“Musical glasses,” resembling what we see here, had been around for a while, when Franklin had the idea of mechanizing them in 1761, thus creating the “armonica.” That name, with or without an “h,” was generally used in the 18th century, but Franklin’s instrument subsequently became known as the “glass harmonica.” His idea was to mount glass bowls of graduated sizes on a horizontal, rotating shaft running through their centers. The bowls were immersed slightly in a water solution held in a trough underneath. The edges of the bowls corresponding to the sharps and flats (black keys) of a keyboard were gilded, so that a keyboard player could, with some practice, manage the instrument. Everything was enclosed in an elegant mahogany case with a treadle and spinning-wheel-like arrangement to rotate the bowls. Modern glass harmonicas, of course, have electric motors. The usual range is three octaves.
This instrument produced a craze in the late 18th century, with numerous composers, including Mozart, writing pieces for it. It was associated with Mesmerism (Franz Mesmer in fact played it during demonstrations of his hypnotic techniques), and all sorts of other New Agey spiritual falderal popular in the decades before 1789. Marie Antoinette was said to have taken lessons.
Its popularity quickly faded in the 19th century, although the famous mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor was originally meant to be accompanied by it, changed, as it ultimately was, to the flute. And, more to the point here, Tchaikovsky also initially intended for the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies to be played on the glass harmonica, but decided in the end to use the newly-invented Celeste instead. The Celeste has proven to be much more practical.
One downside for players of musical glasses of any kind was that crystal traditionally had lead in it, and the constant touching of the wet surface caused some to be leached out and absorbed through the skin, thus poisoning the player. Perhaps the odd mental states described as a result of this instrument had their cause more in blood chemistry than the effects of ethereal emanations.
Question for Tim: Wasn’t there a 18th century keyboard instrument that, in addition to playing notes, revealed a colored filter as well, so that with a large light source shining from underneath and reflected on a shiny inner piano top pointed at the audience gave a kind of “light show” effect? Didn’t this thing have a name as well?
You can simulate a glass harp with some crystal stemware filled with varying amounts of water [or wine]. My pieces are rimmed with platinum so they don’t work by rubbing the tops but you get a beautiful sound by tapping the sides and can still play a melodious tune on them. I think the principle is the same. If nothing else, it’s a way to get your dinner guests involved in the entertainment. ;-)
Disturbing and truly wierd Lucia, mockturtle. Thanks for finding that.
Hot, if homicidal, soprano, though.
I think the modern glass harmonica in the last video puts a lie to the self-promoter playing the glasses in the Lucia. I’ve been near a modern glass harmonica made by the late Gerhard Finkenbeiner in Waltham, Mass., and it makes a surprising amount of sound. Having the glass bowls more exposed and not running in water helps. Modern instruments often use a slow drip system to keep the edges of the bowls slightly wet. Also, the instruments made by Finkenbeiner use pure quartz glass, formed in acoustically efficient ways to make a louder sound than the traditional crystal. In addition, the advantages for ordinary musicians who might play the piano are obvious if the glasses are arranged like a keyboard. I, myself, could make a tolerable noise on one of these contraptions the first time I tried it, while it would take weeks of practice to begin to coax anything equally musical out of a collection of upright glasses.
And, Karen, yes, I can’t imagine tuning one of these things.
Ron, as to your question of a light show, I think you’re probably referring to the music and color effects sought by Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), one of the great musical eccentrics of all time. He was an enormously talented eccentric, however, who also suffered from synethesia. His is a long, long, story, and the linked Wikipedia article is quite good, so I’ll spare you the details of this odd fin de siècle esthete.
Color and other extra-musical qualities were also commonly associated with different musical keys in the Baroque era. That is, however, a complex, tangled story, and I won’t think of getting anywhere near it, except to say that the colors then were quite different from Scriabin’s idiosyncratic color system, and frankly their acoustical associations made more sense, connected as they were to tuning systems then in use, as well as to traditional Western cosmology.
But the so-called Theory of the Affects is a subject that usually causes even Musicologists’ eyes to glaze over or, very occasionally, their blood to boil, so I will say no more, except good night, and Merry Christmas!
Followed the link on Scriabin and was intrigued to find how much he influenced his contemporaries. The color theory has piqued my interest and I will look further into it after the holidays–at least so far as my very limited knowledge of music theory permits. Thank you again for the enlightenment, TT! And a Merry Christmas to you, too!