HistoryBuff.com November 2008 Newsletter
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Benjamin Franklin and the Armonica
By Guest Author and Subscriber Cecilia Brauer

In 1990, late in my life, a new career opened up for me when I discovered the Armonica, the musical glass instrument invented by Benjamin Franklinin in 1761 when he was in London as the Colonial Agent.

My first career has been as a concert pianist and teacher. I studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and for the past 36 years I have been an associate member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra where I play the celeste and, when on tour, the piano.

My first awareness of the Armonica was in January of 1990 when I performed in concert with a small chamber group from the MET Orchestra. We performed the Mozart Quintet, K 617, written for flute, oboe, viola, cello and either the piano or the Armonica. At the time, none of us knew of the existence of the Armonica so I played it on the celeste. Six months later, when I was in the Boston area, I saw a program called "Our Town" which had a segment about the Armonica which had a "rebirth" through the efforts of a master glass blower, the late Gerhard Finkenbeiner of Waltham, Massachusetts. I immediately contacted him and decided to purchase one for two specific reasons, first that it was invented by such a great Founding Father and second, because it was originally written into the "mad scene" of the opera, Lucia di Lammermoor by the composer, Donizetti In 1992, history was made at The Metropolitan Opera when I introduced it into Lucia and have been doing so ever since.

Upon receiving the Armonica, I had to do a lot of research into its history and, as a professional musician, I was amazed to discover how involved in music Franklin was. He had a fairly extensive knowledge of the history, theory and harmony of music. He studied it as a science and practised it as an art. He had a music room in his home in Philadelphia which housed several instruments which included a welsh harp. a viola di gamba, a fortepiano, a harpsichord and a set of bells to tune the harpsichord. He was able to play some of these instruments, how well we do not know, it did not matter as it gave him pleasure. Franklin especially loved to sing. He said that "singing was a melodious way of speaking". He wrote lyrics to several tunes that were popular at that time.

Franklin spent over 25 years in Europe, first as the Colonial agent in London and then as Ambassador to France. While there, he attended many concerts in both countries. He was not a particular lover of very serious classical music but he knew that it was the political and social thing to do. He preferred the folk songs and ballads of the people. He especially was partial to Scottish songs as he felt that their beauty lay in their simplicity.

When Franklin was sent to England in 1757, he attended a concert in Cambridge given on the wine glasses by Edmund Delavel. He thought that it was the sweetest sound that he had ever heard but he wanted to hear more harmonies with his melody. He drew up very detailed plans for the Armonica and went to the glass blower, Charles James in London and had him make one consisting of 37 bowls from G to G. The bowls were to be of graduated sizes with holes in the center. Corks, also with holes, were inserted into the center of the bowls and then they were put onto a horizontal rod and operated by a foot treadle and a fly wheel. Franklin had a very unique way of "coloring" the bowls. He took the seven white keys and painted them the colors of the rainbow; A-light blue, B-Indigo C-purple, D-red, E-orange, F-yellow, G-green. The five black keys became white. He named it the Armonica in honor of the word for harmony taken from the musical Italian language. If you would like to "play" the Armonica , go to http://squeezyboy.blogs.com/squeezytunes/2006/06/play_a_glass_ar.html and you will be playing on an Armonica.

Franklin often played duets with his daughter, Sally; She on the the harpsichord or piano and he on the Armonica. Of all his inventions, the Armonica was his favorite. It gave him his greatest personal joy.

The Armonica became an instant success in America and there is proof of lessons being given on it in Baltimore, Maryland. George Washington attended a concert in Williamsburg, Virginia, on May 2nd, 1765 and lists in his Cash Accounts that he spent three shillings and nine pence for the performance. However, the Armonica's greatest popularity was in Europe, Thousands were sold as music was at its height at the time with such composers as Bach , Handel, Haydn, and later Mozart and Beethoven. There were two famous virtuosos on the Armonica. The first was Marianne Davis and it is said that Franklin gave her her first instrument. She gave concerts all over Europe with her sister, Cecilia, soprano, and the combination of voice and Armonica was the "rage of the Continent." Marie Antoinette took lessons from Ms. Davies and Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang's father heard Ms Davies in concert, as he states in a letter to his wife. At the age of fourteen, Mozart played on an Armonica owned by the famous Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer who used the Armonica and hypnosis to put his patients into a deeper trance.

The second virtuoso was Marianne Kirschgessner who became blind at the age of four and retired early in her career, perhaps because of nerve damage caused by the Armonica. It has been rumored that Mozart wrote the two compositions for the Armonica for her; a Solo Adagio and the Quintet, K.617 but there is no definitve proof. Mozart did compose these compositions in the latter part of 1791 shortly before his death at the untimely young age of 34. He started a third composition, a Fantasie Quintet, but only completed 13 measures. I had the rare privilege of holding the original Mozart manuscript in my hands in the private museum of the Internazionale Stiftung Mozarteum in Salzurg when the Met Orchestra was on tour in August of 2002.

