Lest you be confused with the name’s similarity to another device, the harmonica, let me assure you that this is totally different.
The best way I can describe it is by telling you how my inspiration for it happened to come about. Back in my time, one of the things that people did to amuse themselves at parties was to assemble a series of glasses, each filled with a measured amount of water; the water level in each glass was different, of course.
You can probably guess what comes next. Using your hands or fingers, you run them across the surface of the glass in order to produce a very odd sounding musical tone. Very skilled practitioners of this parlor trick can even play recognizable melodies with their collection of glassware.
Being the mechanically-minded inventor that I am, I saw an opportunity there to improve on the original concept. In 1761, I devised a foot-powered machine with rotating glasses, which functioned in much the same way – the player would run his or hands over the glass pieces as they turned, creating the same unusual musical tones. Since I designed this instrument with serious performance in mind, it was much better suited to the playing of whole songs.
I am proud to say, in fact, that this instrument had a brief popularity in the 1700s. Famed composers like Mozart, Handel, Strauss, and Beethoven even composed songs especially for the glass armonica.
If you’re interested in hearing what my instrument sounds like, there is a video that you can watch on your computer or picture box (excuse me, television set) which shows an actual performance. Simply go to Youtube to see it, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=GwFGJMMMkLI
Now, here’s the downside of my invention. As a musical instrument, its popularity didn’t last beyond the 18th century. Three things contributed to its downfall. First, its sound was so soft and delicate, it couldn’t be heard that well in larger concert halls, which were becoming the vogue in Europe at the time. Secondly, because of its fragile glass parts, it was difficult to transport. And third, there were rumors being spread about its use that turned out to be totally false.
One rumor was that the musician who plays the armonica on a regular basis will eventually go mad (or, at least, suffer a severe case of depression, or melancholia as it used to be called).
And the other rumor was that performers could develop lead poisoning from playing it. Since the instrument’s main component is glass, and glass, as you know, can contain lead, the playing of the glass armonica allegedly put the performer at risk of lead poisoning. How is that, you may wonder?
The people spreading this rumor maintained that in order to perform with the instrument, the musician must wet his or her hands constantly, usually by putting fingers to the mouth. And that, they said, is where the lead exposure occurs. The lead picked up from contact with the glass is thus transmitted to the mouth, and ultimately ingested.
Both of these rumors, as I said, turned out to be false. And, in fact, the rumor of lead poisoning can be easily disproven by looking at the longevity of most of the armonica performers, who lived to a ripe old age!
(In those days, in the 1700s, it was more likely that they developed lead poisoning from other things around them, like cooking in tin/lead pots, drinking from lead/pewter mugs, or using lead-based cosmetics. Go to a very informative report on the internet http://www.glassarmonica.com/armonica/lead_poisoning.php to learn more.)
As a side note, once I discovered the dangers of lead myself, I was one of the first to identify it as a serious problem, and became a leading spokesman warning people of its dangers.
But I digress. For various reasons, as I outlined above, my instrument’s popularity declined considerably. About the only place you might see a glass armonica these days, here in this future world of the 21st century, is probably in a museum or someone’s private collection.
New age armonica
And that is truly unfortunate. Because I have discovered that here in this new world, there is now the technology to duplicate the same kind of musical tones that the armonica produced. Using a “synthesizer,” I am told, the melodies of the glass armonica might actually be able to take on a new life in a revival of those old Mozart and Beethoven compositions.
Why, I can even envision hiring myself out to play some of these songs on this “synthesizer” instrument I’ve heard so much about. So, what could I call my musical venture? Perhaps “Ben and the Glasstones”? “The Electronic Franklin”? I can see that naming this is going to take a little more effort than I first thought.
Your humble servant,