the glass harmonica

friction idiophone

An old trick at wedding parties and other festive occasions where the 'best china' is brought out, is to create an intriguing sound by rubbing a wet finger over the rim of a crystal glass. The amount of liquid in the glass determines the pitch... and the player's motor skills!  

The history of the glass harmonica begins with a concert by Edmund Delaval, a virtuoso on the musical glasses, in London in 1761. Sitting in the audience was none other than Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). Based on what he saw, as a true figure of the Enlightenment and a man of varied talent and learning, the later statesman immediately had several ideas as to how to make a musical instrument that would be easier to play. Instead of filling glasses with water which constantly evaporated, he designed a succession of glass bowls fitted one inside the other and mounted horizontally on a spindle. The spindle was turned by means of a simple foot pedal. The musician only needed to moisten his fingers at regular intervals and place them on the rim of the rotating bowls to produce weird and wonderful sounds. As with a keyboard, the chromatic steps were indicated by painting the rim of the bowls different colours, sometimes using gold-leaf.

The glass harmonica was all the rage in the first part of the nineteenth century, not just in England but on the European Continent as well. In Vienna a certain Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed an Adagio in C (KV356) and even a Quintet for glass harmonica, flute, oboe, viola and cello (KV617). The Viennese psychiatrist Franz Mesmer (1734-1815, see 'mesmerize') used the glass harmonica to hypnotize patients.

But the instrument soon fell into disrepute. Like the virginals, the glass harmonica was usually played by women and they professed to suffer psychological disorders as a result. Moreover, cases of unconsciousness and hysteria were recorded among audiences. The ethereal sounds were even said to trigger epileptic fits and premature births! Various explanations were put forward: the vibrations over-stimulated the nervous system, the gold-leaf rims caused lead poisoning, and the like.

Be this as it may, in 1830 the glass harmonica began to fall into disuse, partly because it was not really very practical and partly because it simply became unfashionable. The better-off musical amateurs turned their attention to new instruments such as the harmonium.

Here are some pictures of glass harmonicas in the mim collection. You can also listen - at your own risk ! - to a snippet of the performance by the Vienna Glas Harmonika Duo on Thursday 12 November 2009 in the mim concert hall.


glass harmonica, Germany, late 18th C., inv. M411
glass harmonica, André-Charles-Ghislain Deudon, Mechelen, ca. 1786, inv. M1948
detail of glass harmonica M1948