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The Armonica in Italy

Franklin wrote to Beccaria in July of 1762 describing his new musical invention, which he had renamed to the new Italian name armonica. Franklin's long-time correspondence with Beccaria rarely diverged from scientific and personal matters, so Franklin's long description of the armonica is rather out of character. We surmised that Franklin believed Beccaria, who had so effectively championed his ideas about electricity throughout Europe, would prove an equal champion for his new musical invention. Franklin was not very well known in Europe yet so he didn't have a long list of options. "[Franklin] was convinced that the armonica was an important addition to the family of musical instruments, and that it was destined perhaps to supersede the harpsichord and piano. Hence, as previously with his stove and lightning rod, he must have been anxious to see humanity blessed with the new invention as soon as possible. That intent could obviously be no better served than by having his instrument adopted and cultivated in the land that was the musical Mecca to which the western world still turned for diversion and instruction. What then more logical than for him to dedicate his new instrument to a prominent Italian in order to take advantage of Italy's musical hegemony? An Italian name for the invention, along with a national compliment or two for good measure, was probably calculated to contribute further to put the Italians in a receptive mood."1

If that was Franklin's plan, it didn't work well. Beccaria was interested in literature, painting and sculpture—but not music. Consequently, Franklin's letter of 1762 was not published in Italy until 1769, and only then due to the efforts of the distinguished historian and Latinist Baron Guiseppe Vernazza. It wasn't printed again until the mid 1770's, exhumed presumably due to the concertizing of Marianne Davies, who arrived in Italy with her sister in late 1770/early 1771.

Beccaria's letter of May 20, 1771 which serves as an introduction to his Artificial Electricity opens with elaborate thanks:

I thank you, distinguished Sir, for the exact description of your new and truly harmonious crystal clavichord (thus it is granted you to illumine the mind of man with the principles of the new electrical science, to reassure his spirit against the horror of strokes with your [lightning] conductors, and to soothe his senses with sweet and pathetic music); and if I were capable, I would thank you in the name of our Italy for having, as you say, given your worthy instrument the name of Armonica precisely because of our harmonious language.[PBF 18:109ff] Artificial Electricity was a revised and expanded edition of the book on electricity (based on Franklin's ideas) that he had written two decades earlier. There isn't much connection between a musical instrument and electricity, but Franklin's description of the armonica had recently been published in English, and translated into Italian (both in 1769[PBF 18:109]); the armonica was in the public eye thanks to Marianne Davies, and Beccaria may well have wanted to use his connection with the increasingly famous inventor to advertise his new edition. The correspondence between the two Milanese brothers Counts Pietro and Alessandro Verri in the end of the eighteenth century gives us a window into the history of the armonica in Italy. English travelers had brought musical glasses to Italy before Franklin's letter to Beccaria, and Pietro Verri, charmed by the sound, experimented with them himself before hearing the armonica. He had over one hundred glasses made and amused himself by playing simple tunes. But he wasn't happy with the results, because he could only play two notes at a time, and because the water tuning was not only troublesome, but interfered with the timbre and resonance.2

One can thus easily imagine Pietro's excitement on hearing of the armonica from his brother Alessandro who was traveling in London. Alessandro's letters of recommendation and personal qualities gained him immediate access to London's most exclusive society during the three months he spent in England. Of course he had to visit Franklin, who had returned to London in 1764. And we find Alessandro writing home to his brother on January 27, 1764:

I have been to see the Newton of electricity, the famous Franklin. He is a man of over fifty years of age. You know that by pressing and sliding a moistened finger over the edge of a glass a sound is produced. He has made the instrument on this principle. He has strung on a spindle, or common axis, as many glass bells as correspond to the pegs of a harpsichord, proportionately graduated. The spindle turns by means of the left foot, with a wheel, as the knife grinder does. At the same time one touches with the fingers, as one does a harpsichord the bells which spin like wheels, after having first wet them slightly with a sponge. A melody comes out which goes to the heart...3

A year and a half later Pietro writes that he is determined to own an armonica. English general Henry Humphrey Evans Lloyd had paid him a visit in early 1768 and returned to England. Pietro writes:

Lloyd is having sent to me from London an armonica, which is the instrument that you saw at Franklin's. Within a month it should be at Genoa. He tells me that the basses are so powerful that they make the air vibrate and the windows of the room tremble. Tell me if you found it so. This winter an Englishman has been with us who played on the glasses, but it was not the device of the armonica. There were thirty-two glasses fixed motionless on a table and with a determined amount of water. By rubbing the fingers over them, a rather pleasing sound was produced. The chiaroscuro and expression are superb. There is no brilliancy, but there is the most touching passion, and I was enchanted with it. If the armonica produces a similar effect, I shall be satisfied. 4

