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Keyboard Glass Armonicas

We have already seen Ann Ford's discussing of adding a keyboard to the musical glasses. Another curious example of that is found in an advertisement for performances by H.B. Victor in the Pennsylvania Packet in 1774:

Mr. Victor, Musician to her late Royal Highness the Princess of Wales, and Organist at St. Georges in London, lately arrived here, takes this method of acquainting the Musical Gentry in general, that he gives instructions on th Harpsichord, or Forte Piano, Violin, German Flute, etc., especially in the thorough Bass both in theory and practice, for that his pupils may soon come to a fundamental knowledge of that fine science.

N.B. 1 Mr. Victor intended to give a concert, and to perform on his new musical instruments, but is obliged to postpone it for want of able hands; the one he calls tromba doppia con Tympana, on which he plays the first and second trumpet and a pair of annexed kettle-drums with the feet all at once; the other is called cymbaline de amour, which resembles the musical glasses played by harpsichord keys [in other words, it has a keyboard], never subject to come out of tune, both of his own invention. He is to be met with at his house in Callow Hill street near Water street."2

Several people tried to convert the armonica into a keyboard instrument as well. Francis Hopkinson  

One of these was Francis Hopkinson (1737–1791). Hopkinson was Franklin's Philadelphia friend, and although 30 years his junior he only survived Franklin by a few months. He stood in the center of musical life in Philadelphia, as psalmodist, teacher, organist, harpsichordist, essayist, composer, and improver of the harpsichord. He was a graduate of the first class to graduate from the College of Philadelphia, and a prominent patriot of the Revolutionary War, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was admitted to the bar in 1761. He was also a bibliophile—a family tradition tells us that the Hessian officers were so impressed with the character and extent of his library in Bordentown that they did all in their power to save it from destruction. He also invented an improved candlestick and and instrument to measure distances on the high seas, and was a capable painter and caricaturist. 3

On 1786, June 28 he wrote from Philadelphia to Thomas Jefferson in Paris:

My spare Time and Attention is at present much engaged in a Project to make the Harmonica or musical Glasses to be played with Kees [keys], like an Organ. I am now far forward in this Scheme and have little Doubt of Success. It has in vain been attempted in France and England. It may therefore seem too adventurous in me to undertake it, but the Door of Experiment is open; in Case of Disappointment the Projector is the only Sufferer.

Jefferson replied on December 23, 1786:

I am very much pleased with your project on the Harmonica, & the prospect of your succeeding in the application of Keys to it. It will be the greatest present which has been made to the musical world this century, not excepting the Piano-forte. If its tone approaches that given by the finger as nearly only as he harpsichord does that of the harp, it will be very valuable...

In a letter of April 14, 1787, from Philadelphia, Hopkinson wrote to Jefferson:

... I shall now begin again upon the Harmonica. From the experiments I have made, I have no Doubt of the Success. I have already applied Keys to the Glasses, furnished with artificial Fingers which answered perfectly & most delightfully in a great Part of the Scale. Where they did not succeed so well was owing to the Glass not being truly mounted, so that I must, I find, take off the Glasses from the Spindel & mount them anew.

Hopkinson wrote again on July 8, 1787, from Philadelphia:

... I succeeded in making the Harmonica to be played with Kees [sic] as far as I believe the instrument is capable:—but required too much Address in the Manner of wetting the Cushions for Common Use. In the Course of my Experiments I discover'd a Method of drawing the Tone from metal Bells by Friction—to an amazing Perfection—without the necessity of Water or any Fluid. I am getting a Set of Bells cast, \* expect to introduce a new musical Instrument—to e called the Bellarmonic.

But for all his optimism and Jefferson's enthusiasm, neither this nor any other attempt to turn the armonica into a satisfactory keyboard instrument proved really effective. No armonica of this sort seems to have survived, even in a museum. (PBF X,124)Abbé Perno   In 1785 the Count de Saluces in Turin wrote to Franklin announcing that his countryman Abbé Perno had invented a keyboard armonica. In his reply of July 5, 1785 Franklin himself summarizes the difficulties of accomplishing this:

When I was in London, about 12 Years since, Mr. Steele, an ingenious Musician there, made an Attempt of that sort; but the Tones were with Difficulty produc'd by the Touch from the Keys, and the Machinery in Playing made so much Noise and Rattle, as to diminish greatly the Pleasure given by the Sound of the Glasses; so that I think the Instrument was never compleated. The Dutchess [of Villeroy] at Paris about the same time endeavour'd to obtain the same End, and has not yet laid aside the Project, tho' it has not hitherto perfectly succeeded. Baron Feriet of Versailles, began to work on the same Idea about the Time I receiv'd your Letter; and as he is a very ingenious Man, and has a Hand to execute as well as a Head to contrive the necessary Machinery, I hoped soon to have given you an Account of his Success: but I begin to doubt it, as I hear nothing from him lately. In my Manner of Playing on my Instrument the Fingers are capable of Touching with great Delicacy; and the Glasses turn so smoothly, that one hears no other Sound but that given by the Touch. If the Instrument of Abbé Perno has the same Advantages, its being play'd with Keys gives it an undoubted Preference, and I should be glad to know the Construction.4