The Armonica is very "tempermental." It is affected by temperature, weather and types of water. If it is too "soft," it will not respond, and if it is too "hard", it will squeak too much. Because it is difficult to play, it was thought, in the late 1700's, that if it had a keyboard, it would alleviate the problem. It was unsuccessfu, however, as the keyboard was unable to produce the beautifu tone that the fingers could. One of the inventors of this type of Armonica was Francis Hopkinson who was one of the signers of the "Declaration of Independence" from New Jersey.

Composers started writing for the instrument; The most important beside Mozart were Beethoven who wrote a very short "recitative" for his melodrama "Leonore Prohaske", Saint Saens in "The Carnival of the Animals" , Richard Strauss in the opera "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" (The Woman Without a Shadow), and Donizetti in "Lucia di Lammermoor".

The Armonica had an active life of over one hundred years and then gradually disappeared. What happened!!! Because of its eerie, hypnotic and ethereal sound, it was felt that it would bring up the ghosts and spirits of the dead. A child died during a performance in Germany and it was banned in the town. You were not allowed to play it after midnight or near a graveyard and it was said that to have caused illness, madness and perhaps death. That might have been possible as the bowls and the paint on the them contained lead and we have learned over the years how deadly lead is. By the way , did you know that Franklin was the first person to prove lead poisoning?

The rebirth of the Armonica occured when Gerhard Finkenbeiner found that when he worked with pure quartz crystal, it produced a beautiful sound so he research the Armonica and completed the first one in 1982. May I add, that Armonicas can be purchased at his company, G. Finkenbeiner. Inc. There are now only about 14 active Armonicists in the world. If you like more informaton about the Armonica and some of the many and varied areas where I have performed, please go to my website at http://www.gigmasters.com/armonica. Available through my website is a beautiful Christmas CD called "The Angelic Sounds of Christmas". Besides the Armonica , it also features soloists, Raymond Gniewek, violinist, who recently retired after 43 years as concert master of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and Judith Blegen, soprano, who has performed with Pavarotti and Domingo worldwide, and has appeared many times on the Johnny Carson Show.

Before I "sign off", may I recommend a unique book, "Dear Doctor Franklin" by Stuart A. Green M.D. He "resurrects" Franklin and informs him, through the modern technology of email, on the progress of his inventions, ideas, experiments and interest in the sciences and medicine into the 21st Century. Fascinating reading! The book may be purchased from http://www.dianepublishing.net.

Listen to part of two songs on the CD:

A Better Economic Bailout Plan?

A friend of mine related to me what he thought was a better economic bailout plan than the government feeding seven-hundred BILLION dollars to mortgage companies and some banks to solve the economy problem.

My friend suggested that the government pay off consumers credit card balances in full instead. Then, as a means of payback, the government confiscates the income tax returns for those that they had paid off their credit card balances until the debt is repaid. This way, the government would be getting back most of the money they loaned and consumers would free-up their monthly payments to the credit card companies. Their freed-up funds would then give the consumers funds to pay their mortgage. To me, it appears to be a win-win proposal. Wasn't life simplier before everyone started to accept credit cards


Insane Man Elected to Congress

How many times have you said to yourself that a specific politician is "nuts", "crazy" or "insane"? Many of us have done so at least a few times in our life. At least in one case, this label was entirely correct.

Charles A. Boutelle was a Representative of Congress for the state of Maine and had been for sixteen years. In the 1900 election, he won by 10,000 votes though at the time he was a resident of an insane asylum, clouded in intellect and uncertain in speech. He had even been there when the convention nominated him to run for Representative again. The opposition, the Democratic Party, filed a claim that to elect an insane man to Congress was unconstitutional to no avail.

Sentiment was behind the Maine Republicans in the matter. Their viewpoint was that Mr. Boutelle had served them long and faithfully. Further, he was poor and they could afford to stand behind him. Others feel that he would never take his seat in Congress again. However, the Republicans of his district expressed that his empty chair in the House of Representatives should stand for their loyalty in mute testimony.

What's in a Name?

Under law, presidential candidates MUST be listed on the ballot utilizing their full name as recorded on their birth certificate. While some of the presidents DID use nicknames after becoming president, such as Ike instead of Dwight Eisenhower, their full birth name appeared on all election ballots. Enter Jimmy Carter. He wanted the name on the election ballots to be Jimmy Carter instead of his birth name of James Earl Carter.The name of the assassin of Martin Luther King was James Earl Ray. Carter's concern was that he could lose votes by people confusing the two names: James Earl Ray and James Earl Carter. The issue had to be taken to court for permission to use the name Jimmy Carter on the ballot instead. He won.

