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MUSIC OF THE SPHERES: THE GLASS HARMONICA
By Elijah Wald © 1996
Gerhard Finkenbeiner was visiting Paris when he saw his first
glass harmonica. It was in a museum, exhibited as a curiosity from
the 18th century, and the label said little more than that it had
been invented by Benjamin Franklin and was favored by Mozart. As
a glass blower, Finkenbeiner was fascinated by its gleaming row
of crystal bowls and set out to get more information. "I got
a book which explained all the hocus-pocus about it, the stories
about it having supernatural powers," Finkenbeiner says. "And
I said, 'One day I'm going to make one, as soon as I have the time
and the glass.' "
Forty years after that first encounter, Finkenbeiner is adding
a chapter to the odd saga of Franklin's instrument. Over the last
decade, he has established his Waltham glass factory as the world's
foremost source for the glass harmonica, or "armonica,"
as it was originally called. His instruments have been played on
recordings and at venues ranging from Cambridge street corners to
the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, and his ads on WCRB-FM have
made his name familiar to local classical-music listeners. Inspired
by his example, other harmonica makers have sprung up in both the
United States and Europe, but he remains the only person producing
the instruments on a regular basis.
Finkenbeiner rises from behind his desk to welcome a visitor to
his factory, which specializes in glass for scientific and technical
uses. To his left hangs a portrait of Franklin, with a note tucked
in the edge of its frame praising the excellence of Finkenbeiner's
instruments, signed in a decent imitation of Franklin's hand. The
office walls are adorned with a haphazard mix of patent certificates,
commendatory plaques, and pictures of harmonica players with their
instruments -- so many that the area over the desk is beginning
to look like an impromptu collage.
Finkenbeiner leans forward, talking quickly and enthusiastically,
occasionally pausing to sketch a rough diagram. His accent and much
of his syntax recall his German background and, with his bright
eyes and perplexed, nervous energy, give him the air of a cheerfully
eccentric inventor from a children's film.
Though most people think of glass blowing as an archaic skill,
Finkenbeiner says that the craft is still in great demand in the
scientific world. He is one of some 500 scientific glass blowers
in the United States, and his company has almost more work than
it can keep up with. "It's different from the old glass blowers,
who made their own glass in a kiln and used a metal pipe to make
all kinds of goblets and things," he says. "But there
are many things we do today: for Raytheon, for MIT, Harvard, and
all the research companies around here. It's always one-of-a-kind,
and it must be modified, and there the glass blower is very important
and rare. We are always busy, because there are so few of us."
When Benjamin Franklin invented the glass harmonica in 1761, glass
blowing was still the standard way of producing virtually all glassware.
At the time, Franklin was living in England as a Colonial envoy.
He spent much of his time consorting with his fellow scientific
enthusiasts in the Royal Society, and it was through them that he
became fascinated with the musical glasses.
''You have doubtless heard the sweet tone that is drawn from a
drinking glass by passing a wet finger round its brim," he
wrote to an Italian friend. ''One Mr. Puckeridge, a gentleman from
Ireland, was the first who thought of playing tunes, formed of these
tones. He collected a number of glasses of different sizes, fixed
them near each other on a table, and tuned them by putting into
them water more or less, as each note required."
Typically, Franklin saw room for improvement. "I wished only
to see the glasses disposed in a more convenient form, and brought
together in a narrower compass, so as to admit of a greater number
of tones," he wrote. Teaming up with a local glass blower,
he procured 37 glass bowls, ground them to the appropriate pitches,
then threaded them one inside another on a spindle that could be
turned with a foot treadle. When a player placed his or her wetted
fingers on the edge of the spinning bowls, several notes would be
in reach of either hand, making it possible to play chords and complex
Franklin called his instrument the armonica, from the Italian word
for harmony, and the name was shortly Anglicized to harmonica. He
was thoroughly pleased with his invention, declaring, "Its
tones are incomparably sweet beyond those of any other." Many
listeners agreed. There is a story that, on his return to America,
Franklin reassembled the harmonica one night in the attic of his
home, and, when he began to play, his wife woke thinking she had
died and was hearing the music of angels.
Finkenbeiner, who is originally from Constance, on the German-Swiss
border, had grown up hearing about the instrument's unique tone.
"I come from a musical family, and in Germany the glass harmonica
was still quite well known," he says, pronouncing the name
as one word, the Germanic Glasharmonika. "It was still taught
in school -- the history of it, at least -- because many composers,
like Mozart, loved it for its special sound."
