In 1719, Étienne [Stephen] De Lancey built his house on a site at 54 Pearl Street on the corner of Broad Street which had been given to him by his father-in-law Stephanus van Cortlandt, New York’s Mayor. The small yellow bricks used in its construction were imported from the Dutch Republic.
In 1762, his heirs sold the property to Samuel Fraunces who converted the home into a tavern, first named the Queen’s Head and later known as Fraunces Tavern.
Now a museum, the property’s 300th anniversary was celebrated with a unique concert that intended to invoke the spirit of the American Revolution. Performing a selection of eighteenth century music, Dean Shostak played the original version of an instrument (now rare) that at the time was highly appreciated for its mysterious beauty. Benjamin Franklin was the originator of this, one of America’s first musical instruments. Borrowing the name from the Italian word for harmony, he named it the glass “armonica.”
Musical glasses were first mentioned and illustrated in 1492 in a study entitled Theorica musice, by the Italian theorist Franchinus Gaffurius, a friend of Leonardo da Vinci. After that there were occasional references to them until they were introduced around the mid-eighteenth century as concert instruments.
In 1741, Irish landowner Richard Pockrich came up with a novel idea of making music. He may have been in the pub at the time that he developed the “wet-finger-around-the-wine-glass” method. Rubbing the edge of stemmed glasses filled with various amount of water, he was able to alter the pitch of sounds. He called it his glass harp. Others named it the ‘Angelic organ.’
His virtuoso performances, accompanied by a singer, were popular and the repertoire included Handel’s Water Music. On tour in England in 1749, he lodged at Hamlin’s Coffee House, Sweeting’s Alley, near the Royal Exchange, when a disastrous fire broke out, destroying several houses, and killing the musician.
During the relatively short period of the instrument’s popularity, several women made names for themselves on the concert circuit, opening up an age of emerging female participation. The multi-talented Anna Ford was one of them. In 1761 she gave a solo performance of ‘English airs’ at Spring Gardens, St James’s. That same year she published a set of Instructions for Playing on the Musical Glasses. She was also an outstanding performer on the viola da gamba (Thomas Gainsborough painted her portrait in 1760).
Scientist Edward Delaval was a Fellow of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, who was rewarded by the Royal Society for his research on metals and glass. He turned his scientific knowledge of sound effects into art and became a professional performer on musical glasses. He claimed to possess the largest set in England at the time.
Known to friends as “Delaval the Loud” for his booming voice, Edward enjoyed a reputation for creating heavenly music. The impact of the his play was described in late March 1760 by the poet Thomas Gray in a letter to his friend James Brown, Master of Pembroke. Having heard the virtuoso play the musical glasses, he wrote, “I was astonished. No instrument that I know has so celestial a tone. I thought it was a cherubim in a box.”
Delaval was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1759. Benjamin Franklin who was in London to lobby for Pennsylvania’s right to self-government and a Fellow himself since 1756, supported his election. Around this time he first heard his colleague in concert and was impressed. Almost immediately the inventor brushed aside the admirer. What a laborious effort to play such a cumbersome instrument! What a tedious task having to fill containers with precise levels of water before every performance! Franklin was determined to streamline the process and expand the instrument’s possibilities.
Working with glassblower Charles James in 1761, Franklin set out to build a user-friendly instrument. Instead of filling glasses with evaporating water, he designed a succession of thirty-seven glass bowls fitted one inside the other (eliminating the need for water inside) and mounted them horizontally on a spindle that was turned by a foot pedal.
The musician only needed to moisten his fingers at intervals and place them on the rim of rotating bowls to create a selection of ethereal sounds and bell-like harmonies. Franklin recommended using a small amount a chalk on one’s fingers to ensure a clear note. The chromatic steps were indicated by painting the rim of the bowls in different colors.
Franklin’s armonica received its world premiere on January 12th, 1762, at the Great Room in Spring Gardens, St James’s. Marianne Davies introduced the new instrument, sang, and also played both harpsichord and the “phallic” German flute (considered an “unseemly” instrument for women to hold). No record survives of how or when Benjamin and Marianne met, but at some time in 1761 she acquired an armonica from him. She would become the main promoter of Franklin’s prized invention (he carried the instrument with him wherever went).
