The Armonica: Franklin's Lifelong Companion
Franklin was doubtless proficient on his own instrument, "and often may have spent his leisure hours with playing on it Italian music of the 'soft and plaintive kind"'.1 It may have even enticed him away from his duties as colonial agent for Pennsylvania, because a report to his Governor in the spring of 1761 said:
I believe he has spent most of his time in philosophical, and especially in electrical matters, having generally company in a morning to see those experiments, and musical performances on glasses, where any one that knows him carries his friends.2
The earliest mention of BF's performance on the armonica after his return to Philadelphia is in a letter dated Dec. 3, 1762, from Mrs. Ann Graeme to her daughter Elizabeth, the girl William, Franklin's son, had jilted.3 Mrs. Graeme had called upon the Franklins the day before (about a month after BF had arrived); although the situation necessarily involved considerable strain, "we appear'd to have a very easy afternoon," and at the caller's request BF gave her "a tune on the Harmonica."4
Considering the state of glassmaking in the Colonies, it's unlikely that Franklin had another instrument made by American craftsmen when he returned to Philadelphia in 1762. This is confirmed by ongoing correspondence we have of him trying to get armonica glasses from London.5 Thus it would seem that Franklin brought his London-made armonica with him to Philadelphia. At the same time, Marianne Davies has an instrument with which she starts concertizing right away (we shall consider Miss Davies presently) which suggests that Franklin had a second instrument made before his return to Philadelphia.
The jewel of Franklin's house in Philadelphia was the music room, called the blue room, on the third floor. Graced with gilt carvings, an ornamental fireplace, and decorative chairs and screens, it featured Sally's harpsichord and Franklin's beloved glass armonica, whose ethereal sweetness was well-suited to the Scottish songs Franklin loved so well. Playing duets with Sally on the harpsichord was one of his greatest pleasures. Eventually the music room would boast a welsh harp, a bell harp, tuned bells, and a viola da gamba, all much used by his musical family.
I play some of the softest Tunes on my Armonica, with which Entertainment our People here are quite charmed and conceive the Scottish Tunes to be the finest in the World. And indeed, there is so much simple Beauty in many of them, that in my Opinion they will never die, but in all ages find a Number of Admirers.6
He himself took great pleasure from playing his armonica; he carried one home with him when he sailed a few weeks after writing this letter to Beccaria, and always thereafter seems to have had one in his living quarters wherever he might be.
Franklin was much loved and enjoyed a lively social life in England and Europe. He usually brought his armonica along to parties. Apparently word about this got back to the colonies, much to the chagrin of Thomas Penn who wrote a report to Governor Hamilton complaining that Benjamin Franklin was happily spending his time in "philosophical matters and musical performances on glasses."7
There is a story printed in an early Irish musical dictionary of how, upon his return to America, while Franklin's wife was asleep, he went up to the attic of his Philadelphia home and set up his armonica which she had not yet heard. Having set it up, he started to draw forth its "angelick strains". Floating down from above, these sounds were apparently so heavenly, that "his wife awakened with the conviction that she had died and gone to heaven and was listening to the music of the angels."8
When Franklin went to France in 1776, we know he left his armonica behind in Philadelphia: on 14 July 1778 Franklin's son-in-law, Richard Bache, reported on the state of his house following its occupation by a "rapacious" band of British soldiers. Even before listing the missing books and scientific equipment, Bache lamented that they had carried off "some of your musical Instruments, viz: a welch harp, bell harp, the set of tuned bells which were in a box, Viol de Gambo, all the spare Armonica Glasses and one or two of the spare cases. Your armonica is safe."9
Meanwhile, we know that Franklin played the armonica for his friends in France—it's a mystery where this instrument came from. When he visited his beautiful friend, Madame Brillon, an accomplished musician and composer, she would accompany his armonica playing on the pianoforte. Its ethereal, haunting notes with a touch of melancholy made it a favorite at weddings. One author wrote, "The ear of a mortal can perceive in its plaintive tones the echoes of a divine harmony."
Abbé Morellet enlivened their gatherings [w/Mesdames Helvévtius & Brillon] singing in French Franklin's favorite Scottish ballads while the Doctor accompanied him on the armonica. For a dinner in honor of Franklin held sometime around Independence Day, the abbé toasted him in a highly complementary song of his own composition with a heady refrain: "Le verre en main / Chantons nôtre Benjamin" ("With glass in hand / Sing to our Franklin").10
An inventory of Franklin's instruments at the time of his death includes a viola da gamba, bells, harpsichord, glass armonica, spinet, Chinese gong, and a "Glassichord". The reader will recall that the 'glassichord' was the initial name that Franklin gave to the armonica. Yet, clearly if the armonica has already been listed in the inventory, the person listing the inventory wouldn't have listed the same instrument with an additional name. Thus the glassichord must be a different musical instrument altogether. Therein lies a tale:
In the winter of 1784/85, a Parisian physician named Beyer approached Franklin with an idea for constructing a kind of glass xylophone, played by means of mechanical hammers controlled by a keyboard. Franklin must have been intrigued by the idea, and gave Beyer his endorsement. Beyer presented a prototype to the Académie des Sciences in the spring of 1785, and received an enthusiastic reception. He then reminded Franklin of his promise to give a name to what the inventor had been calling simply 'the instrument'. Ever frugal, Franklin found a use for his formerly abandoned name, christened it the 'glasschord', and purchased one to take home with him to Philadelphia. Jefferson saw the instrument a week before Franklin left France and found it charming. Its tone was exceptionally sweet, he said, and Jefferson only regretted that its three-octave range was too short.11
Franklin's famous Autobiography ends in 1757—three years short of his invention of the armonica. But we know from his outline for the rest of the book that he had planned on devoting a chapter to it.12
4Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, xxxix (1915), 270–1
6 Benjamin Franklin, December 11, 1763