When Finkenbeiner saw the instrument in Paris, he was entranced,
though it was 25 years before circumstances allowed him to make
his first working model. In the meantime, he devoted some of his
spare time to exploring the musical properties of glass. Since the
end of World War II, he had been employed by the French Navy, blowing
glass for infrared detectors, but he also developed a sideline making
glass church bells and, later, glass carillons.
The bells are a quirky invention that would have been right up
Franklin's alley. A set in the office, which serves as both alarm
and door chime, consists of three glass crosses revolving in a metal
case that looks rather like an electric oven. Each cross has a thin
glass fiber running through it, which is hit twice in each revolution
by a glass bead. The sound of glass on glass, amplified by an electronic
pickup, is uncannily like that of a bronze bell.
A walk through Finkenbeiner's halls makes it clear that his interest
in the special properties of glass is not confined to sound. Here
and there are odd gizmos he has created over the years. Little glass
divers, neatly blown in human forms, rise and fall in a pressurized
water tank. A glass wheel twirls on a glass thread inside a blown-glass
vacuum tube; it has been twirling steadily since 1991, twisting
first one way and then the other, but never breaking. "Every
few days we have to give it a little push, but it keeps going,"
Finkenbeiner says. "If it was metal, it would have broken long
ago, but glass doesn't fatigue."
The push he gives the apparently delicate object is hearty and
offhand, as if glass were the least breakable of substances. Indeed,
as he moves through the factory's main room, he handles glass in
a way that is rather alarming. He taps thin glass bowls to show
their sound qualities; he casually heats a tube and shatters it,
by immersing it in cold water, to demonstrate its inferiority to
the heat-resistant quartz glass he favors. Warning that there will
be a bit of a pop, he even blows and bursts a balloon of glass,
smiling as glittering tissues flutter to the floor.
In the workroom, shelves hold stacks of harmonica bowls, each marked
with the note it will sound. Finkenbeiner makes the bowls on a large
lathe, which holds a 6-foot glass tube. Donning bifocals with welder's
glass on the bottom, he sets the lathe spinning and lights a semicircular
gas jet, enveloping the tube in blue flame. As it gets hot, the
glass glows so brightly that it is impossible to look at it with
the naked eye. Through a length of rubber tubing, Finkenbeiner gently
blows air into the spinning tube, and the heated section balloons
into an ellipsoid bulb that, when cut in half, will form two bowls.
Finkenbeiner cannot control the exact thickness of the bowls, so
each must be tested to see which note it makes, then fine-tuned
by grinding its sides. Finkenbeiner can get 20 bowls from each glass
tube, which gives him a terrific advantage over 18th-century manufacturers
like Ferdinand Pohl, the dean of harmonica builders. "He didn't
have glass tubing," Finkenbeiner explains. ''He had to pick
the liquid glass out of an oven and make a tube himself, and then,
while it was still hot, he could blow one bulb. But he had to do
it all by hand."
Pohl, a joiner from a small town in Bohemia, worked out his own
methods for making harmonicas by trial and error, using as a model
the glass bells placed over fine clocks. The story is that he spent
months constructing his first instrument, and, when he opened the
workroom door to announce his success to his wife, a draft slammed
it shut and jolted a portrait of St. John off the wall, smashing
his masterpiece to bits. A pamphlet by Pohl's grandson describes
how "in his despair the unhappy man . . . stamped violently
on the poor saint," but, "blessed by nature with a great
deal of perseverance," he went on to international success,
eventually producing some 4,000 instruments.
Whereas Pohl was inspired by clock bells, Finkenbeiner was spurred
by a job he undertook for IBM in the early 1980s. While constructing
furnace tubes to be used in making semiconductors, Finkenbeiner
had to seal off one end to create a vacuum, then later cut the end
off and discard it. It was while looking at the discarded ends that
he had an idea. ''What we left over was looking just like a glass
harmonica cup," he remembers. "So I started saving these
ends. It was quartz, the best-quality glass, and after a year I
had almost a hundred different cups. They needed to be tuned, of
course, but that gave me the start. I made one harmonica, and, when
it was done, I was fascinated by the sound. It was so great. And
nobody had heard one, because, in the museums, they don't let you
touch them." The harmonica had largely disappeared by the early
1800s, after a vogue of more than three decades. At its peak, it
had been among the half-dozen most common instruments for amateur
parlor musicians, so popular that the first mouth-organ manufacturers
appropriated its name for their product. Its fame was spread by
Marianne Davies, an English relative of Franklin's, who quickly
mastered the instrument and had several successful European tours.
