Should I find myself at a fancy dinner party I cannot resist the urge to wet my finger and slide it around the rim of my wine glass. At least I would have trouble resisting the urge, if I were ever invited to such fancy dinner parties. The sound of a resonating wine glass is rather unique. If you could gather your friends around, each glass with varying amounts of liquid would produce different tones, resulting in an impromptu wine chorus. Again, I have to assume this would be a dinner party faux pas. However, at one time it was all the rage.
In 1761 the restless mind of Benjamin Franklin was attending a London concert featuring a wine glass soloist. The musician would have a large table of glasses in front of him arranged from low (empty) to high notes (nearly full of water). Franklin was an amateur musician himself (and in fact, believed full time professional musicians to be a parasite on society) so he put his engineering mind to work on solving the many practical problems of this wine glass arrangement.
First was the problem of tuning. As water evaporated, the notes from each glass would change. So he replaced the water glasses with crystal bowls. They would be permanently tuned like bells by their size and thickness. Next he collapsed the expansive table full of glass to something much more compact. All the crystal bowls were threaded on a long pole, the smaller bowls nesting inside the larger (not quite touching) to create an icicle-like arrangement.
Now the whole stack of bowls was made to rotate much like an antique foot-powered sewing machine. If a moistened finger were to rest along the edge of a bowl, the lovely tone would ease its way out with hardly any effort. It allowed for the uniquely soothing sound of the crystal glasses, with the practicality of a harpsichord keyboard. In fact, that’s what it was first called… the glassychord.
Soon after in his letters, Benjamin Franklin officially dubbed his creation the armonica, borrowing from the Italian word for harmony, and it is that name that stuck. (sometimes anglicised as “glass harmonica“)
There was nothing else that sounded like the armonica. It caught the fancy of Amadeus Mozart, who composed multiple pieces for the instrument. Alas, the only reason the armonica was largely lost to history was the matter of volume. As concert halls replaced parlours, instrument builders had to squeeze out more volume. Harpsichords became pianos, lutes turned into guitars, but the armonica could not get any louder.
According to the author of my source, there are only about a dozen armonica players in the world today. He should know. He’s one of them.
Bonus non-fact: I don’t know if it still counts as new-age hokum when we’re talking 18th century, but the sound of the glass armonica was (still is?) believed to have healing powers. One account tells how Franklin was able to cure a Polish Princess (she had “melancholia”… a.k.a. “grumpy pants”) simply by hearing him play the armonica. Of course, modern doctors would probably prescribe the banjo.
- Source: The website of William Zietler – GlassArmonica.com – to see and hear the armonica in action be sure to check out his page of videos