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Glass Armonica – The Music of Death

Glass Armonica – The Music of Death

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Benjamin Franklin's glass armonica

Discover the intriguing history of Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica, an innovative musical instrument that captivated Europe with its ethereal tones before falling victim to bizarre fears and controversies.

Music has always been a great influence in our lives since ancient times. If are particularly in a foul mood, listen to some music and you are most likely to feel otherwise. Indian society was no alien to such ideas. Indian classical music history is enriched with numerous musicians who were able to create different effects through their ragas. Tansen one of the nine jewels in Akbar’s court is believed to have created Raag Deepak which when sung created fire in the area of performance which could even lead to the death of the singer. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin created a musical instrument named ‘ glass armonica ’. Let me share the story with my readers.

In 1761, the polymath Benjamin Franklin found himself enraptured by the ethereal sound of a musician playing water-tuned wine glasses at a London concert. The delicate, haunting melodies washed over the audience, captivating Franklin’s imagination. Yet, amidst his enchantment, he noted the instrument’s unwieldiness: a precarious arrangement of glassware that could collapse with a single misstep. Determined to improve upon this design, Franklin invented the glass armonica, a rod fitted with rotating glass bowls. This innovation not only maintained the enchanting sound but also provided a more practical and robust means of producing it.

Franklin’s armonica quickly gained popularity across Europe. Its unique, otherworldly tones inspired none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to compose music specifically for it. However, the instrument’s soaring success would soon plummet as it became embroiled in a bizarre controversy: it was accused of driving people to madness and even death.

In the preceding decades, anatomists had made strides in understanding auditory nerves, leading to warnings about the potential dangers of overstimulation. Much like contemporary concerns over excessive consumption of coffee or tea, music too fell under scrutiny. These medical warnings, though grounded in limited understanding, fed into historical anxieties about music’s influence on the human psyche. Philosophers like Plato had long argued that certain musical modes could disrupt societal order, while Roman rhetorician Quintilian claimed some instrument timbres could drain a man’s vigor and sanity.

By the 19th century, pseudo-scientific theories about music’s impact on health proliferated. Music was blamed for an array of maladies from hysteria to premature menstruation, homosexuality, and even death. In 1837, the Penny Satirist magazine sensationally reported the death of a young woman, allegedly from listening to too much music.

Against this backdrop of growing musical paranoia, Franklin’s armonica became a focal point of fear. Critics argued that its hypnotic tones overstimulated the brain, causing dizziness, hallucinations, and even nervous disorders. Dr. Anthony Willich in 1799 condemned the instrument, asserting it induced “a great degree of nervous weakness.” The death of renowned armonica player Marianne Kirchgessner in 1808 was attributed by some to the instrument’s eerie tones, further stoking the public’s fears. Extremist views even suggested that its haunting melodies could drive listeners to suicide.

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This assault on the armonica’s reputation was devastating. The instrument, once celebrated for its innovation and beauty, was swiftly abandoned and faded into obscurity. Franklin’s creation, which had momentarily taken the musical world by storm, was relegated to the annals of history, a victim of its own haunting allure and the hysteria it unwittingly provoked.

Today, the glass armonica is a historical curiosity, a testament to both Franklin’s ingenuity and the period’s susceptibility to irrational fears. Its rise and fall serve as a poignant reminder of how societal anxieties can swiftly transform innovation into infamy.

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