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The Glass Harmonica

Glasses filled with varying amounts of water so as to alter the pitch of the sounds obtained by striking them with sticks were already used in early times by the Persians, the Chinese (shui chan), the Japanese and the Arabs (the tusut was mentioned in 1406), but the technique took a decisive turn in 1743 when an Irishman, Richard Puckeridge, had the bright idea of standing the glasses on a table and rubbing the rims with wet fingers. Benjamin Franklin first saw that instrument, which was also played by the composer Gluck, at a concert given by the English virtuoso Delaval. It was called the angelic organ, then musical glasses or seraphim. Franklin, fascinated by the "soft and pure sound of the musical glasses", modified them so as to increase their possibilities. In a letter to the Turin scientist Giovanni Battista Beccaria in 1762, he explained how he had improved them. He called the new instrument the Armonica because of its harmonious sounds. He had glasses of different diameters blown, each corresponding to a note, instead of filling glasses with water. When the bowls are chromatically fitted into one another, but not in contact, with a horizontal rod going through their centreds, the rotation of which is controlled by a pedal, complex chords can be played and the possibilities of virtuoso performance are increased.

A number of instruments derived from the glass harmonica have been built since that time: the melodion, the eumelia, the clavicylindre, the transpornierharmonica, the sticcardo pastorale, the spirafina, the Instrument de Parnasse, the glasharfe, the piano harmonica of Tobias Schmidt, who also built the first guillotine, the uranion, the hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica and others.The glass harmonica was very popular from the start. Some four hundred works were composed for it, some unfortunately now lost, and probably about four thousand instruments were built over the course of some seventy years.

The instrument, adored or hated, roused passionate responses. Paganini declared it to have "such a celestial voice", Thomas Jefferson claimed it was "the greatest gift offered to the musical world of this century", Goethe, Mozart, Jean-Paul, Hasse and Théophile Gautier all praised it. A dictionary of instruments mentions that the sounds "are of nearly celestial softness but (…) can cause spasms". In a Traité des effets de la musique sur le corps humain (Treatise on the Effects of Music on the Human Body) by J.M. Roger in 1803 it is said that "its melancholy timbre plunges us into dejection … to a point that the strongest man could not hear it for an hour without fainting".

It is true that some performers on the instrument ended their lives in mental hospitals, among them one of the best, Marianne Davies. In his Anleitung zum Selbstunterricht auf der Harmonika (Method of Self-Instruction for the Harmonica), published in 1788, Johann Christian Müller answered objections: "It is true that the Armonica has strange effects on people (…). If you are irritated or disturbed by bad news, by friends or even by disappointment from a lady, abstain from playing, it would only increase your disturbance". The Armonica was accused of causing evils such as nervous problems, domestic squabbles, premature deliveries, fatal disorders, and animal convulsions. The instrument was even banned from one German town by the police for ruining the health of people and disturbing public order (a child died during a concert). Franz Anton Mesmer, a Vienna doctor known for his experiments (mesmerism) and for using hypnosis to treat his patients, would use the glass harmonica in his treatment. He was forced to leave Vienna after a blind pianist, Marie Paradies, recovered her sight but to the detriment of her mental health. Rumours of this kind contributed to the death of the Armonica, which in 1829 had been considered "the fashionable accessory of parlours and drawing-rooms".

Although Karl Leopold Röllig in the late eighteenth century, had tried to add a keyboard to the glass harmonica in order to avoid the possible danger caused by rubbing the fingers against the glasses, few later composers were interested in the instrument. The increasing intensity of the sound of orchestras deterred musicians from using a fragile instrument with such a delicate sound. Yet, there were two outstanding exceptions. In 1835 Donizetti used it in his opera Lucia di Lammermoor in the mad scene, in which the glass harmonica was soon replaced by two flutes (the part recorded here is the original version, crossed out on the manuscript) and Richard Strauss wrote for it in the last act of his opera Die Frau ohne Schatten, first staged in Vienna in 1919. Thanks to a German performer, Bruno Hoffmann, who did not play a glass harmonica but a glasharfe (glasses standing on a table), and thanks also to a German-born master glass-blower, Gerhard Finkenbeiner, who had settled near Boston in the United States, a new generation of performers, of composers and of instrument makers has rediscovered the glass harmonica since 1982.

To build a glass harmonica, Finkenbeiner (1930 – 1999) and Tim Nickerson, his assistant, used quartz, the purest glass, in the shape of a long cylinder, heated to 3100°F and blown, then cut into spheres and then half-spheres, so as to produce two bowls. The process is completed for tuning by dipping the bowls in hydrofluoric acid to adjust their thickness. In the eighteenth century, 40% lead glass was used. The bowls were ground and tuned with an emery grind-wheel. As the depth of a bowl decreases, the pitch becomes higher. Sometimes, the seven colours of the rainbow were used to symbolize the seven diatonic degrees, with black figuring for the inflected notes. Finkenbeiner and his associate use transparent glass, with gold for the rims of the bowls corresponding to the black keys of a keyboard, as Röllig did in the eighteenth century.

Glass harmonicas belong to the family of autophone rubbed instruments. The glasses start vibrating according to a relaxation principle: when a finger rubs a bowl, it alternately catches and releases. This creates a series of impulses which set the bowl into vibration. The phenomenom is complex, so the master glass-blower needs the greatest skill to give the instrument its own character. A number of parameters can play a part, modifying the tone, the mode and the harmonic composition of the bowls. Thus, two bowls giving the same note will have different timbres according to the materials used, their shape, their thickness, their dimensions, and any hidden defects.

