October 5, 2007


Resonance Is a Glass Act for a Heroine on the Edge (ANTHONY TOMMASINI, 10/05/07, NY Times)

[T]he Met is honoring Donizetti’s original conception of several crucial scenes by using the glass harmonica (also called glass armonica) in the orchestra. The company has incorporated the glass harmonica into the score before, but never to this extent.

Wanting a delicate, otherworldly instrument to entwine melodic lines around Lucia’s vocal ones during her revealing arias and mad scene, Donizetti composed a part for the instrument, which was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1763. Inspired by the whistling, high-pitched sound produced by rubbing a wet finger along the rim of a drinking glass, Franklin attached glasses of graded sizes (to produce graded pitches) concentrically to a spindle; they are rotated sideways in a box filled partly with water. By rubbing fingers on the rims of the glasses as they spin, a performer can play tunes and runs.

But shortly before the premiere of “Lucia” in Naples in 1835, Donizetti rewrote the glass harmonica part for flute. What probably happened is related by Philip Gossett, an expert on 19th-century Italian opera, whose book “Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera” (University of Chicago Press, 2006) is as authoritative an examination of the era as we are likely to get. Mr. Gossett reports that the glass harmonica player at the theater in Naples was embroiled in a contractual dispute with company officials, and Donizetti was probably advised to steer clear of the guy. So the composer’s final score indicates that the part should be played by solo flute.

The Met chose to go with Donizetti’s initial inspiration. The glass harmonica is played by Cecilia Brauer, a pianist who has played celesta, a kind of small piano with chimes, with the Met orchestra for more than 30 years. It took her a long while to figure out how to play the glass harmonica, she said in a recent phone conversation.

“I used to play the Tchaikovsky concerto on the piano!” Ms. Brauer said. “But when I could finally play ‘Yankee Doodle’ on the glass harmonica, I was so happy.” She explained that the sound produced is dramatically affected by the hardness or softness of the water the glasses spin in, and even by the temperature of the player’s fingers.

“I dip my fingers in ice water to keep them cool,” she said. But she loves the haunting tenderness of the glass harmonica, which is slightly amplified to be heard at the Met.

You can play one yourself here

-Glass Harmonica (American Experience: Ben Franklin)
-Glass Armonica (William Zeitler)
-ARCHIVES: MP3s of William Zeitler on Glass Harmonica
-Second Time Around: Invented by Ben Franklin but lost to history, the glass armonica has been resurrected by modern musicians (Catherine Clarke Fox, February 01, 2007, Smithsonian.com)
-Thomas Bloch: Glass Harmonica
-Glass Armonica (Alisa Nakashian-Holsberg)
-Michael Pollak; Glass, Wet Fingers and a Mysterious Disappearance (MICHAEL POLLAK , 12/12/01, NY Times)
-The Glass Harmonica: Stairway to Madness (WFMU: Beware of the Blog, 6/28/05)

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 5, 2007 10:33 AM
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