armonica harmonica

December 4, 2011

my friend ashley is performing at mills college this week on the glass armonica! im so excited to get to see this elusive instrument played in person and thought i’d do a little research about it first. little did i know that the story behind it is just as eerie as the sound itself…

the glass armonica (or harmonica) was invented by benjamin franklin in 1762 after he saw a performance using wine glasses to produce various tones. he arranged leaden glass bowls of different sizes on a rod, which rotated in a trough of water while the player touched the glass with his or her fingers. it creates this sound, which gained much acclaim from his contemporaries. mozart and beethoven composed music for it; marie antoinette played it; and franz anton mesmer (of “mesmerizing” fame) used it to hypnotize and treat patients.

benjamin franklin playing his “favorite invention” & the acoustics of the armonica bowls

but curious things began happening to the players- stories of madness and nervous conditions haunt the history of the glass armonica. one of the most renowned players, marianne davies, ended her life in a mental institution after an extensive career. in a town in germany, the armonica was banned because a child died during a performance. people were scared to play at midnight, for fear of raising the dead. historians propose that it was lead poisoning from the glass or the odd vibrations from the instrument that drove the players insane….but maybe it was more than that!

e.g. robertson, a magician, physicist, and balloonist, accompanied his phantasmagoria performances in the late 1700s with armonica music, adding another element of spookiness to the popular theatrical shows. the predecessor to slide and film projectors, the phantasmagoria projected floating images of demons and ghosts onto walls and clouds of smoke, mystifying audiences to the sound of the armonica.

cecilia brauer playing the glass harmonica at the metropolitan opera house in new york

the popularity of the instrument died down by the 1830s and didn’t return until the 1960s, when german musician, bruno hoffmann, revived interest in the glass harp and armonica. in the 1980s, a german glassblower, gerhard finkenbeiner, began built the instrument using leftover scraps from a glass tube he had created for IBM. for almost 20 years he and his workshop in massachusetts built armonicas for clients, musicians, and new age believers who thought the vibrations of the glass had healing powers.

but what was REALLY mysterious, was finkenbeiner’s DISAPPEARANCE in 1999. he left the workshop and said he would be right back, according to his staff, and never returned. he was last seen leaving in his small airplane, completely out of character for a guy who planned every trip and flight meticulously, and neither he nor the plane were ever seen again.

SPOOKY! so many interesting stories behind this instrument, i can’t wait to hear the mesmerizing tunes of the armonica myself! join us on tuesday, dec. 6th at the mills college chapel to experience the magic. go ashley!

images and info via glassharmonica.com, elijah wald, ny times & more.

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