It is said that sounds and noises are closely related to each period of time. It would be interesting to know what brought about the revival of the glass harmonica at the end of the twentieth century and the passion it has aroused, simply the result, perhaps,of new demands from musicologists and performers seeking authenticity. All in all, though, we may echo the words of Lucia di Lammermoor, Un’ armonia celeste, di’, non ascolti? (Say, can you not hear a celestial harmony ?).

The history of the armonica, to use Franklin’s name for the instrument, is closely linked with the interlocking lives of various composers. Johann Abraham Peter Schulz (1747 - 1800), a friend of Reichardt, dedicated himself mainly to vocal composition. He is regarded as the inventor of the Danish lied and his Largo, written in Berlin in 1799, was one of his few instrumental works.

Johann Julius Sontag von Holt Sombach, who was born in 1962, is quite another matter, as he composes exclusively in a deliberately classical but personal style. The Adagio for armonica and string quartet, taken from his Fantaisie Concertante, as well as the Fantaisie, Allemande and 2ème Menuet, taken from the 1ère Suite, were all composed after he met Thomas Bloch, in 1996.

Like Mozart, Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752 - 1814) made several concert tours as a child, performing on the violin and keyboard, and was later a friend of Schulz, of the writer Jean-Paul (1763 - 1825) and of Goethe (1749 - 1832). Like them, he dedicated several pages to the armonica. He was drawn towards both the classical and the romantic, and the central movement of his Rondeau at times foreshadows Schumann. The use of the cello as a solo instrument seems due to the fact that Reichardt was, between 1775 and 1794, Kapellmeister at the court of the cello-playing King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II.

Like his friend Reichardt, Johann Gottlieb Naumann (1741 - 1801) received commissions from Friedrich Wilhelm II and composed a number of works for the armonica, among others two sets of 6 sonates qui peuvent aussi servir pour le Pianoforte (6 sonatas which can also be used for the Pianoforte) in 1786 and 1792. He was a pupil of Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) who himself composed a cantata on a text by Pietro Metastasio (1698 - 1782), l’Armonica (for high voice, armonica and orchestra) and of Padre Martini (1706 - 1784) who also taught Mozart as a child, in Bologna. He was appointed chamber composer in Dresden in 1765 and Kapellmeister in 1776. Like Schulz, he was admired in Denmark, but spent a number of years in Sweden, after an earlier period in Italy.

In 1789 Naumann conducted a performance of one of his Masses at the Dresden Court Chapel during a visit by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791), who thought the work very poor stuff. Mozart’s own interest in the armonica had been roused in 1773, when he heard the virtuoso Marianne Davies (1743 or 44 – c1818), sister of the singer Cecilia Davies, for both of whom Hasse had written his cantata l’Armonica. In the same year he met Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 - 1814), the famous doctor and hypnotist, who would play the armonica to help his patients relax. His father Leopold Mozart remarks, in a letter home from Vienna to his wife in Salzburg, that  Wolfgang has also played the instrument, adding that he too would like to have one. It was only in May 1791 that Mozart wrote a sketch and two complete works for one of his acquaintances, the blind performer Marianne Kirchgessner (1770 - 1808). The first public performance of this, his last chamber music work, the Adagio und Rondo K. 617, took place on 19th August, Mozart himself playing the viola part.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) composed only one short work for the armonica, in 1815, when his health was beginning to decline. It was the third of four pieces, a Soldiers’ Chorus, a Romance for voice and harp, Melodram for armonica and voice, and the orchestral Trauermarsch, an arrangement of a piano sonata movement, written as incidental music for Friedrich Dunker’s drama Leonore Prohaska. For some time there was a false rumour that the armonica had accelerated the physical decline of Beethoven, as large quantities of lead were found in his remains.

Karl Leopold Röllig (1754 (?) - 1804), another friend of Naumann, did suffer from the lead contained in the crystal glasses of the armonica to which he dedicated most of his life, both as a composer and as an interpreter, as well as to other instruments he invented. He writes : ´ How could I imagine that the object of my happiness would prove my misfortune ª. In 1784, five years before writing the Kleine Tonstücke (1789), he invented an armonica with keyboard to avoid direct contact with the glass.

David August von Apell (1754 - 1832) was first employed at the Treasury of his home town. Subsequently as a composer and conductor, he certainly met Naumann and Mozart, and was appointed an honorary member of the Bologna Accademia Filarmonica and of the Stockholm Royal Academy of Music. As Hasse had done with his cantata l’Armonica, von Apell collaborated with Metastasio the year before he composed his cantata dedicated to the Bavarian Elector Maximilian, Il trionfo della Musica (1787).

Gaetano Donizetti (1797 - 1848) also lived in Bologna as a student. He composed over seventy operas. Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) is the best known and in this work, the Mad scene remains the most popular. Two flutes are normally used to play the armonica part, as the instrument had disappeared from use by the time the work was composed. One can imagine the composer’s reason for choosing an instrument which had supposedly affected the mental health of several interpreters. The sound of the armonica enhances Lucia's hallucinations when, now in madness, after the deception of her forced marriage and murder of her husband, she imagines her marriage to her beloved Edgardo, her brother Enrico’s enemy.

Thomas Bloch (born in 1962) has composed a work requiring rare vocal gifts, a voice close to those of the castrati but which can also cover a baritone register. Sancta Maria (1998) revives the structure of recitative and aria, used in baroque operas. The work is dedicated to the master-glassblower responsible for the revival of the armonica in the twentieth century, Gerhard Finkenbeiner (1930 - 1999), who was lost with his plane, his body never recovered. It is also dedicated to Fabrice di Falco (born in 1974), the male soprano with whom Thomas Bloch often plays in duets. Multitrack technique allowed the successive recording of the four vocal parts. This final work aims at providing a bridge between the early days of the armonica and its revival. It is intended as an incentive to composers of today to follow the example of their predecessors.

Thomas Bloch

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