24 December 2008

"Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" performed on Benjamin Franklin's glass harmonica

A special treat for Christmas eve for the TYWKIWDBI family. The song will be familiar, the instrument not. This is a glass harmonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin. Sounds are produced by placing damp fingers on glass vessels in the same way that one might do at a dinner party; here the vessels continuously rotate, so the fingers can just be touched to the glass.
In Franklin's version, 37 bowls were mounted horizontally nested on an iron spindle. The whole spindle turned by means of a foot-operated treadle. The sound was produced by touching the rims of the bowls with moistened fingers. Rims were painted different colors according to the pitch of the note... With the Franklin design it is possible to play ten glasses simultaneously if desired, a technique that is very difficult if not impossible to execute using upright goblets. Franklin also advocated the use of a small amount of powdered chalk on the fingers which helped produce a clear tone in the same way rosin is applied to the bows of string instruments.
Before you listen to the music, please note this cautionary bit:
The instrument's popularity did not last far beyond the 18th century. Some claim this was due to strange rumors that using the instrument caused both musicians and their listeners to go mad... One example of fear from playing the glass harmonica was noted by a German musicologist Friedrich Rochlitz in Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung where it is stated that "the armonica excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood that is apt method for slow self-annihilation.

1 comment:

  1. I saw something on "History's Lost and Found" about Franklin's original armonica. They said that because the glass bowls and paint stripes had a very high lead content the musicians playing them would develop lead poisoning, leading to what was perceived to be madness.


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