Monday, July 11, 2016

Listening to the Glass Harmonica

The glass harmonica was an instrument that became popular in Western Europe for about 70 years. Instruments made of glass, usually filled with different levels of water, had been used in Eastern music for hundreds of years, but they were introduced to Western music by a man named Richard Puckeridge in 1743. Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin) improved them enough to make it popular and relatively easy to play. Unfortunately, the instruments, which had cylinders of glass that spun and corresponded to different tones, used leaded glass. The possibility of lead contamination made the glass harmonicas lose popularity and become associated with madness. However, by the time they fell out of fashion, many composers had already written music for the ethereal, celestial sounding instruments, including Beethoven and Mozart. In particular, Donizetti originally called for the glass harmonica in the famous "Mad Scene" from his opera Lucia di Lammermoor, perhaps using the instrument's ominous reputation to enhance the scene's disturbing effects.

I found this CD of glass harmonica music at the library, and I had to listen to it. I had never heard that instruments like this had achieved such a great popularity, and I was interested to hear how it sounded. It does indeed sound ethereal and beautiful, not unlike a celesta that can sustain notes. I especially loved the effect of the glass harmonica when paired with strings or voice, where it added an eerie, ethereal effect, like fairies humming along with the instruments. If some of the compositions on the CD are less then thrilling (I found the Reichardt piece a bit tedious), others are as fantastical as the instrument deserves, including the Mozart and Beethoven pieces. Mozart's Quintet for glass harmonica, flute, cello, viola, and oboe is an incredible exploration of tonal color that contrasts the richness of the lower strings with the haunting tones of the glass harmonica. Mozart himself played the viola at the piece's premiere. It's worth listening to for anyone who's interested in some very novel classical music.

As a writer, I also found the history of this instrument a dark and fascinating piece of music history. The instrument was loved by many, but developed a reputation for causing depression, illness, and insanity in its aficionados. Was it the trace amounts of lead musicians may have absorbed from the glass, or some quality of the music itself which made some people find it uncanny? Some scholars have argued that instrumentalists would not have absorbed enough lead from the glass to endanger their lives or their sanity, but it's hard to be certain. Whatever the case, the idea of a musical instrument that slowly poisons the people who play it is certainly fascinating.  



  1. Very interesting, Alexis! I didn't know about this instrument. Thanks for sharing. I'll have to go take a listen to that CD.

    1. Thank you! It's a strange and interesting instrument.