Benjamin Franklin and was the first musical instrument known to be invented by a colonial (read: White) American.

The glass armonica, commonly know as the glass harmonica, or, more esoterically, as the crystallophone is composed of a graduation of nesting glass bowls, each tuned to a note on the Western scale. These are skewered upon a spindle and are rotated by a treadle mechanism. The whole device resembles a cross between an antique sewing machine and a spit. Over one hundred composers have composed for this instrument, and yet it endured a period of virtual extinction for more than one hundred and ten years.

Its sound is indeed bewitching, gorgeous, eerie, and altogether disconcerting. According to Dr. Nicky Gibbon of Sheffield Hallam University, this is because its timbre predominately resonates in the range of 1,000 to 4,000 hertz, a range that our spatial hearing does not cover. Thus we cannot place where the sound is coming from.

Here is a video clip of Thomas Bloch, one of the few contemporary virtuosos, playing a solo piece.

The glass armonica was, in its heyday, believed to have astonishing powers. Franz Mesmer, the charismatic faith healer and proponent of "animal magnetism," played the armonica very well and it was a crucial part of his "mesmerizing" process. What follows is an account of a gout healing:

After several turns around the room, Mr. Mesmer unbuttoned the patient's shirt and, moving back somewhat, placed his finger against the part affected. My friend felt a tickling pain. Mr. Mesmer then moved his finger perpendicularly across his abdomen and chest, and the pain followed the finger exactly. He then asked the patient to extend his index finger and pointed his own finger toward it at a distance of three or four steps, whereupon my friend felt an electric tingling at the tip of his finger, which penetrated the whole finger toward the palm. Mr. Mesmer then seated him near the armonica; he had hardly begun to play when my friend was affected emotionally, trembled, lost his breath, changed color, and felt pulled toward the floor. In this state of anxiety, Mr. Mesmer placed him on a couch so that he was in less danger of falling, and he brought in a maid who he said was antimagnetic. When her hand approached my friend's chest, everything stopped with lightning speed, and my colleague touched and examined his stomach with astonishment…. The sharp pain had suddenly ceased. Mr. Mesmer told us that a dog or a cat would have stopped the pain as well as the maid did.

However, the perceived power of the instrument terrified many. It was believed to cause mental breakdowns in players. One contemporary theory is that the lead in the glass caused lead-poisoning. Yet this theory holds no water, for people at the time ingested much larger quantities of lead in snake-oil remedies and the like. The antique theories of why players went mad were related more to the actual sound of the instrument. I found no better quote to demonstrate this than the following quote, which was found on Wikipedia.

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."

Though these fantastical beliefs may have helped lead to the decline of the instrument, it is more likely that the main factor in its century-long period of dormancy is its quietness. Musical fashion gradually moved from small chamber ensembles to great concert halls with fully symphonies. The armonica was simply too quiet to keep up.

Bruno Hoffman helped to bring the instrument back to public attention with his sensational performances on glass harp, which is actually an assemblage of wine glasses, tuned with varying quantities of water. The glass harp is what initially inspired Benjamin Franklins more elegant, cohesive sister instrument. Hoffman played pieces originally intended for the glass armonica, thus drawing attention to the arcane instrument.

In the late 20th century, musician and master glass-blower Gerhard B. Finkbeiner began to labor over the problem of how to manufacture a modern version of the glass harmonica. His current version, available here, has cups made of quartz glass, and gold bands mark the "black keys." The silica cups are supposed to allow the purest sound possible and eliminate any excuse for lead-related superstition. They start at $7,180, which all but ensures the continued rarity of the instrument.

Now there has arisen the strange phenomenon of the glass armonicist performing in colonial garb, an obvious, but perhaps poorly judged reference to Benjamin Franklin, while amusing, these costumes help to condemn the glass armonica to reliquary, when it is really an instrument so haunting, and so much easier to play than its sister the glass harp, that it deserves a full-fledged revival, especially in this day and age of amplification. Even the glass harp, maybe because of its cobbled-together appearance, is seen as something of a parlor trick rather than as a real instrument.

Here you may see William Zeitler, looking like he stepped out of the Boston Tea Party, playing Tchaikovsky's timeless "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." The composer wrote the main melodic line for the glass armonica, and so you shall hear it played as it was orginally intended.

The glass armonica is surely one of the most intensely beautiful and ghostly instruments known to man. Personally, I pray for a full-scale revival and for an economical version to hit the market.


Anonymous said...


Casey said...

Never...have I heard of such an instrument.

Beautiful sounds and a trip seeing someone masterfully play it.

It looks very brittle, however, so perhaps the impractical means of traveling with one...transportation as it was back then...lent itself to its own 'temporary' demise.
Good stuff!

ib said...

Beautiful, Nancy.

You don't know how much of a pleasure it was listening to this tonight.

I was kind of needing to hear something as ethereally touching right now, and the video and background to the instrument is like the icing on the cake.

I've taken the liberty of adding your site to my sidecar links. I realise your site is super new but, please, I hope there's much more like this to come.


Matt said...

I agree with the other comments, in that you have written something wonderful here.
I read plenty of junk on the inter-webs, the operative word being 'junk', so it is an uplifting feeling to read something so informative and... interesting.
I'd never heard of the instrument before, but now, having been educated and enraptured, I share your hope for a revival: I think The Flaming Lips should be givin one!

Genial23 said...

My compliments on a very well-written and informative post. Your readers may also be interested to know that the glass harmonica has been used on a few (relatively) recent pop albums, notably Robyn Hitchcock's 1986 album "Element of Light" (a great album, but unfortunately out of print).