The year is 1772, a year of firsts and new ideas. On the first of the year, the first traveler’s checks go on sale in London and can be used in 90 European cities. On May 11th, the Amsterdam Theater is destroyed by fire killing 18 people. On June 22nd, the court case of Somerset v. Stewart finds slavery unsupported by English common law, encouraging the abolitionist movement. In August, an explosive eruption kills 3,000 people in Indonesia. On September 26, New Jersey passes a bill requiring a license to practice medicine. On October 30th, Captain James Cook arrives on the ship Resolution in Cape Town, South Africa.
And while all of these firsts and new ideas were occurring, Benjamin Franklin was entertaining at dinner parties, playing wine glasses filled with water to the glee of his guests. Yes, THAT Benjamin Franklin. I mean, he did other shit besides playing the wine glasses, he was Ben Franklin for Christ sakes… The end result of this impromptu performance was the creation of a very unique, and certainly very odd, musical instrument called the armonica. No, I didn’t just drop the H as is sometimes custom in my culture. No. The harmonica is played with the mouth by forcing air through it. The armonica is played with the fingertips (dampened in a bowl of water kept handy) as they slide along the edges of glass bowls rotating on a spindle set lengthwise. It was also called the glass spindle, the glass harp, and the angelic organ. Seriously. The instrument allowed the musician to play up to ten notes simultaneously, making for very interesting sound quality, practically ghostly. Wikipedia describes the armonica as “an instrument consisting of variously sized and tuned glass bowls that rotate on a common shaft, played by touching the spinning glass with wet fingers” I think whoever wrote that Wiki really needs to get laid. Franklin’s armonica, which he didn’t patent by the way because he believed the instrument should be available to as many people as possible and he didn’t care about the revenue, was played by famous people. Beethoven wrote music for the armonica and even French Queen Marie Antoinette lost her head over her armonica lessons. Before, you know, she actually lost her head. Thousands of the instruments were built and sold by various dealers and the popularity skyrocketed. However, the armonica’s melodies led to some confusing side effects and it wasn’t long before it began to serve an altogether different purpose.
Think back to the past episode of Haunt Heads where I talked about Mesmerism. Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer, a German doctor with an interest in astronomy, theorized that there was an energy transference that occurred between all animated and inanimate objects. He called this animal magnetism, later referred to as mesmerism. Mesmer himself would use the armonica to channel the energies he referred to as animal magnetism. I believe it was Season 2, Episode 3. If you haven’t had a listen, Mesmer essentially created all manner of wonky devices to channel this natural energy and marketed it as a kind of cure-all to his patients. The armonica also became a cure-all, but not because Franklin marketed the instrument as such. Rather, those listening decided that they felt better after the show was over.
Mel Spencer of the Royal Opera House writes, “Princess Izabella Czartoryska of Poland, who met Franklin and his armonica in 1772, wrote an account: ‘I was ill, in a state of melancholia, and writing my testament and farewell letters… [Franklin] opened an armonica, sat down and played long. The music made a strong impression on me and tears began flowing from my eyes. Then Franklin sat by my side and looking with compassion said, “Madam, you are cured.” Indeed at that moment, I was cured of my melancholia.’” https://www.roh.org.uk
Franklin playing his armonica.
Here’s what Izabella heard.
In 1762, Franklin premiered a new version of his angelic organ (insert eye roll here.) The new model featured a color-coding system to tell the musician which note they were actually playing (insanely useful) and eliminated the trough of water that the glasses would rotate through. This version of the AO was played by Marianne Davies to tremendous applause.
On January 12th of that year, the Bristol Journal advertised the event as:
“The celebrated glassy-chord, invented by Mr. Franklin of Philadelphia: who has greatly improved the musical glasses, and formed them into a compleat instrument to accompany the voice; capable of a thorough bass, and never out of tune. Miss Davies from London, was to perform in the month of January, several favourite airs, English, Scotch and Italian, on the Glassychord (being the only one of the Kind that has yet been produced) accompanied occasionally with the voice and the German Flute.”
Of course, as is the case with many a strange and unusual elixir, regular players began reporting that their tinnitus was cured (likely because the armonica sounds like the Hunchback of Notre Dame is having a stroke while swinging from the bell ropes in the tower.) Other musicians said they felt disoriented and more still said that they were struck by bouts of madness with regularity upon playing the instrument. Once the public heard about these afflictions, ignoring the one dude who was cured of tinnitus, the armonica was credited with being a menace. Health warnings read “If you are suffering from any kind of nervous disorder, you should not play it; if you are not yet ill you should not play it; if you are feeling melancholy you should not play it.” Thank you, German musicologist, Friedrich Rochlitz.
It was likely Davis’ poor health that earned the armonica its reputation. In 1783, she wrote to Benjamin Franklin regarding her illness stating that she’d had a “violent return of nervous complaints which brought me so low that there were little hopes of my recovery. I was near a twelvemonth confin’d to my Room, and most part of the time to my Bed.” Davis never attributed her illness to playing the armonica, she and her sister had made a business of touring with the instrument and playing to large crowds, but there were some who linked her playing to her eventual death in a mental institution.
