Monday, May 24, 2010

Glass harmonica

I had never heard of the glass harmonica, let alone heard it played - surprising considering its long history. The instrument was invented by Benjamin Franklin in the 18th c., and music was composed for it by Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn. The invention was inspired by the idea of creating music by running the fingers around the rims of glasses filled with varying amounts of water. Franklin had a glassmaker create 37 graduated hemispheres that he nested together from largest to smallest on an iron rod linked to a foot treadle, so that it could be spinned and played with moistened fingers. The sound of the glass harmonica (also known as the glass armonica, bowl organ, or hydrocrystalophone) has been described as "celestial" and "haunting." When Franklin's wife heard the sounds of the glass harmonica for the 1st time, coming from their attic during the night, she thought she had died and was hearing the angels. But the effects of playing or listening to it have been said in earlier times to be sinister. Consider:
  • Some of those who played it regularly complained that it upset them emotionally, with the vibrations entering their fingertips and causing them mental anguish (sometimes attributed to the lead in the glass).
  • It was also purported to cause spasms and convulsions.
  • There was a rumor in Vienna that the sounds of the glass harmonica caused players and listeners to go mad.
  • The music of the glass harmonica was used by German physician Franz Mesmer to lull patients into a state of hypnosis.
  • A musicologist warned that melancholy musicians may be moved to suicide by the instrument.
  • Playing the glass harmonica at midnight was believed to summon ghosts.
  • After a child died at a German concert, the instrument was banned in some places as a public danger.
The glass harmonica fell into disuse because its sound could not be amplified for performance in large concert halls. Though this is no longer an issue, there are only about a dozen performers worldwide today.

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