In 1802 Zink, of Hesse-Homberg, built a three manual [keyboard] `grand pianoforte' in which one manual was a glass armonica(!), another was a piano, and the third played several wind instruments!!5E.Power Biggs  

As Lütge observes, "the keyboard armonica did not succeed despite the playing advantages, because the ethereal, penetrating sound was impaired. One wants the thrill, which the fingertips draw from the glasses. One remains with Franklin's armonica."[ Lütge, 100]

E.Power Biggs (1906–1977), the famous English concert organist, also attempted a keyboard glass armonica. He was interested in Americana and musical technology, so when, in 1956, the 200th anniversary of Mozart's birth and 250th anniversary of Ben Franklin's birth coincided, Biggs decided to perform Mozart's music on Franklin's invention. Biggs was convinced that the Mozart works could only be played on a keyboard version of the armonica, and decided to perform the Mozart works on such an instrument for the anniversary.

Here follows an excerpt from E. Power Biggs, Concert Organist, by Barbara Owen (Indiana Univ Pr, 1987, pg. 106–111) that recounts the story of Biggs "keyboard glass armonica"...

His voluminous correspondence and library research began early in 1955, and one of his first discoveries was that while Franklin's own keyboardless Armonica still existed in a Philadelphia residence, not one keyboard version or fragment thereof survived anywhere. This, of course, was the instrument Biggs was most interested in, since he believed that the music by Mozart could not be played without a keyboard version. 6 When hopes of finding a restorable antique faded, Biggs persuaded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to sponsor the construction of one, and the Academy in turn interested the Franklin Savings Bank in financing the project. One of the Academy's members, Harlow Shapley of the Harvard Observatory, caught Biggs's enthusiasm and became a willing accomplice to his research and fund-raising activities.

Work got under way in the spring of 1955, with the deadline for completion a year away. By November the glasses were finished, and Biggs and Schlicker [a preeminent organ builder] went to the Corning plant the following month to assist in their tuning. By January the glasses were being fitted to the mechanism in Schlicker's shop, and the problems began showing up. Corning's glasses seem to have been partly at fault. When Schlicker visited the original Franklin instrument in Philadelphia he found that the old glasses were thinner, especially in the treble, and thus easier to make speak. Corning's glasses were also somewhat irregular in shape. In addition, the rubber mounting turned out to be too soft and had to be replaced with wood; and it was discovered that the smaller glasses had to be rotated faster than the larger ones. Finding a suitable covering for the mechanical "fingers" that played the glasses from the keyboard also proved problematic. Wet pigskin and dry rubber gave the best (though slightly differing) effects, but neither was as good as human fingers. And of course there was that nemesis of all musical glasses, breakage. Biggs was still optimistic but, as he confided to John Burchard, president of the Academy, he was also "touching wood, holding on tight, and keeping my fingers crossed.

A concert featuring the new armonica and (fortunately, as it turned out) other instruments was scheduled for April 11, 1956 at the Kresge Auditorium of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By March 24 there was a note of urgency, even desperation, in Biggs's correspondence with Schlicker. Biggs had planned to come to Buffalo on the 28th "to record a few sounds" for a broadcast, but "as far as a fair chance for me to learn how to play the instrument-we're way past it!" The Academy wanted the instrument on hand by April 3 in order to unveil it to the press. If they could not have it by then, "the concert will have to take place without it, and our work will have come to nothing, for the anniversary occasion will have passed.

The instrument arrived in time, and the concert went on, a program of works by Franklin and Mozart, performed by Biggs, six members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the popular tenor, Roland Hayes. Biggs wisely brought the Cambridge Portative [a small portable pipe organ], on which he played not only Mozart's Fantasia in F and four of the "Epistle" Sonatas, but also the armonica part of Mozart's Adagio and Rondo for Armonica, flute, oboe, viola and cello. Although Biggs gave a preliminary demonstration of the principle of "glass music" on eight tuned glasses, the armonica itself was used only for three "'Divertimenti"—a Minuet from an armonica tutor, an Irish folksong that had been a favorite of Captain Pockrich, and Mozart's short Adagio for Glass Armonica. The tone of the new armonica was wobbly and erratic, and was frequently accompanied by gratuitous squeaks and scrapes. As one of the students later observed, it "wasn't quite a flop, but almost!"