Even though the reports of insanity and hysteria were widespread and those who experienced the armonica’s beguiling tune were indecisive as to whether or not the thing might cause you to throw yourself from a bell tower, the instrument found a home at the Opera. You see, Opera was mad in itself and, although it was difficult to find someone who could actually play the instrument (on occasion, a flute might be substituted,) the multiple “mad scenes” and general fanciful quality of operatic performance made it a perfect fit.
Still, people were going wiggy over the armonica and not in a good way. They feared it would induce madness and hysteria in anyone who listened to a performance and rumors of people dying during concerts eventually led to certain German cities banning the instrument altogether. It scared animals and caused babies to be born prematurely…it was clearly a menace that had to be stopped. Many also worried about the armonica’s ability to raise the spirits of the dead because, even though the 18th century was one of scientific enlightenment, there were many people who relied on superstition and rumor to get through their day. Never use the armonica after midnight and, for the love of Christ, stay away from graveyards!
This is not to say that the armonica didn’t have its fans. Mozart, Jefferson, Paganini…all used the armonica and swore by its tonality and the ethereal quality it added to their work. Of course, there were also “legitimate critics.” J.M. Rogers stated in his “Treatise on the Effects of Music on the Human Body” wrote in 1803, “Its melancholy tone plunges you into dejection…to a point, the strongest man could not hear it for an hour without fainting.” Even Thomas Bloch, a musician who played the armonica regularly said that the sounds created, “…are of a nearly celestial softness…but can cause spasms.” As someone who has listened to several musical interludes, I can say that hearing the strange sound of the armonica does cause me to feel a little light headed and it did scare the shit out of the cat. I think it’s also important to note that (as Bloch later points out) there was on average a 40% lead content in some glass of the time period (though absorption of lead through the skin is limited, less than 1%.) Since Franklin updated his design, perhaps a bowl of water just wasn’t handy and the musician licked his/her fingers between each note? Apparently, you can’t generate enough saliva to lubricate that many glasses spinning at once and the glasses were painted on the inside to avoid the paint wearing off (yes, the paint likely contained lead), but absorption or ingestion isn’t an outlandish thought. For example, women in the 17th and 18th centuries were poisoning themselves with lead-based makeup. Maria Gunning who died at the age of 27 was regularly exposed to lead-based cosmetics.
According to glassarmonica.com “She continued to utilize heavy makeup, simply because it was stylish. Had she paid heed to her husband’s actions against her wearing lead-based makeup in Paris for the rest of her days, her death eight years later (at the age of 27) may not have been so untimely. However, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, it was fashionable for ladies to have pale white skins and red rouged cheeks and use lead as a basis for their makeup. It was the noxious effects of the lead which caused skin eruptions (which also encouraged ladies to powder their skins more vigorously to mask their blemishes) and eventually blood-poisoning which killed Maria on September 30, 1760. Originally known simply as a beautiful but vain woman, she eventually became known in society circles as a “victim of cosmetics.”
It also wasn’t customary to bathe on the regular and many wealthy people only bathed once a month. Washing your hands also wasn’t in fashion. “Keep lead on your skin for 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, year after year, along with the lead powder that would constantly be falling off of your face to be inhaled and ingested, and you have a sure-fire recipe for lead poisoning.”
The website goes on to list a number of ways people in the 17th century might have poisoned themselves.
Despite all of the above information, it’s doubtful that armonica players died from playing the armonica. It’s more likely that they died from the same illnesses as everyone else. Or, you know, from the dust shed by their arsenic-laced wallpaper or bread dough made whitey mcwhite white by plaster of Paris. Who can say!
The Glass Armonica.
Of course, for everything, there is a season and the armonica quickly fell out of favor. It was popular in America and England for about a hundred or so years, but I guess it just wasn’t fashionable to talk to the dead any longer. Plus, superstition. “Dammit, Jimmy! I thought I told you to keep that bloody armonica out of the graveyard! Just wait ‘till your father gets home!” The bottom line is, armonicas were a pain in the arse to ship. They were basically entirely made of glass and incredibly fragile and even water quality would negatively affect the quality of the notes it produced. It was also quite difficult to play. The instrument didn’t do well in a symphony orchestra because there was no amplification at the time so it just got lost amongst all the other instruments. Interestingly enough, there are still a handful of people today who still play due to a gentleman from Massachusetts by the name of Finkenbeiner, a glass blower, who began making them again.
Is anyone else looking to purchase one of these things?? Not gonna lie, I’ve been Googling, but it looks like Finkenbeiner isn’t as Franklin-like in ensuring the continuation of the playing and enjoyment of armonicas. His start at right around $7800.00 and each bowl is made of pulverized quartz. Apparently, the smaller models are about 35 pounds while the larger models can top 50. He also creates anatomical models of various parts of the human body in glass…if you’re in need of that sort of thing.
Have you ever witnessed a live performance of glass armonica tomfoolery and gone wacky in your head box? We wanna hear about it!
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