Glass Harmonica

Music Played in the Pure Tones of the Glass Armonica

Anyone who has ever heard the pure tones of musical glasses, played by rubbing a wetted finger on the rims of glasses tuned by containing measured amounts of water, will never forget the piercing sweetness of the music. When a wet finger, dusted with chalk, is rubbed on the edge of a glass, it alternately slips and catches. This creates a series of impulse waves that cause the bowl to vibrate, producing the sustained musical tones. The earliest reference to music performed with sets of tuned water glasses in Europe dates from 1492. By the 17th century, the ethereal tones of musical glasses were the height of fashion in upper class society. In 1743, the Irishman Richard Pockridge constructed and performed on an 'Angelic Organ' (a set of tuned wine glasses) with a repertoire that included Handel's Water Music. In 1746, the composer Gluck delighted European audiences with his 'Verrillon', also a set of tuned wine glasses("verres" is the French word for 'glass').

In 1761, Benjamin Franklin was staying in London while he lobbied Parliament on behalf of the Pennsylvania colonial legislature. Franklin playing his glass armonica He was already famous in the scientific community for his experiments with electricity. After he attended a musical glasses concert, Franklin turned his fertile mind to the problem of "disposing the glasses in a more convenient form, brought together in a narrower compass, so as to admit of a greater number of tunes and all within reach of hand to a person sitting before the instrument." Working with London glassblower Charles James, Franklin eliminated the need for water tuning each glass by creating glass bowls the correct diameter and thickness to give the desired pitches. Franklin devised an elegant design that made the set of glasses more compact by nesting the bowls inside each other in order of their descending sizes. Mounted on a spindle, which was turned by a foot treadle, so that the glasses were partially submerged in a water bath, the wetted glass bowls turned under the player's fingers rather than the player wetting his finger and rubbing the edge of individual glasses. Franklin called his instrument the Glass Armonica, after the Italian for 'harmony'.

When Franklin went to France during the American Revolutionary War to lobby the Court of Versailles to enter the war on the side of the colonies, his armonica went along. It quickly became very popular. Paganini called its music "a celestial voice." Thomas Jefferson thought it was "the greatest gift offered to the musical world of this century." The instrument was soon being manufactured and sold throughout Europe with around 4,000 of the instruments purchased. The Glass Armonica became very popular in England, as the English follow all French fashions. Mozart, Beethoven, Donizetti, Galuppi, Hasse, Haydn, Jommelli, Martini, Naumann, Reichardt, Richard Strauss, and Rollig all composed works for the Glass Armonica. Karl Leopold Rollig (1735-1804) devised a keyboard version of the instrument in Hamburg in 1787.

Rumors of a strange illness attributed to the instrument, probably lead poisoning from paint applied to the bowl edges and the 40% lead content of the glass bowls themselves, and the move away from chamber music toward larger orchestras performing in larger halls all contributed to the demise of the armonica as the nineteenth century moved into Victorian times. A Glass Armonica is now a rare instrument like the harpsichord and lute. The instrument had a cameo in the movie " Mansfield Park."




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