Amusing Monday: Ben Franklin’s water music

More than three years ago in Amusing Monday (Nov. 9, 2009), I featured the beautiful music of Robert Tiso, who had perfected the art of playing the glass harp, a series of glasses filled with water.

I’m not sure how I missed this bit of history, but I recently learned that Benjamin Franklin loved the sound created when crystalline glass was stroked by the human finger. Being the thoughtful inventor he was, Franklin believed it was a waste of time to fill and tune each water glass when they could be made to play just as beautifully without water, provided they were made to the proper size.

Franklin also came up with the idea of spinning the glasses, so the musician could move his fingers more quickly from one to another. He first called the new instrument the glassychord but later settled on armonica, as revealed in a letter to an Italian friend written in 1762:

“… Being charmed by the sweetness of its tones, and the music he produced from it, 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 tunes, and all within reach of hand to a person sitting before the instrument, which I accomplished, after various intermediate trials, and less commodious forms, both of glasses and construction, in the following manner….

“The advantages of this instrument are, that its tones are incomparably sweet beyond those of any other; that they may be swelled and softened at pleasure by stronger or weaker pressures of the finger, and continued to any length; and that the instrument, being once well tuned, never again wants tuning.

“In honour of your musical language, I have borrowed from it the name of the instrument, calling it the Armonica.

“With great esteem and respect, I am, Etc., B. Franklin”

You may read more about Franklin and his instrument on the website “The Glass Armonica: Benjamin Franklin’s Magical Musical Invention,” created by William Zeitler, a modern musician who has his own amazing story to tell.

Zeitler became interested in music from the age of five and built a harpsichord from a kit when he was in high school, according to his autobiography. He went on to earn a college degree in the harpsichord from the California Institute of the Arts. In 1995, he heard a recording of a piece that Mozart had written for the glass armonica and decided to build one and learn how to play it on his own.

In 2011, he played his instrument in i‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ at the Kennedy Center, where he performed under the stage while an armonica prop appeared to play itself during the play. You may read about this adventure on his webpage “Glass Armonica in ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ at the Kennedy Center.”

Last year, Zeitler composed a piece called “The Last Transit of Venus” to acknowledge the rare astronomical event, which I described in Water Ways one year ago today. Zeitler noted that a previous transit of Venus had occurred in 1761, the year Franklin invented the armonica.

Zeitler has collected other videos — some his own and some from others who have posted on YouTube — and presented them on a video page on his website.

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