Behold the Glass Armonica, the Unbelievably Fragile Instrument Invented by Benjamin Franklin

We’re all famil­iar with key­board instru­ments. Many of us have also heard (or indeed made) music, of a kind, with the rims of wine glass­es. But to unite the two required the tru­ly Amer­i­can com­bi­na­tion of genius, where­with­al, and pen­chant for fol­ly found in one his­tor­i­cal fig­ure above all: Ben­jamin Franklin. As we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly not­ed here on Open Cul­ture, the musi­cal­ly inclined Franklin invent­ed an instru­ment called the glass armon­i­ca (alter­na­tive­ly “glass har­mon­i­ca”) — or rather he re-invent­ed it, hav­ing seen and heard an ear­ly exam­ple played in Lon­don. Essen­tial­ly a series of dif­fer­ent­ly sized bowls arranged from large to small, all rotat­ing on a shaft, the glass armon­i­ca allows its play­er to make poly­phon­ic music of a down­right celes­tial nature.

The play­ing, how­ev­er, is eas­i­er writ­ten about than done. You can see that for your­self in the video above, in which gui­tarist Rob Scal­lon vis­its musi­cian-preser­va­tion­ist Den­nis James. Not only does James play a glass armon­i­ca, he plays a glass armon­i­ca he built him­self — and has pre­sum­ably rebuilt a few times as well, giv­en its scarce­ly believ­able fragili­ty.

Trans­porta­tion presents its chal­lenges, but so does the act of play­ing, which requires a rou­tine of hand-wash­ing (and sub­se­quent re-wet­ting, with dis­tilled water only) that even the coro­n­avirus has­n’t got most of us used to. But even in the hands of a first-timer like Scal­lon, who makes sure to take his turn at the key­board-of-bowls, the glass armon­i­ca sounds like no oth­er instru­ment even most of us in the 21st cen­tu­ry have heard. In the hands of one of its few liv­ing vir­tu­osos, of course, the glass armon­i­ca is some­thing else entire­ly.

“If this piece did­n’t exist,” says James, hold­ing a piece of sheet music, “I would­n’t be sit­ting here.” He refers to Ada­gio & Ron­do for glass armon­i­ca in C minor (KV 617), com­posed by none oth­er than Wolf­gang Amadeus Mozart. “In 1791, the last year of his life, Mozart wrote a piece for the Ger­man armon­i­ca play­er, Mar­i­anne Kirchgäss­ner,” writes Tim­o­ty Judd at The Lis­ten­ers’ Club. Like every glass armon­i­ca piece, accord­ing to James, one ends it by drop­ping sud­den­ly into com­plete silence: “It’s the only instru­ment, up until that point, that could to that: die away to absolute­ly noth­ing.” Alas, writes James, not long after the debut of Mozart’s com­po­si­tion rumors cir­cu­lat­ed that “the strange, crys­talline tones of Ben­jamin Franklin’s new instru­ment were a threat to pub­lic health.” A shame though that seems today, it does suit the mul­ti­tal­ent­ed Franklin’s ancil­lary rep­u­ta­tion as an invet­er­ate trou­ble­mak­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Instru­ment Ben­jamin Franklin Invent­ed, the Glass Armon­i­ca, Plays Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sug­ar Plum Fairy”

Hear the Cristal Baschet, an Enchant­i­ng Organ Made of Wood, Met­al & Glass, and Played with Wet Hands

Dis­cov­er the Appre­hen­sion Engine: Bri­an Eno Called It “the Most Ter­ri­fy­ing Musi­cal Instru­ment of All Time”

Bach’s Most Famous Organ Piece Played on Wine Glass­es

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.