Mozart and the Glass Armonica

Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman, diplomat, politician, writer, printer, political philosopher, scientist, inventor, and all-around Enlightenment Renaissance man, was born on this date in 1706.

Among Franklin’s inventions is the glass armonica (now better known as the glass harmonica). While visiting Cambridge, England in 1761, he was fascinated with the “celestial” tones Edmund Delaval produced by rubbing a wet finger around the rim of wine glasses filled with varying quantities of water. It’s a practice that has been documented as far back as the Renaissance. Working with a London glassblower, Charles James, Franklin developed a greatly improved instrument by “affixing glass bowls of graduated sizes concentrically around a horizontal metal spindle and rotating the apparatus with a crank attached to a treadle.” Benjamin Franklin wrote to an Italian friend,

The advantages of this instrument are, that its tones are incomparably sweet beyond those of any other; that they may be swelled and softened at pleasure by stronger or weaker pressures of the finger, and continued to any length; and that the instrument, being well tuned, never again wants tuning. In honour of your musical language, I have borrowed from it the name of this instrument, calling it the Armonica.

In 1791, the last year of his life, Mozart wrote a piece for the German armonica player, Marianne Kirchgässner (1769–1808). The musicologist Alfred Einstein called Mozart’s Adagio and Rondo for glass harmonica, flute, oboe, viola and cello in C minor, K. 617, “one of his heavenly works, an instrumental counterpart to the Ave Verum (K.618, composed less than a month later), with an unearthly beauty.”

Listen to the way this haunting, ethereal voice converses with the other instruments:

Rumors soon circulated that the strange, crystalline tones of Benjamin Franklin’s new instrument were a threat to public health. In the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, the foremost German music periodical, Johann Friedrich Rochlitz wrote,

[The harmonica] excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood, that is an apt method for slow self-annihilation.

  1. If you are suffering from any nervous disorder you should not play it.
  2. If you are not yet ill you should not play it excessively.
  3. If you are feeling melancholy you should not play it or else play uplifting pieces.

Mr. Rogers’ Glass Armonica Lesson

An episode from the final season of Mister RogersNeighborhood with Colonial Williamsburg-based Dean Shostak features a fascinating and moving demonstration of the glass armonica:

Recordings

  • Mozart: Adagio and Rondo for glass harmonica, flute, oboe, viola and cello in C minor, K. 617, Bruno Hoffmann, K. H. Ulrich, Helmut Hucke, Ernst Nippes, Hans Plumacher Amazon
  • Dean Shostak’s recordings on Amazon

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

1 thought on “Mozart and the Glass Armonica”

  1. Bruno Hoffmann did not play nor record anything utilizing the Benjamin Franklin armonica invention. Hoffmann claimed to have both invented and designed his own set of individually tuned vertically mounted goblets – a device he termed the Glass Harp. Similarly misleading, Shostak’s unhoused assemblage of parts is directed by the inventor to be referred to as a QUARTZ GLASS HARMONICA in the U. S. Patent 4,589,322 issued Gerhard Finkenbeiner, b. 1930- d. 1999, and it is actually a 20th century invented sound-producing glass device. Gerhard Finkenbeiner was a clever German-trained professional glass technician and amateur music enthusiast.

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