Benjamin Franklin may have helped give birth to a new nation, but the glass armonica was the Founding Father’s “most cherished creation,” according to English professor Corey Mead. Best known as a statesman and a scientist, Franklin had a deep appreciation for the power and beauty of music. In fact, music was his passion and joy, and Mead’s new book, “Angelic Music,” resonates with that enchantment.
But what exactly is a glass armonica, which Mead notes was “the first musical instrument ever invented by an American”? It’s unknown when or where glass vessels were first used to create sound, but by the 1700s, Europeans knew that “by filling glasses with different amounts of wine and rubbing a wet finger around their rims,” they could make “a cheerful wine-music.”
Enter our tireless inventor. In 1757, when Franklin was sent to London to lobby for Pennsylvania’s right to self-government, he enjoyed going to concerts. When he heard Edward Delaval perform on the musical glasses, he was charmed. But “in typical Franklin fashion, he saw room for improvement in the instrument’s design.” He experimented to improve its form and found a solution that allowed the performer to create “a much fuller sound than the musical glasses had previously allowed,” Mead writes. With other innovations, his new invention “improved the musical glasses, and formed them into a compleat instrument to accompany the voice; capable of a thorough bass, and never out of tune,” according to the Bristol Journal in 1762.
Mead takes us on an instructive ride from early America to London and continental Europe, where the armonica was at its most popular. Some loved it, some insisted it caused insanity, while others praised its healing powers. Great composers, including Handel, Beethoven and Mozart, wrote for it. Many gifted women played it. Marie Antoinette popularized it. Ann Ford was “the first famous performer on the musical glasses in eighteenth-century London.”
With spirited charm, Mead weaves history, music, science and medicine into the story. There is a delightful chapter on the history of glass, sidetrips to Ireland and Germany, and an intriguing section about Franz Mesmer, who used the glass armonica to hypnotize — or mesmerize — his patients.
The glass armonica eventually fell out of favor, but “after lingering in obscurity for a century and a half, the instrument has in recent decades enjoyed a revival,” Mead writes. Composers are writing music for it again in many different genres. Fascinating, insightful and, best of all, great fun, “Angelic Music” will certainly add to this enthusiasm.
Eugenia Zukerman is a flutist and the music director of Clarion Concerts in Columbia County, as well as the artistic director of Classics on Hudson.
By Corey Mead
Simon & Schuster. 288 pp. $28