Music for Glass Harmonica

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The Glass Harmonica

Glasses filled with varying amounts of water so as to alter the pitch of the sounds obtained by striking them with sticks were already used in early times by the Persians, the Chinese (shui chan), the Japanese and the Arabs (the tusut was mentioned in 1406), but the technique took a decisive turn in 1743 when an Irishman, Richard Puckeridge, had the bright idea of standing the glasses on a table and rubbing the rims with wet fingers. Benjamin Franklin first saw that instrument, which was also played by the composer Gluck, at a concert given by the English virtuoso Delaval. It was called the angelic organ, then musical glasses or seraphim. Franklin, fascinated by the \soft and pure sound of the musical glasses", modified them so as to increase their possibilities. In a letter to the Turin scientist Giovanni Battista Beccaria in 1762, he explained how he had improved them. He called the new instrument the Armonica because of its harmonious sounds. He had glasses of different diameters blown, each corresponding to a note, instead of filling glasses with water. When the bowls are chromatically fitted into one another, but not in contact, with a horizontal rod going through their centreds, the rotation of which is controlled by a pedal, complex chords can be played and the possibilities of virtuoso performance are increased.

A number of instruments derived from the glass harmonica have been built since that time: the melodion, the eumelia, the clavicylindre, the transpornierharmonica, the sticcardo pastorale, the spirafina, the Instrument de Parnasse, the glasharfe, the piano harmonica of Tobias Schmidt, who also built the first guillotine, the uranion, the hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica and others.The glass harmonica was very popular from the start. Some four hundred works were composed for it, some unfortunately now lost, and probably about four thousand instruments were built over the course of some seventy years.

The instrument, adored or hated, roused passionate responses. Paganini declared it to have "such a celestial voice", Thomas Jefferson claimed it was "the greatest gift offered to the musical world of this century", Goethe, Mozart, Jean-Paul, Hasse and Théophile Gautier all praised it. A dictionary of instruments mentions that the sounds "are of nearly celestial softness but (…) can cause spasms". In a Traité des effets de la musique sur le corps humain (Treatise on the Effects of Music on the Human Body) by J.M. Roger in 1803 it is said that "its melancholy timbre plunges us into dejection … to a point that the strongest man could not hear it for an hour without fainting".

It is true that some performers on the instrument ended their lives in mental hospitals, among them one of the best, Marianne Davies. In his Anleitung zum Selbstunterricht auf der Harmonika (Method of Self-Instruction for the Harmonica), published in 1788, Johann Christian Müller answered objections: "It is true that the Armonica has strange effects on people (…). If you are irritated or disturbed by bad news, by friends or even by disappointment from a lady, abstain from playing, it would only increase your disturbance". The Armonica was accused of causing evils such as nervous problems, domestic squabbles, premature deliveries, fatal disorders, and animal convulsions. The instrument was even banned from one German town by the police for ruining the health of people and disturbing public order (a child died during a concert). Franz Anton Mesmer, a Vienna doctor known for his experiments (mesmerism) and for using hypnosis to treat his patients, would use the glass harmonica in his treatment. He was forced to leave Vienna after a blind pianist, Marie Paradies, recovered her sight but to the detriment of her mental health. Rumours of this kind contributed to the death of the Armonica, which in 1829 had been considered "the fashionable accessory of parlours and drawing-rooms".

Although Karl Leopold Röllig in the late eighteenth century, had tried to add a keyboard to the glass harmonica in order to avoid the possible danger caused by rubbing the fingers against the glasses, few later composers were interested in the instrument. The increasing intensity of the sound of orchestras deterred musicians from using a fragile instrument with such a delicate sound. Yet, there were two outstanding exceptions. In 1835 Donizetti used it in his opera Lucia di Lammermoor in the mad scene, in which the glass harmonica was soon replaced by two flutes (the part recorded here is the original version, crossed out on the manuscript) and Richard Strauss wrote for it in the last act of his opera Die Frau ohne Schatten, first staged in Vienna in 1919. Thanks to a German performer, Bruno Hoffmann, who did not play a glass harmonica but a glasharfe (glasses standing on a table), and thanks also to a German-born master glass-blower, Gerhard Finkenbeiner, who had settled near Boston in the United States, a new generation of performers, of composers and of instrument makers has rediscovered the glass harmonica since 1982.

To build a glass harmonica, Finkenbeiner (1930 – 1999) and Tim Nickerson, his assistant, used quartz, the purest glass, in the shape of a long cylinder, heated to 3100°F and blown, then cut into spheres and then half-spheres, so as to produce two bowls. The process is completed for tuning by dipping the bowls in hydrofluoric acid to adjust their thickness. In the eighteenth century, 40% lead glass was used. The bowls were ground and tuned with an emery grind-wheel. As the depth of a bowl decreases, the pitch becomes higher. Sometimes, the seven colours of the rainbow were used to symbolize the seven diatonic degrees, with black figuring for the inflected notes. Finkenbeiner and his associate use transparent glass, with gold for the rims of the bowls corresponding to the black keys of a keyboard, as Röllig did in the eighteenth century.

Glass harmonicas belong to the family of autophone rubbed instruments. The glasses start vibrating according to a relaxation principle: when a finger rubs a bowl, it alternately catches and releases. This creates a series of impulses which set the bowl into vibration. The phenomenom is complex, so the master glass-blower needs the greatest skill to give the instrument its own character. A number of parameters can play a part, modifying the tone, the mode and the harmonic composition of the bowls. Thus, two bowls giving the same note will have different timbres according to the materials used, their shape, their thickness, their dimensions, and any hidden defects.

It is said that sounds and noises are closely related to each period of time. It would be interesting to know what brought about the revival of the glass harmonica at the end of the twentieth century and the passion it has aroused, simply the result, perhaps,of new demands from musicologists and performers seeking authenticity. All in all, though, we may echo the words of Lucia di Lammermoor, Un’ armonia celeste, di’, non ascolti? (Say, can you not hear a celestial harmony ?).

The history of the armonica, to use Franklin’s name for the instrument, is closely linked with the interlocking lives of various composers. Johann Abraham Peter Schulz (1747 - 1800), a friend of Reichardt, dedicated himself mainly to vocal composition. He is regarded as the inventor of the Danish lied and his Largo, written in Berlin in 1799, was one of his few instrumental works.

Johann Julius
Disc: 1
Sancta Maria
1 Largo
2 Adagio
3 Rondeau
4 Recit
5 Andantino amoroso
6 Adagio, KV. 356
7 Adagio
8 Rondo
9 Melodram
10 Grave
11 Commodetto
12 Il trionfo della musica: Terzetto, Adagio (No. 9)
13 Fantaisie
14 Allemande
15 Scena della pazzia, "Mad Scene"
16 1ere Suite: 2eme Menuet
17 Sancta Maria
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