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The Armonica in France

In the mid-eighteenth century there had been a concerted effort among the philosophes in France to combat ignorance and superstition by gathering together every scrap of known scientific knowledge and publishing it. One of these efforts was a 35-volume landmark Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert (appearing in installments between 1751 and 1780). The musical glasses were sufficiently popular to receive an entry (quoted here in full):

Glasses, musical, (Arts) For many years one has imagined producing, with the help of glasses, a new type of harmony, very pleasing to the ear.

It is claimed that it is an Englishman named Puckeridge who is the inventor; however this method is known for a long time in Germany. The instrument which is useful for this effect is an oblong quarrée[???] box, in which are arranged & fixed several round glasses of different diameters, in which one puts water in various quantities. While rubbing with the wet finger on the edges of these glasses which are a little rentrans[???], one draws some from them very-soft, very melodious & very-constant sounds; & one can play extremely pleasant airs in this manner.

The Persians have for a long time a nearly similar way of producing sounds; it is while striking with small sticks seven porcelain cups filled with a certain quantity of water, which produces harmonies.1

In 1765 the Davies performed in Paris, which would appear to be France's introduction to this instrument. 1778 found the Davies sisters in Paris, but Marianne appears to be plagued by "ill health" and presumably didn't perform.

Kirchgaessner never performed in France.

Mesmer arrived in Paris with his armonica in 1778. Mesmer didn't give public performances on his armonica, but it was a prominent feature of his well-known "animal magnetism" treatments. Mesmer left Paris in 1785. He returned briefly in ????.

Robertson opened his Fantasmagoria in Paris in 1798; they continued until he left Paris in 1803.

Chateaubriand writes of the musical glass that "the ear of a mortal can perceive in its plaintive tones the echoes of a divine harmony."

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) in his biography The Life of Chopin (1863) of his colleague and friend Frederic Chopin (1810–1849) describes Chopin playing in his apartment, comparing it to the armonica:

His apartment, invaded by surprise, was only lighted by some wax candles, grouped round one of Pleyel's pianos, which he particularly liked for their slightly veiled, yet silvery sonorousness, and easy touch, permitting him to elicit tones which one might think proceeded from one of those [h]armonicas of which romantic Germany has preserved the monopoly, and which were so ingeniously constructed by its ancient masters, by the union of crystal and water.2

George Sand (1804–1876), Chopin's long-time lover gave the armonica a brief appearance in her novel La Comtesse de Rudolstadt (1856). In her novel, the heroine Consuelo, in Vienna, wakes up to find herself in prison. She is rescued, only to be subjected to a Masonic-like ritual of initiation in which the armonica plays a role. Notice the extraordinary footnote Sand includes to explain the armonica to the reader:

In this moment the doors of the temple opened with a metallic noise, and the Unseen Ones entered two by two. The magical voice of the armonica, that recently invented instrument[13], whose vibrant, penetrating quality was a wonder unknown to Consuelo's ears, was borne on the air, and seemed to go down from the dome that lay open to the moonlight and the refreshing breezes of the night...

(Note 13: Everyone knows that the armonica created such a sensation with its appearance in Germany, that the imaginations of poets heard in it supernatural voices, evoked by the celebrants of certain mysteries. For some time this instrument, considered magic before it became popular, was raised by the practitioners of German theosophy to the same divine honor as the lyre among the ancients, and as many other musical instruments among primitive people of the Himalayas. From the armonica they evoked one of the hieroglyphic figures in their mysterious iconography, representing it in the form of a fantastic dream. Neophytes in secret societies, hearing it for the first time after the terrors and emotions of their harsh initiations, were so deeply affected by it that several fell into ecstasy. They believed they heard the song of the invisible powers, because the player and the instrument were carefully hidden from them. There are some very curious details on the extraordinary role of the armonica in the initiation ceremonies of Illumination.) 3


1 Verres, musiqe des, (Arts.) on a imaginé depuis quelques anneés de produire à l'aide des verres une nouvelle espece d'harmonie, trés flatteuse pour l'oreille. On pretend que c'est un anglois nommé Puckeridge, qui en est l'inventeur; cependant cette méthode est connue depuis long-tems en Allemange. L'instrument dont on se sert pour cet effet est une boîte quarrée oblongue, dans laquelle sont ranges & fixés plusieurs verres ronds de différent diameters, dans lesquels on met de l'eau en différentes quantités. En frottant avec le doigt mouillé sur les bords de ces verres qui sont un peu rentrans, on en tire des sons très-doux, très-mélodieux & très-soutenus; & l'on est parvenu à jouer de cette maniere des airs fort agréables.

Les Persans ont depuis fort long-tems une façon à peu-près semblable de produire des sons; c'est en frappant avec de petits bâtons sur sept coupes de porcelaine remplies d'une certaine quantité d'eau, ce qui produit des accords.

2 Liszt (1863), 51–52

3 Sand (1856), 472–473