Marianne, in partnership with her sister Cecelia (a classical soprano known as “la Inglesina”), gave concerts far and wide. They starred in Dublin, London, and Paris. A European tour of 1768 gave them celebrity status. The highlight of a splendid career was her accompaniment of Johann Adolf Hasse’s “cantata L’armonica” (1769) during the wedding ceremony of the Archduchess Maria Amalia of Austria to Duke Ferdinand of Parma.
Set to the words of the poet Pietro Metastasio, the work was received to great acclaim. Metastasio’s poem itself and a critique of the performance were found amongst Benjamin Franklin’s papers, presumably sent to him by Marianne Davies herself. The relationship between the two was close for a while.
Rage & Decline
From 1761 until the early nineteenth century, the armonica enjoyed a heyday becoming one of the most celebrated instruments of the age. Marie Antoinette took lessons. Goethe loved its sound. Paganini was impressed. Composers such as Beethoven and Donizetti wrote music for it. George Washington saw it performed in 1765 at Bruton Parish Church in colonial Williamsburg. Thomas Jefferson praised it as a gift to mankind.
Mozart is said to have performed on the instrument at the age of seventeen in Vienna. In 1791, the last year of his life, he attended a concert by Marianne Kirchgässner which inspired him to compose “Adagio und Rondo” (K 617), a quintet for glass harmonica, flute, oboe, viola and cello. His “Adagio in C für Harmonika” (K 356) dates from the same year. In 1830 Hector Berlioz was one of the last composers to include the instrument in his orchestral fantasia on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
To contemporary ears the armonica evoked a supernatural atmosphere. Listeners felt comforted by its “divine reverie.” Inevitably, the instrument became popular with members of the (German) Romantic Movement. In his description of the oversensitive composer Johannes Kreisler, a musical genius, novelist E.T.A. Hoffmann presented the reader with a character who was “totally obsessed” by the sound of the armonica. The instrument was used in Vienna by the physician Franz Anton Mesmer (himself an able performer) during his experimental séances of hypnotic induction. He had developed a theory that its mesmerizing sound could “cure” melancholy and heal the sick.
Benjamin Franklin had been a Freemason since 1731 when he joined the Lodge of St John in Philadelphia. He published The Constitutions of the Free-Masons three years later, the first Masonic book printed in America (that same year he became Grand Master of the lodge). Mesmer and Mozart were Freemasons too and in these circles glass music was initiated for the promotion of human “harmony.”
Being wildly popular, the armonica seemed destined for permanence. By 1830 it was a forgotten instrument, a museum piece. What caused this spectacular decline in interest? In historical terms, its downfall is easily explained. The expansion of form in Classical and then Romantic composition demanded much larger orchestras. Concert halls swelled in size. There was no longer place for an instrument that derived its beauty from a whisper of vibrations. The armonica was drowned out. The piano took over.
Mesmer’s use of the armonica in hypnosis affected the instrument’s reputation in a negative manner. Its sound that was originally praised as heavenly and divine, was now experienced as eerie and morbid. It was suggested that the music had disturbing psychological side-effects. Its celestial softness caused nervous disorders, spasms, and epileptic fits. Doctors started to compare notes on armonica-induced melancholia. Cases of hysteria were recorded among audiences. Premature births were blamed on exposure to the instrument.
As many of the performers were women, they in particular seemed to suffer mental problems. Medics and musicologists issued stark warnings to potential instrumentalists. When Marianne Kirchgässner died at the age of thirty-nine from (probably) pneumonia after an exhausting winter concert tour, rumor had it that she had fallen victim to the dangers of her own chosen instrument. Benjamin Franklin’s invention was a threat to public health.
The inventor himself ignored the controversy and continued to play the instrument until the end of his life with none of the symptoms mentioned.
Our historical jargon is an elaborate system of abstractions. It is this writer’s task to reverse the trend and move from generalization to individual history. Enlightenment was an eighteenth century movement that stressed the belief that science and logic would supply mankind with deeper understanding than tradition and religion.
On an individual level, enlightenment was endless curiosity, the will to learn and invent, the drive to create, and the quest for practical applications. Enlightenment is synonymous with Benjamin Franklin.
Illustrations, from above: Fraunces Tavern, Pearl Street, New York City; page from Theorica musice, 1492, by Franchinus Gaffurius; portrait of Anne Ford, 1761 by Thomas Gainsborough (Cincinnati Art Museum); Benjamin Franklin and his glass armonica, 1926 by Alan Foster; and mesmerist using ‘animal magnetism’ on a woman. (Wikimedia Commons).