J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Armonica Concert at Newton Library, 9 July

This is a photograph of Benjamin Franklin’s musical invention, the glass armonica or harmonica. The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia explains:

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.

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.
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.

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.


Robert S. Paul said...

I hope her's is lead-free glass.

Also, I need to remind myself to stop reading YouTube comments.

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, I think xkcd summed up that blight—and proposed a remedy.

Rob Velella said...

Another piece of the downfall of the glass armonica was its association with Franz Mesmer and Mesmerism. I look forward to finally hearing one of these things played live - it was too much of a tease living in Philadelphia and not seeing that thing in action!

Emily said...

Vera will also be playing a concert at the Paul Revere House on August 1, 2009 from 1:00-4:00 as part of the Paul Revere's Boston series of special events. Listening to the Glass Harmonica is free with the price of admission! Find out more about this and our other events at: www.paulreverehouse.org/events/.

DAG said...

I have heard one played in of all places Harvard Square about 10 years ago.
A woman was playing one on the sidewalk, the acoustics , what with the traffic and all were not the best. Hearing it in a nicer environment would be great, and a pleasure I am sure.

J. L. Bell said...

The armonica musician you saw in Harvard Square was almost certainly Vera Meyer. She plays there regularly as a way of spreading the word about the instrument.