During a residence at the Viennese Imperial Court, Davies was instructor
to both the young Archduchess Maria Antonia, better known as Marie
Antoinette, and the soon-to-be-notorious hypnotist Franz Anton Mesmer.
It was also during Davies' Viennese stay that the instrument came
to the attention of the composer whose work would give it lasting
fame, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, then 13 years old.
The Mozart-Mesmer connection provides an odd byway to the harmonica
story. Mesmer was a patron of Mozart's, the first to present an
opera by the young prodigy. He was also a harmonica aficionado,
and a letter from Mozart's father is highly complimentary regarding
both Mesmer's instrument and his playing. Unfortunately, in the
next decades he would become known as a wonder-working charlatan
with questionable morals, and the harmonica, which he used to relax
his patients, suffered a parallel decline in reputation. Its ethereal
vibrations were blamed for various nervous conditions, and stories
circulated of strange afflictions that beset players and listeners
Some historians have suggested that the problems were real, caused
by lead from the glass leaching into the fingers of performers,
but others have pointed out that many harmonica enthusiasts, Mesmer
and Franklin among them, lived to a ripe old age. A harmonica instruction
book from 1788 includes a preface defending the instrument against
"prejudices which have crept into people's minds as easily
as have its tones." Public sentiment was turning ugly, and,
after a child died during a concert in Germany, the harmonica was
banned in some regions as a public danger.
Finkenbeiner still sounds a bit defensive when he talks about the
rumors. ''They would say things like, 'Don't play at midnight, because
the ghosts will come out,' " he says, with an air of only half-amused
irritation. "They really believed in this, and that's not true;
it's just a nice sound."
Despite such worries, the harmonica remained popular into the early
19th century. It reached its highest standing through the performances
of Mozart's cousin, the blind virtuoso Marianne Kirchgessner, whose
phenomenal technique inspired dozens of composers. Mozart himself,
in his last year, composed for her what are still considered the
two most important pieces in the glass repertoire, the unaccompanied
Adagio in C Major and the Adagio and Rondo for Harmonica, Flute,
Oboe, Viola, and Cello.
Even in its waning years, the harmonica's charms were powerful
enough to attract major composers. Beethoven wrote a brief piece
for it, and Donizetti used it in his 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor,
though the instrument's bad reputation may account for the fact
that it appears only to accompany Lucia's ''mad scene." By
that time, even such a back-handed compliment was given with difficulty.
The composer was unable to find any harmonicist proficient enough
to play his score and so was forced to rewrite the part for flute,
giving the harmonica a simpler role, providing background atmosphere.
Harmonicas survived for an additional 100 years in corners of Eastern
Europe, but the Franco-Prussian War and World War I resounded with
great crashes of shattering glass, and the few surviving instruments
were relegated to dusty corners in lucky museums. By 1956, when
the American organist E. Power Biggs attempted a revival in a concert
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the harmonica had
become the stuff of folklore. Top glass manufacturers and instrument
makers collaborated to build him an instrument that would use a
keyboard rather than direct finger contact, but the final product
sounded awful, and Biggs ended up playing the Adagio and Rondo on
the flute stops of his organ.
A breakthrough of sorts came in 1964, when a German musician named
Bruno Hoffmann recorded his Music for Glass Harmonica. In an ironic
twist, however, Hoffmann's instrument was not a harmonica but rather
its predecessor, the musical glasses, though his were ground to
pitch rather than tuned with water. (Hoffmann became a friend of
Finkenbeiner's, and the current notes to his recording call his
instrument a "glass harp.")
Following Hoffmann's lead, musical-glass players began to pop up
on both sides of the Atlantic, but it was only with Finkenbeiner's
appearance that Franklin's creation once again moved to center stage.
On the second floor of his factory, Finkenbeiner has a room set
aside for music, and here one can see the harmonica in all its glory.
It is not the only instrument in the room -- there are also two
Finkenbeiner carillons and an electronic keyboard -- but there is
no question which holds the place of honor.
The harmonica is a lovely thing to look at. The bowls, three octaves'
worth, placed one inside the next, form a gleaming, tapered cylinder,
the sharps and flats highlighted with gold. Finkenbeiner has replaced
Franklin's treadle with an electric motor but has remained true
to tradition by mounting his instrument in a fine wooden case.
