A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Harmonica
HARMONICA. The power of producing musical sounds from glass basons or drinking glasses by the application of the moistened finger, and of tuning them so as to obtain concords from two at once, was known as early as the middle of the 17th century, since it is alluded to in Harsdörfer's 'Mathematische und philosophische Erquickungen,' ii. 147 (Nuremberg, 1677). Gluck, the great composer, when in England, played 'at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket,' April 23, 1746—'a concerto on 26 drinking glasses tuned with spring water, accompanied with the whole band, being a new instrument of his own invention; upon which he performs whatever may be done on a violin or harpsichord.' This or some other circumstance made the instrument fashionable, for 15 years later, in 1761, Goldsmith's fine ladies in the Vicar of Wakefield, who confined their conversation to the most fashionable topics, 'would talk of nothing but high life and high lived company … pictures, taste, Shakspeare, and the musical glasses.' That they occupied the attention of better persons than Lady Blarney and the Hon. Carolina Wilelmina Amelia Skeggs is evident from the testimony of Franklin. He came to London in 1757, and writing on July 13, 1762, to Padre Beccaria at Turin, he tells him of the attempts of Mr. Puckeridge and of Mr. Delaval, F.R.S. who fixed their glasses in order on a table, tuned them by putting in more or less water, and played them by passing the finger round the brims. Franklin's practical mind saw that this might be greatly improved, and he accordingly constructed an instrument in which the bells or basons of glass were ranged or strung on an iron spindle, the largest and deepest-toned ones on the left, and gradually mounting in pitch according to the usual musical scale. The lower edge of the basons dipped into a trough of water. The spindle was made to revolve by a treadle. It carried the basons round with it, and on applying a finger to their wet edges the sound was produced. The following cut is reduced from the engraving in Franklin's letter (Sparks's ed. vi. 245).
The essential difference between this instrument and the former ones was (1) that the pitch of the tone was produced by the size of the glasses, and not by their containing more or less water; and (2) that chords could be produced of as many notes as the fingers could reach at once. Franklin calls it the 'Armonica,' but it seems to have been generally known as 'Harmonica.' The first great player on the new instrument was Miss Marianne Davies, who had a European fame, and played music composed for her by Hasse. Another celebrated performer was Marianna Kirchgässner, a blind musician. She visited Vienna in 1791, and interested Mozart so much that he wrote an Adagio and Rondo in C for harmonica, flute, oboe, viola, and cello, which she played at her concert on June 19 (Köchel, No. 617). Sketches of his for another Quintet in the same key are also in existence. Kirchgässner was in London in 1794, and a new harmonica is said to have been built for her by Fröschel a German mechanician. In England the instrument appears to have been little if at all used during the present century. In Saxony and Thuringia however it was widely popular; at Dresden, Naumann played it, and wrote 6 sonatas for it. At Darmstadt a harmonica formed a part of the Court orchestra; the Princess Louise, afterwards Grand Duchess, was a proficient upon it, and C. F. Pohl, sen., the Princess's master, was engaged exclusively for the instrument as late as 1818.
Attempts have been made to improve or modify the harmonica by substituting a violin bow for the hand, or by reducing the peculiarly penetrating and exciting tone which is said to be so prejudicial to the nerves of players—but without success. An account of these and of much more than can be included in this short statement will be found in C. F. Pohl's 'Zur Geschichte der Glasharmonica' (Vienna, 1862). One Method only exists for this instrument, that of J. C. Müller, Leipzig, 1788. A specimen of the harmonica, built by Emanuel Pohl of Kreibitz, Bohemia, is in the South Kensington Museum.
The following little piece for the Harmonica was composed by Beethoven for the 'Leonora Prohaska' of his friend Duncker in 1814 or 15. The autograph is preserved in the Library of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde at Vienna, and has not before been published.
[ G. ]
- See 'General Advertiser' of this date, and Walpole's letter to Mann, March 28.