Alessandro replied promptly:

The London armonica must be precisely the one that I saw at Franklin's. It seemed delightful to me. There are a number of graduated glass bowls strung on an axle which, placed in horizontal position, is spun with a pedal. One moistens his hands with a sponge and plays as on the keys of a harpsichord. The Marquise has also heard the instrument with the thirty glasses and says that at first she was ravished with delight, and finally she was bored. I believe that this is so because it does not sustain the tone, and, after the strokes, the sounds continue and become confused. There are none of these inconveniences in the armonica. Franklin played only a rather simple minuet for me, but I liked it very much. What charmed me was to hear a sweet and aerial sound without being able to determine the place it came from, because there is no striking of strings, nor hiss of breath, which in other instruments determine the seat of the sound and make it harsh. This is a human voice, but of greater mellowness and sweetness. I hope that you will get much pleasure from it. 5

Poor Pietro couldn't know that he destined to never have an armonica. By the end of 1771 he had concluded that Lloyd had forgotten his promise.6 Marianne Davies' visit to Milan at about this time must have fueled his desire and frustration. His remark: "At the present time there is an English-woman who plays it [the armonica]; it's heavenly" must refer to Marianne Davies. 7

Obviously inspired by Marianne Davies, Pietro made one more attempt, this time through his brother who had connections in England. In December, 1771, Alessandro commissioned his London agent to furnish an armonica, but he warned Pietro that no merchandise had ever reached him from London in less than eight months.[Veri 4:303, Pace 276] In January 1772 Alessandro reported that a friend of his "just come from London had seen the armonica played by poor women circulating bout the cafés, and on such evidence assured his brother that the instrument could not be very expensive."8 In February, Alessandro's London agent informed that he would talk with Franklin immediately about an armonica for Pietro.9 Alas, a month later the London agent reported:

We went to the workman who made several of the well known armonicas for this Dr. Franklin, the inventor, but he said that he is so weary of that work that he would not undertake another at any price. Hence there remains only to whether there is in London some other mechanic capable of such things...[Veri, 5:61-62, quoted in Pace 277]

Pietro's reply shows that he has come to appreciate the difficulties involved in constructing a good armonica, and has resigned himself to the likelihood that he shall never obtain one: It will take patience; and if an armonica is found, it will be something more than I expect. Dear Sandrino, I thank you for the trouble that you have taken... 10

After this, there is no further discussion of the armonica in the correspondence of the two brothers.

Scattered bits of information remain concerning the fortune of the armonica in Italy. Around 1772 the Milanese nobleman Count Lodovico Barbiano di Belgioioso, then retired to London after a strenuous military and political career in the service of Austria, wrote to Franklin to obtain the address of the workman who made glasses for the armonica so he can make one for the French ambassador11. Due to the difficulty of playing the armonica, and the rumors of "nerve damage" one Abbey Mazzuchi tried mounting the bells in a case and playing with violin bows.12 In 1785, Franklin's curiosity was piqued by the report of the success of a "keyboard armonica" by an Abbé Perno, who to judge from his name, may have been Italian.

In 1790 the anonymous author of the Roman Anthology wrote:

... all those who have heard it played confess that it is the most attractive, the most melodious, the most dramatic [instrument] hitherto conceived, and that, with its tragic, penetrating, and pure sounds, and its sweet and harmonious concents[sic] that can be at pleasure maintained, strengthened, and made to die away imperceptibly, it is more capable than any other pinstrument[ of moving, charming, and seducing souls and of making them fall into the most delicious reverie.13

And in 1826, Lichtenthal—an adoptive son of Italy—advised that "the nervously infirm should not attempt to play it at all, the hale should play it in moderation because its excessively dulcet tones induce melancholia; and those in whom the darker bile tends to predominate should either shunt the instrument completely, or else play only sprightly tunes on it."14


1 Pace (1958), 273–274

2 Pace (1958), 274ff

3Veri (1923), 1(1): 234; quoted in Pace (1958), 275

4Veri (1923), 1(2): 363–364; quoted in Pace (1958), 275–6

5Veri, 1(2): 375; quoted in Pace (1958), 276

6Veri (1919), 4: 291, Pace (1958) 276

7Veri (1919), 4: 291, quoted in Pace (1958) 276

8 Pace (1958), 276–277

9Veri, 5:25

10Veri, 5:61–62, quoted in Pace (1958), 277

11 Papers of Benjamin Franklin 19: 305

12Pace, 281. See also Forkel (1782), 32

13 Pace (1958), 281–282

14 Pace (1958), 282