Franklin completed his glass armonica in 1761. (Its name is derived from the Italian word for harmony.) He didn't simply refine the idea of musical glasses, which were played much like children at the dinner table play them today, with notes being determined by the amount of water in the glass. Rather, Franklin made chords and lively melodies possible on his new instrumental invention.For about fifty years the armonica was an established instrument, inspiring compositions by Mozart, Beethoven, Donizetti, and others. Then it fell out of favor. Longtime players may have been poisoned by lead in the glass, associating the instrument with madness.
Working with a glassblower in London [Charles James], Franklin made a few dozen glass bowls, tuned to notes by their varying size and fitted one inside the next with cork. Each bowl was made with the correct size and thickness to give the desired pitch without being filled with any water. Franklin also painted them so that each bowl was color-coded to a different note. A hole was put through the center of the glass bowls, and an iron rod ran through the holes. The rod was attached to a wheel, which was turned by a foot pedal. Moistened fingers touched to the edge of the spinning glasses produced the musical sounds.
On Thursday, 9 July, at 7:00 P.M., the Newton Free Library will host a free public concert of armonica music by Boston’s foremost player, Vera Meyer. She plans to dress in period costume and play a wide selection of pieces on her instrument, made by the late Gerhard Finkenbeiner. Here’s a profile of Vera at Bostonist, and a YouTube video of her playing in Harvard Square. There are also armonica recordings at Vera’s MySpace page.