The Online History of :
Jewels For The Glass Harmonica
Th Armonica shall join the sacred choir,
by Nathaniel Hale (1763)
There are few clear indications as to when instruments made of glass appeared for the first time. Traditional histories trace it back to 14th century Persia when 'Music Glasses' first appear to have become generally known. The East Indian 'Jal Tarang' or 'Jaltharang' (a set of tuned glass or porcelain bowls struck with mallets) also has a long history dating back this far. Largely because glass music often occurred in the hands of amateur performers, the history retains a misty and legendary quality.
In Europe, the earliest reference to musical glass date back to 1492. From this time forward amateur entertainments are documented featuring performances on sets of wine glasses arranged on a table, fine tuned by the addition of small amounts of water. The sound is produced by gently rubbing around the rim with moistened fingertips. The sustained, ethereal, almost vocal quality of the resulting sound exerted an immediate hold on the popular imagination and was heard everywhere from convivial parlour circles (the 'Gay Wine Music' of 1667 London) to the churches where it's mysteriously spiritual qualities could be enjoyed and meditated upon.
These unique qualities gained a widespread popularity during the height of Romanticism in the 18th century. In 1743, the Irishman Richard Pockridge constructed and performed on an 'Angelic Organ' (a set of tuned wine glasses) with a repertoire that by 1760 included Handel's 'Water Music'. In 1746, the composer Gluck delighted European audiences with his 'Verrillon', also a set of wine glasses ('verres' is the French word for 'glass').
The popular modern history of musical glass begins with Benjamin Franklin's invention of the 'Glass Harmonica' in 1761. Franklin's instrument, devised after attending a recital of the rim-rubbed musical glasses and, according to his account, "being charmed by the sweetness of its tones", consisted of a set of tuned glass bowls arranged horizontally with each bowl nestled inside the larger one next to it on a revolving spindle; all that one needed to do was to touch the revolving rims lightly with the fingers, so that several could be sounded simultaneously to produce chords. Virtuosos on this instrument quickly arose, and the Glass Harmonica took its place in the canon of European art music.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart first became acquainted with the instrument through the virtuoso Marianne Davies, and in 1791 composed his 'Adagio and Rondo' for glass harmonica, flute, oboe, viola and cello for her successor, the blind Marianne Kirchgessner. Mozart's interest in the glass harmonica was most powerfully stimulated, however, by Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, the celebrated hypnotherapist who lent his name to the phenomenon of 'mesmerism'; Mesmer, Franklin and Mozart were all acquainted with one another as fellow freemasons, a group that enthusiastically welcomed glass music for the promotion of human 'harmony'. Mesmer was well known for both the virtuosity of his playing and the fine quality of his instrument, the glass harmonica, on which Mozart himself played as early as 1773; the musical glasses were a vital ingredient in Mesmer's hypnotic 'magnetic seances': his patients, mostly 'hysterical bourgeois women', were arranged around a magnetic tub filled with glass powder and iron filings, and massaged into a relaxed state by the sweet, distant tones of glass music played behind astrological curtains. Then Mesmer himself, clad in a long purple robe, would enter and touch each patient with a white wand, sending them into a magnetic trance from which they awakened fully cured.
The acute psychological power of resonant glass was, however, too edged, for the effect of the high, lingering harmonics and the friction of the wet glass forced many performers (according to some sources) into an early retirement through nervous disorders! J.M. Roger's 'Treatise on the Effects of Music on the Human Body' (Paris 1803) describes the melancholic timbre of the instrument as "plunging us into a profound detachment, relaxing all the nerves of the body", while the author Chateaubriand writes of the musical glasses that "the ear of a mortal can perceive in its plaintive tones the echoes of a divine harmony".
Ricks Note: Many accusations of Glass Music's ability to bring on dementia (insanity) are now ascribed to the presence of the element 'lead' used in the paint that circled the rims of the glasses to mark the sharp and flat notes. The performers would absorb the lead through their skin and slowly poison themselves.
Although Mozart's compositions involving glass retained the light, brilliant clarity of the vitreous substance, others incorporated it with somewhat less delicacy, overburdened by the constraints of excessive orchestration. Among the composers who have used glass as a sonorous resource, we find J. G. Naumann, Hasse, Beethoven, and many others. By the early 19th century, over-orchestration and mechanization of the harmonica had robbed it of its unique and seductive tones, and the instrument quickly began to go out of fashion, although technical refinements continued: the use of artificial pads and violin bows to free the fingers for keyboard activation, as well as the introduction of stroked glass rods by the Wittenberg physicist Ernst Chladni in the 1790s.
Glass Trivia - Did you know that glass is technically not a solid but a supercooled liquid? If you examine the stained glass windows in ancient churches you will see that the glass panes are thicker at the bottom than at the top. The glass is slowly flowing downwards.
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