Panoramas Update

Four new panoramas have been added to History Buff.com. They are:

Valley Forge

Declaration House - Philadelphia

Independence Hall - Philadelphia

Congress Hall - Philadelphia


Subscriber Pete Cedor advised me that my article about frescos in the previous issue contained some inaccurate content. His explanation is as follow:

Your description of fresco painting is incorrect in that pigment is not added to the plaster and then painted. What makes a fresco special is the fact that the artist must first apply a thin layer of fresh plaster over a small area of the wall to be painted and then a water based paint is applied with a brush onto that section of wet plaster. This allows the pigment to actually soak down below the surface of the wet plaster making a much more permanent image. The plaster in each small section must remain wet throughout this process or the artist must scrape off the dry plaster and start over. A fresco painting done properly is nearly indestructible when painted on an inside wall or ceiling. One of the most time consuming parts of the fresco process was transfering the image to be painted from the preliminary drawings made on paper (they called them 'cartoons' actually) onto the wall itself. This was done with a stencil process that involved punching pin holes along the outline of the image on the paper and after placing the paper 'cartoon' in position over the wet plaster the artist would blow charcoal dust onto the paper and through the pin holes leaving a dotted outline on the wet plaster which was then colored in. Some artists used apprentices to perform this preliminary work but Michaelangelo is known to have done all of this by himself.

October Contest

CONTEST ONE QUESTION: In what year did Congress pass a law that the Secret Service would protect former presidents and their wives for life after leaving office?

ANSWER:1962. The operative words in the question were "former presidents and their wives." Some people answered 1901. While it is true that secrect service protection was not offered until the McKinley assassination in 1901, it only covered current serving presidents. Some answered 1965. In 1965, children of current and former presidents was added.

CONTEST TWO QUESTION: What year was the minimum wage officially established in America?

ANSWER: 1938

Seventy-seven people entered. Thirty-five people had errors in their entry: Not selecting a prize; Selecting a prize from the Contest One entry, but answered the Contest Two question; Incorrect subject heading, or Incorrect answer. All prizes were claimed.
The October Contest Winners Were:
  • Steven McKelley - Ohio
  • David Vice - Kentucky
  • Carol Carpenter - New York
  • Nonnie Sax - Florida
  • Steven Kalan - California
  • Roger S. Weist - Ohio
  • Kenneth Germanson - Wisconsin
  • Tony Skinner - Oklahoma

This Issue's Questions:

To enter Contest One, answer the question: What was the Treaty of Ghent?

To enter Contest Two, answer the question: Only one wife of a president was committed to an insane asylum after her husbands' death. Who was she?


Contest Rules

  • Contest entry deadline is Monday, November 17, 2008. Later entries will be disqualified. Winners will be notified by email within 24 hours after the contest deadline. Winners' names and states will be published in the next issue of the HistoryBuff.com newsletter.

  • To enter Contest One or Contest Two, email your answer to curator at historyreference.org

  • To enter Contest One, use "Contest One Entry" for the emailed contest entry subject heading and answer the contest question one. Any other subject heading will be disqualified.

  • To enter Contest Two, use "Contest Two Entry" for the emailed contest entry subject heading and answer the contest two question. Any other subject heading will be disqualified.

  • Subscribers may enter both contests, but only win one prize.

  • If entering both contests, entries must be sent in separate emails.

  • Each entry MUST select ONE prize from the appropriate prize list.

  • If answering the Contest One question, select your prize from the Contest One prize list.

  • If answering the Contest Two question, select your prize from the Contest Two prize list.

  • From subscribers entering the contest, submitting the correct answer, correct subject heading, submission received by the deadline, as well as advising which ONE contest prize they want to win, EIGHT will be selected to win ONE of the contest prizes below.

  • Subscribers to this newsletter that won a prize in my trivia contests in the last 90 days are ineligible to win.
November Contest One Prize Selection
(Only one of each offered)


Dear Doctor Franklin
E-mails to a Founding Father About
Science, Medicine, and Technology
By Stuart A. Green, M.D.

A fascinating story that brings Ben Franklin into the 21st century updating him on the progress of his inventions, ideas, and theories through the modern technology of E-mail.

Music CD

Special Christmas Edition

18 Different Christmas Songs

  • O Little Town of Bethlehem
  • Chirst Was Born on Chirstmas Day
  • O Come, Little Children
  • Ave Maria
  • Away in a Manger
  • O Christman Tree
  • Silent Night
  • We Three Kings of Orient Are
  • Good King Wenceslas
  • It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
  • O Come, All Ye Faithful
  • The First Noel
  • Plus Seven More!
    Played on the Armonica
    By Cecilia Brauer


    November Contest Two Prize Selection
    (Only one of each offered)

    DVD Movie

    Abraham Lincoln (1930)

    Classic Biography of Abraham Lincoln
    Staring Walter Huston

    DVD Classic TV

    Episodes of the Classic 1960s TV Series

    Red Skelton, 3 Stooges, Jack Benny
    Ozzie & Harriet, Burns & Allen, More

    Original Historic Newspapers

    The Atlas (Boston) historic newspaper from 1837

    Original Manchester American & Messenger (New Hampshire) historic newspaper from 1853

    Original New Hampshire Patriot historic newspaper from 1868

    Original Coldwater Republican (Michigan) historic newspaper from 1876
    That's it for this issue.

    Rick Brown

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