Though modest about his musical abilities, Finkenbeiner is more
than happy to play and is willing to give a visitor a try as well.
First, however, he must scrub his hands until they squeak, removing
every trace of oil, so as to get the proper friction on the glass.
Even the water itself can be important. Depending on its mineral
content, it can make playing more or less difficult, and one of
Finkenbeiner's early customers, Vera Meyer, has a horror story about
giving a concert in a town that had particularly soft water -- she
was not able to get a single note out of the instrument.
Indeed, the arcana of harmonica water are subjects unto themselves.
Old books insist that the same water be used for washing and playing,
and present- day artists often travel with their own distilled water.
"In the drug stores of the old time, they had shelves full
of glass-harmonica water in bottles," Finkenbeiner says, with
evident amusement. "With secret ingredients to play better.
It was probably just alcohol, to eliminate the grease. But there
were that many glass harmonicas around."
Finkenbeiner uses ordinary Waltham tap water, and, once all the
oil has been removed from his fingers, he dips them in a dish that
sits handy beside the instrument and begins to play.
Even after hearing recordings and seeing pictures, it is a magical
moment. As his fingers touch the edges of the bowls, the music appears
out of the air, with no audible attack, no clear beginning or end.
It is a sound like nothing else, and, as one listens, all the talk
of angelic voices almost makes sense.
Finkenbeiner seems to expend no effort in playing, but the ease
is illusory. A novice's touch on the bowls produces only a rather
nasty squeak, with a faint after-ring, and Finkenbeiner says it
is unusual for a first attempt to yield even this unsatisfactory
result. It is an odd sensation as well, a sort of eerie tickling,
and it is easy to see how the rumor got started that the vibrations
could be dangerous.
Of course, odd vibrations can also be regarded as salutary. Two
centuries after Mesmer, Finkenbeiner says he finds that some of
his best customers come from the New Age healing community. In the
late 1980s, a mystical Lemurian entity named Gurudas, channeling
through two American writers, declared the harmonica "extremely
powerful to open the chakras" and recommended that players
use gem elixirs and flower essences attuned to each note. Soon Finkenbeiner
was flooded with letters from people seeking the "spiritual
and healing vibration" of pure quartz.
This aspect of his business has Finkenbeiner a bit puzzled, though
he is grateful for the custom and has even, at the prophet's suggestion,
begun to make quartz flutes. He prefers to talk about the dozens
of musicians who play his instruments. Meyer is a close friend,
and he keeps in contact with a world of harmonica enthusiasts whose
smiling photos adorn his walls. His mail-order catalog includes
cassettes and CDs by players like Ken Piotrowski, a New Hampshire
pianist and historian of the instrument, and Dean Shostak, who performs
in period costume in the taverns of Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia.
Dennis James, the most visible modern player, also began his career
with a Finkenbeiner harmonica, though he has since switched to a
custom instrument made by a German associate of Finkenbeiner's,
Sascha Reckert. Reckert's instrument has a richer, bassier sound
than Finkenbeiner's, which is brighter and louder. James performs
regularly with classical ensembles in Europe and in the United States
but is best known to American audiences for his frequent appearances
with Linda Ronstadt.
The glass-music world is still quite small, but new players and
makers are appearing every day. Glass Music International, formed
in 1987, sends its newsletter to some 350 subscribers in 14 countries
and is organizing a convention to be held in Boston in April of
next year. The inventor's gleam comes into Finkenbeiner's eye as
he sketches pictures of seraphims, verillons, and other strange
new instruments that his fellow glass-instrument builders have been
toying with. (The seraphim is a set of pre-tuned glasses, the verillon
a set of tuned glass tubes.)
Finkenbeiner is obviously enthusiastic about these developments,
and the discussion of glass-working innovations reminds him of his
early years as an apprentice. "When you start learning how
to blow glass, everything twists," he says. "It looks
like a cauliflower or a coil or something, it gets paper thin, and
then it's gone. So it takes, depending on the person, something
like five years to go through the brain, to put an input so that
you can coordinate those movements. It's like playing a musical
instrument: You must practice, practice, practice, but then once
you have it, it's fine."
His eyes get even brighter, and he heads back to the workroom.
Taking a piece of thin tube, he heats it on a burner and blows a
perfect bubble in the middle. A quick pull and twist makes an elegant,
narrow curve, then another breath produces a tiny bubble, which
he quickly pulls off-center. A final twist, and, with a beaming
smile, he hands the visitor a going-away present. It is a perfect
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