Wall Street Journal

January 15, 2004

Founding Father of the Glass Armonica



One of America's Founding Fathers invented a musical instrument that inspired original scores from Mozart, Beethoven and other greats. That instrument is the glass armonica (named after the Italian word for harmonic), devised by Benjamin Franklin in 1761. And out of all of his inventions, Franklin once said it was the one that gave him the "greatest personal satisfaction." But for more than a century and a half this once-popular instrument—which employed glass bowls stacked horizontally inside one another and mounted on a small table—sat in disrepute, nearly lost to history.

Now, however, it's enjoying a bit of a revival. Thanks to the hard work of a handful of men and women over the past 20 years, the glass armonica is being heard at festivals, at elementary-school concerts and in at least one movie score. And Philadelphia's Franklin Institute will mark the inventor's 298th birthday on Saturday by having the instrument played during their celebration.

The revival began with Gerhard Finkenbeiner, a glass blower who emigrated from Germany and set up shop in Waltham, Mass. Mr. Finkenbeiner -- who disappeared while piloting his private plane four years ago -- was a master craftsman with a love for music. He built a business producing quartz glassware sold to pharmaceutical and other labs, but he never forgot learning about the armonica in Europe. In the early 1980s he dug up and began experimenting with Franklin's specifications, which called for 37 glass bowls of 23 sizes and painted a rainbow of colors to mark different notes.

Franklin found he could make beautiful, haunting music using glass bowls if they had a hole in their center and were stacked inside one another while mounted on a horizontal rod. He dipped his fingers in water, spun the bowls using a foot treadle and then played them almost like a piano. Except that he could sculpt each note by varying the speed of the bowls and the amount of pressure he applied -- similar to how a violinist uses a bow.

The idea of using glass to make music didn't originate with Franklin. It was already centuries old when he watched music being made from drinking glasses -- tuned by being filled with varying amounts of water -- while in England in the late 1750s and early '60s. But Franklin wanted to make the process less cumbersome. So with the help of London glass blower Charles James he figured out how to tune a glass bowl by varying its thickness.

Franklin spent much of the American Revolution as a diplomat in France and often played his instrument for parlor audiences. Soon Europeans fell in love with it and began building their own. One story has Franklin curing Polish Princess Izabella Czartoryska of "melancholia" by playing the armonica for her. She liked it so much he gave her lessons. Marie Antoinette is said to have studied the instrument. Mozart and his father, Leopold, heard the armonica in Vienna in the 1770s. Wolfgang "has played upon it," Leopold wrote his wife. "How I should love to have one." And in 1791, the younger Mozart composed an Adagio for the armonica solo and the Adagio and Rondo for the armonica, flute, oboe, viola and cello.

By the 1820s and '30s, however, the armonica was gaining a reputation for driving musicians out of their minds. Marianne Kirchgessner eventually went insane after touring Europe playing it. J.C. Muller warned of its effect on the "temperament" in a 1788 instruction manual. Today many suspect the armonica's leaded glass and paint to be the real culprit, perhaps even contributing to Beethoven's likely lead poisoning.

Today there's no danger of lead poisoning. G. Finkenbeiner Inc. -- perhaps the only armonica manufacturer in the country -- uses lead-free quartz glass and sells armonicas for about $5,000 (larger or custom instruments can cost much more). Dean Shostak tours the country with his Finkenbeiner, playing in community concerts and even grammar schools. He lives and often performs in Williamsburg, Va. But whatever the venue, he powers it just as Franklin did, with a foot treadle. In a few months he'll release "The Glass Armonica" under his Coastline Music label -- his fifth CD featuring the instrument -- which will include classical music originally scored for the armonica but never before recorded.

William Wilde Zeitler of Marysville, Wash., has been playing the instrument for nine years and will release his seventh armonica CD this spring, "The Secret Fire," under his Eris Records label. He performs around the country and will be playing at the Mind Body Spirit Expo in Santa Rosa, Calif., Feb. 7-8. But he writes his own music and powers his instrument with a small motor.

Not that he isn't enamored with the armonica's history and inventor: "I just have this vision of, after a hard day of being a Founding Father, Franklin coming in and unwinding with the armonica, which he invented, sitting next to the Franklin stove, which he invented, using bifocals, which he invented." Mr. Zeitler says he used to just play, but the audience would always stop him and demand, "You really have to tell us about this thing."

Mr. Miniter is assistant editor of OpinionJournal.com.

Updated January 15, 2004