A very fragile harmony

The ethereal tones of the glass harmonica will be heard in Baltimore

September 12, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | By Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Have you ever rubbed the rim of a wine glass and been startled by the piercingly sweet, beautiful tone?

Benjamin Franklin did, and lightning struck. In 1761, he invented a musical instrument just to produce such sounds. Franklin called the device the "armonica" (it is better known today as the "glass harmonica"), and it created a sensation. "It caught the public's imagination in the late 18th century like a cross between the Beatles and Beanie Babies," says the Boston-based glass harmonica player Carolinn Skyler, who will perform on the instrument Tuesday evening at the Peabody Conservatory.

Franklin's pal, chamber-music partner and Declaration of Independence co-signer, Thomas Jefferson, called his friend's invention, "one of the most important benefits in the history of man."

Part of its popularity came about because of the ideology of the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th century. The instrument's delicate, ethereal tones were credited with producing profound psychological and spiritual effects.

In music performed upon it, poet-dramatist Johann Wolfgang Goethe claimed to hear "Die Herzblut der Welt" ("the heartblood of the world").

All the great composers of the time -- including Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert -- wrote pieces for it. In fact, the last work completed by the the dying Mozart in 1791 was his exquisite Quintet (K. 617), which featured the armonica as the principal instrument.

But if you've heard of it at all, most likely you confuse Franklin's invention with the modern harmonica, or mouth organ. The initial "h" was a later addition from the German spelling. "When I tell people what I do," Skyler says, "most of them think I play on a harmonica made of glass."

The glass harmonica all but disappeared after about 1830. Even today, when the instrument is enjoying a modest revival because of its appearance on the albums of such pop musicians as Linda Ronstadt and its use by composers such as George Crumb, Christopher Rouse and John Williams (who used it to eerie effect in his score for the film, "Interview with the Vampire"), there are only about 25 people in the world who know how to play it and less than a handful who make a living from playing it.

Skyler is among the best known of these practitioners. Her appearance in Friedberg Hall in a concert organized by and showcasing Emily Skala, the principal flutist of the Baltimore Symphony, will almost certainly be the first opportunity Baltimore music lovers have had to hear Mozart's great final work played on Franklin's armonica instead of with an organ, a celeste or a piano.

That it will finally be heard here in its original form is a tribute to the persistent curiosity of Skala -- who had for many years wanted to perform the work in its original instrumentation -- and to the adventuresome Skyler.

Skyler, who has been blind since birth, was already a professional organist, pianist and guitarist when she learned to play the glass harmonica only four years ago. "I had heard it was hard to play," Skyler says. "But I seemed to know where the pedals were -- where everything was. I fell instantly in love the moment I touched glass."

Musical glasses had probably been in use since the 11th century in Persia, but it was only in the early 18th century that glasses came into serious musical use in Europe. Glasses, graded by size and tuned by the addition of water, were played by stroking the rims. It was upon 26 such glasses that composer Christoph Willibald Gluck played a concerto on several occasions in the 1750s.

It was probably such a performance that gave Franklin his idea for the armonica. He took the bowls of the glasses and fitted them concentrically on a horizontal rod or spindle, which was activated by a crank attached to a pedal. Franklin's careful gradation of the size of the glasses ensured a more consistently accurate scale than was possible merely with water tuning.

The proximity of the rims, which were moistened automatically by means of a shallow trough of water through which they pass as the spindle revolves, enabled players to produce chords and runs with far greater ease than had been possible when each glass stood separately.

One of the reasons the instrument fell into disuse were rumors that playing the instrument drove musicians insane. (If true, this might have been the result of the presence of lead in the glasses, with which persistent contact may have caused lead poisoning.) The use of the armonica may have also been made impractical by the development, around that time, of larger concert halls and opera houses which would have rendered almost inaudible the instrument's delicate sonority.

And despite Franklin's innovations, there was also the matter of the difficulty of playing it.

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