Listener Max sends in this mp3 of Stairway to Heaven, as performed on the streets of New Orleans by an unidentified Glass Harmonica player. To be more accurate, this guy (pictured at right) is playing a Glasharfe (or Glass Harp), the most common current incarnation of the rubbed glass instruments often referred to as Glass Harmonicas. A Glass Harp consists of a series of wineglasses, each filled with a different amount of water, so that a soggy finger rubbed on the glasses gets them vibrating at different tones.
The Glasharfe was popularized by Bruno Hoffman, the German virtuoso whose records rekindled interest in the Glass Harmonica (aka Armonica), and the compositions written for it from 1760-1820, when the instrument was the must-have accessory for parlors and sitting rooms. Here's a Realaudio archive of Hoffmann playing Fantasie in E Minor, from Bryce's July 25, 2004 show. You can play with a virtual Armonica here.
In it's heyday, most Glass Harmonica activity took place on a
version of the instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin around 1760, in
which glass plates mounted on a steel rod were rotated and then rubbed
with the player's moistened finger. Paganini, Mozart and Goethe all
sang the instrument's praises. Thomas Jefferson called it "The greatest
gift offered to the musical world of this century." Armonica fever
swept Europe and America. 400 major works were composed for the
instrument (including works by Mozart and Beethoven), and countless
variations of the instrument were developed.
But then the Glass Harmonica revealed it's dark side. A dictionary of music from the period warned that the instrument's "celestial softness" could cause spasms. Cases of Armonica-induced melancholia began making the medical rounds. Several Armonica performers (including one of the most celebrated players, Marianne Davies) were hospitalized for nervous disorders. Soon, the Armonica was being blamed on premature births, causing convulsions in farm animals, domestic squabbles, madness and death. When a child died during an Armonica concert in Germany, the instrument was banned there.
But some tried to harness the instrument's odd powers for good. One of them was Franz Anton Mesmer, after whom Mesmerism was named. Mesmer (before inspiring Mary Baker Eddy to form The Church of Christ, Scientist) was a Viennese doctor and Freemason who used the Armonica as a hypnosis aid. All was well until the good doctor was able to restore the vision of a blind pianist, but at the expense of her mental health. He and his Armonica were run out of town. It didn't occur to anybody for several centuries that it was more likely the glass powder and iron filings which Mesmer's patients bathed in which might have been responsible for the ill effects.
Interest in the instrument dissipated, and the Glass Harmonica fell
onto the slagheap of musical history. Today, the Franklin-styled Glass
Harmonica is still manufactured by the G. Finkenbeiner Corporation of Massachusetts, and glass music of all stripes is making a comeback.
More Glass Harmonica links:
Thanks to Max for Stairway and the links!