The discouraging performance at the concert may have had something to do with the Franklin Savings Bank's sudden loss of interest in the project, leaving the Academy and Biggs to hunt up a donor to make up the deficit caused by Schlicker's extra costs in trying to perfect the mechanism. Biggs and Shapely were discouraged, but not quite ready to give up. Just enough publicity had been given the experiment to generate requests from orchestras, chamber music groups, radio, and television for concerts involving the armonica. "Unfortunately", wrote Biggs to Ralph Burhoe, another Academy official, "in every case the answer has had to be no, because the one test of success is whether the Mozart Adagio and Rondo can be played on the Glass Armonica!" He still had hopes that it might be perfected, though, for, "It's certain that if the Glass Armonica were successful it would fill a unique niche, and have continuing interest and use over a number of years.

In the summer of 1956, Biggs received a request from his old friend Harold Spivacke of the Library of Congress for the use of the armonica in a December program linked to the Mozart/Franklin anniversaries. Biggs doubted that the instrument would be any improved by then and candidly outlined the problems: the glasses themselves were too thick and not perfectly circular, and more research was needed on the "finger" material. Between $3,000 and $4,000 (in 1956 US$) had already been expended on the instrument, and while the Academy hoped to coerce Corning into making a new set of glasses at no cost, Corning decided that it wanted nothing more to do with the project. The harpsichord makers Hubbard and Dowd suggested making a striking mechanism to operate the stationary glasses, but since the musical result would have been more that of a glassichord or celesta, this idea was quickly abandoned.

In a last desperate attempt to salvage the project, the armonica was turned over to a "think tank" of MIT engineering students. Concentrating first on sound production, the students found that their fingers, dipped in vinegar, still produced the best effect. Other substances and means of exciting the glasses, from violin bows to electronics, were tried without success. Nothing very conclusive emerged, and most of the students felt that the contraption was better as Franklin had left it, without the keyboard. One was optimistic enough to suggest that "With unlimited funds, it would serve the memory of Franklin well to establish a research project to investigate the use of different bowl and exciting materials and build an accurately engineered Armonica." But the "unlimited funds" were nowhere to be seen. In 1958, at Biggs's suggestion, Shapley approached Henry Ford II regarding the possibility that the glassblower at Greenfield Village might be able to produce better bowls than Corning had, but nothing came of that either.

In 1965, answering an inquiry from Leonard Labaree, editor of the Franklin Papers, Biggs gave a short and rather dispassionate account of the armonica venture. While the word "failure" was not in his vocabulary, Biggs did have to admit that "our experiment was quite inconclusive," and, with regard to his performance of Mozart's Adagio, K356, "one cannot claim that the tone did any sort of justice to the music." His vision of what might have been was still intact, though, and at the end of his letter he wrote, a bit wistfully,

'Mozart's Adagio and Rondo, K617, which we had hoped to give with such a flourish, was played on the flute stops of the organ. The sound of a delicate flute stop, incidentally, rather resembles that of a glass armonica. Though it lacks, of course, the effect of coming from nowhere, and the slow dying away into silence, which is a quite magical effect with the glasses.'

Those who attempted keyboard armonicas.

Who When Where Ref.
Frick c.1769 Baden-Baden van Heertum 22-2(1999), note 16
Mr. Steele 1773 London Papers of Benjamin Franklin ??? 1784: July 1
La Duchesse de Villroy 1775 ? Papers of Benjamin Franklin 22:49, fn. 2
Abbé Perno 1785 Turin Papers of Benjamin Franklin ??? 1784: July 1
Hessel 1785 St. Petersburg Lüthge (1925), 99
Dussek 1785 ? Lüthge (1925), 100
Roellig 1786 Berlin Lüthge (1925), 100
F. Hopkinson 1787` Philadelphia Sonneck (1905), 73–75
Mueller 1788 Vienna Lüthge (1925), 100
Heinrich Klien 1798 Pretzburg Lüthge (1925), 100
Bartl (a professor of mathematics at Olomouc) ? in Chemnitz, eastern Germany Lüthge (1925), 100
Zink 1802 Hesse-Homberg Harding (1930-1931), 60
E.Power Biggs 1956 Boston? Owen (1987), 106–111

1"Note Bene" is Latin for "note well"

2Pennsylvania Packet, Oct. 17, 1774, quoted in Drummond (1910), 39

3 Sonneck (1905), 7-9


5 Harding (1930-1931), 60

6NOTE: the author and other armonica players perform this piece on a Franklin-style (keyboardless) instrument on a regular basis.