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
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.