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The glass harmonica: the world's most dangerous instrument?

Credited with unexplained deaths and mental breakdowns, how can 37 glass bowls cause so much chaos?

By Mel Spencer (Senior Editor (Social Media))

25 April 2016 at 3.02pm | 7 Comments

It started out as something of a dinner party crowd-pleaser. After hearing musicians in England playing an arrangement of water-filled wine glasses, Benjamin Franklin (of American ‘Founding Fathers’ fame) experimented with creating his own version.

The result was the ‘armonica’: 37 glass bowls of different sizes, threaded together on an iron spindle and colour-coded with paint to identify the notes. In contrast to the wine glass version, the bowls were positioned horizontally, allowing the player to sound up to ten notes at the same time. With its delicate sound and unusual appearance, the instrument soon became popular – even French queen Marie Antoinette took lessons – and thousands were built and sold.

So far, so ordinary, until reports from delighted party guests gradually gave way to something altogether more perplexing. Hearing the singing glasses, listeners credited the instrument with mind-altering affects. Princess Izabella Czartoryska of Poland, who met Franklin and his armonica in 1772, wrote an account: 'I was ill, in a state of melancholia, and writing my testament and farewell letters... [Franklin] opened an armonica, sat down and played long. The music made a strong impression on me and tears began flowing from my eyes. Then Franklin sat by my side and looking with compassion said, "Madam, you are cured." Indeed in that moment I was cured of my melancholia.'

Soon, regular players reported unusual side-effects from playing. Tinnitus, disorientation and even 'madness' struck the players with alarming regularity. The instrument was credited with causing evil and endangering the public, and the health warnings were clear: ‘If you are suffering from any kind of nervous disorder, you should not play it; if you are not yet ill you should not play it; if you are feeling melancholy you should not play it,' German musicologist Friedrich Rochlitz wrote.

Reports of mental instability and hysteria soon saw this eerie instrument relegated from the realms solo performance. Opera, however, with its frequent flights of fancy and multiple 'mad scenes', is where this instrumental anomaly found its home.

Its most famous outing is during Donizetti's bel canto tragedy, Lucia di Lammermoor - unsurprisingly, during the 'mad scene', cementing the glass harmonica's place as the soundtrack to unusual or other-worldly activities. It's these unique qualities which Beethoven had used to his advantage in a similarly disconcerting scene written 20 years before, in an unpublished extract from Princess Leonore, incidental music composed for a play, Op.202/WoO 96. The play itself is unremarkable, but, unusually for Beethoven, there is a short 'melodrama' for glass harmonica and narrator, at at the point in the play when the heroine Leonore is speaking to her true love from beyond the grave.

If only the players had listened to the steadying voice of science a little earlier. A quick analysis of the tones produced by this maddening instrument reveals they are produced between 1,000 and 4,000 hertz. Sounds of this frequency are difficult for the ear to place, and the result is that listeners are unable to work out where the music is coming from: 'beyond the grave', unsurprisingly, no longer stands up as a credible answer.

But it wasn't just the sound that caused players and listeners alike to lose their wits. The lead crystal used in the manufacturing of the instrument reportedly had an effect on all those who spent hours in its company, causing them to hallucinate or even faint. One such player, Marianne Kirchgessner, died at the age of 39, with the instrument being blamed for her untimely death. Science, again, debunks this theory: lead poisoning was common in the 18th and early 19th centuries for both armonica players and non-players alike.

Nowadays, with science on its side, the glass harmonica has a small but devoted fan base. It's not hard to find plentiful examples of the instrument on YouTube or Spotify, where the likes of Björk, David Gilmour and Tom Waits are among those to have offered it a guest spot on their albums. But even despite a celebrity following, it's fair to say the instrument hasn't yet shaken its dangerous reputation. After years in the shadows the glass harmonica enjoyed its time in the operatic limelight in George Benjamin's 2013 work, Written on Skin, but the associations were clear. As the singer descended into madness, the eerie song of the glass harmonica could be heard from somewhere imperceptible. Science tells us it was the orchestra pit, but you never can be sure...

Written on Skin runs 13 – 30 January 2017. Tickets are still available.

By Mel Spencer (Senior Editor (Social Media))

25 April 2016 at 3.02pm

This article has been categorised Music and tagged Beethoven, by George Benjamin, by Katie Mitchell, Gaetano Donizetti, glass harmonica, Lucia di Lammermoor, madness, orchestra, Production, Written on Skin

This article has 7 comments

  1. Peter Lawley responded on 25 April 2016 at 8:33pm Reply

    Yes, but the instrument in use for the current ROH Lucia appears to utlilise a series of upright glasses. Your photo shows a spindle arrangement. Is there more than one type of instrument in this category? I looked at the instrument in the pit and from where I stood, it looked nothing like your photo.
    Please enlighten us!

    • Mel Spencer (Senior Editor (Social Media)) responded on 25 April 2016 at 9:45pm

      Hi Peter,

      Yes, there are a few types of similar instrument in the crystallophone family: a glass harmonica refers today to any instrument played by rubbing glass or crystal goblets or bowls. The instrument with upright glasses you see in the pit, tuned with water, is an ancestor of the glass harmonica, usually known as the glass harp. The spindle arrangement is frustratingly difficult to transport!

      All best,

      Mel

  2. Michelle Poliart responded on 26 April 2016 at 11:07am Reply

    For Lucia de Lammermoor, the composer wanted a glassharmonica...and in Brussels, in the production a few years ago of Lucia the glassharmonica didn't upset anybody ...at the contrary ....

  3. Sheila Epstein responded on 29 April 2016 at 3:52pm Reply

    Absolutely suitable for Lucia. Heard it at the Washington National Opera a few years ago and it complements the situation perfectly. We're very used to hearing it in spooky movies, it must be noted, so it's not really a rarity of sound so much as a rarity of live performances.

  4. Garry Eister responded on 25 November 2016 at 5:00am Reply

    The glass harmonica, which was, among other things, the original Lucia glass instrument, is a set of nested crystal bowls. It was invented by Benjamin Franklin. It is shown in the video above. A set of tuned glasses, with or without water, is commonly known as a glass harp. Sometimes it is called a Seraphim. The tall glass tubes arranged in a wooden rack that you most likely saw in April, is called a verrophone. It was invented by a German named Sascha Reckert. This is the instrument that will be in the pit for Written on Skin. I have composed music for all of these instruments, and while I can discern small differences in the sound of each, for most people, and in a big hall, the differences in sound are very small.

  5. Yes, all very well, but as I understand it, Donizetti changed his mind at the last minute and replaced the glass harmonica with a flute, an instrument closely associated with the underworld (by Gluck and others) and which was arguably much more appropriate with Edgardo dead.

  6. alex in san jose responded on 13 June 2017 at 8:07am Reply

    Just play violin and make everyone else sick.

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