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Karl Roellig

Karl Leopold Roellig1 (1750?–1804) was an armonica maker, performer and composer. He was born in Hamburg; we aren't sure exactly when—some time around 1750. We know nothing of his youth.2 He was musical director of Ackermann's theatrical company in Hamburg from 1764 to 1769 and in 1771–2. His lost opera Clarisse was performed in Hamburg in 1771 and two years later in Hanover. Around 1780 he took up the glass armonica and went on a concert tour; in Dresden he was the guest of J.G.Naumann, and appearances are recorded in Hamburg (1781 and 1788) and Berlin (1787). From 1791 to his death he lived in Vienna, where he had a post at the court library and frequently performed on the glass armonica. He was never married.

Roellig was very interested in improving the glass armonica. He visited most of the glassworks of Bohemia and Hungary in his search for the best glasses, and around 1785 developed a method for marking the chromatic glasses (the 'sharps and flats'—the 'black keys') with gold rims. In 1784 Roellig (like Frick 15 years earlier, but independently of other contemporary developments) attempted a keyboard version of the glass armonica.

Roellig also invented the Orphica (a portable piano) around 1795 and developed the related Xänorphica in 1801 with Mathias Müller, and published numerous essays on instrument building. Naumann praised his 'subtle use of diminished and augmented intervals and harmonies and their resolution', but Rochlitz in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported that he 'plays far better than he writes'; his playing is said to have 'forced the audience to flee on account of the endless diminished 7ths and disconnected progressions'. Reichardt wrote two pieces for Roellig's glass armonica.3

In 1787 Roellig wrote a rather extraordinary essay about the armonica: Über Die Harmonika: Ein Fragment ("Concerning the Armonica: A Fragment"). He begins by waxing quite eloquent about the instrument:

  • "There has never been an instrument more important for the future than the armonica..."
  • It is "the most beautiful and pleasant instrument ever possessed by mankind..." 4
  • "The impact of this instrument borders on the fabulous, and it is likely, if it ever should be lost, that the tale of this instrument will be for the future what the history of Orpheus is for readers today."5

He then shares five 'letters'—fantastic anecdotes, really—about the armonica, which he claims are true stories...

Letter 1

Two men are about to have a duel (over a woman, of course). Friends persuade the antagonists to meet them in a meadow. Before the antagonists arrive, one of the friends hides in nearby bushes with his armonica. When the antagonists arrive, one friend tries to talk them out of their duel, while the other friend plays the armonica:

He conjured them to follow this picture of tranquility and peace—so I supported him with the full power of the armonica. Whenever he paused I would play and as soon as the sound of the armonica stopped he started begging them again. Suddenly they came running towards me —sobbing—and asked me to stop playing. I would only answer them through my beloved instrument until they were finally overwhelmed from feelings of friendship and embraced passionately.

I was just about to put the armonica away—after it had been so successful—when we heard someone whispering the following words: "You went away, you lovely sound, with pleasure you absorb my night. You went away!" Just then a creature dressed all in white stepped out of the bushes. It was Mrs Von W.-R. had informed her about our plan and she wanted to be a witness of this adventure. We had hired a boat so we could travel part of our journey on water, and so she accompanied us. During various talks a big cloud enchained the moon, a sight we watched with pleasure. You are aware of how easily Mrs von W's ideas change from the present to the future. The moon appeared again and we were guided by the long shadows of the objects surrounding us, which kept on changing their shapes, without knowing into the empire of ghosts.

We talked about tone and language of these supernatural creatures…

I was seated advantageously behind my instrument, had pulled the blanket back and thought that this would be the right time to play it. But as soon as I played the first few chords Mrs B. fainted, and only recovered just before we reached the dry land. I did not know that she was such a sensitive soul. But she shall never hear the armonica again without a warning in advance.

Letter 2

The author is invited to a friend's manor—which features "several temples, grottos, waterfalls, maze walks and subterranean arches"—to play at a ball that evening. Overcome by fatigue, the author slumbers, and is awakened by a servant...
He suggested carrying my instrument and I was asked to follow him.

He was in a rush but because I only followed him slowly I had the opportunity—as I was guided by curiosity—to follow the dull sounds of trombones, which seemed to be coming from the cellar.

But imagine to my amazement when I walked (and nearly fell!) down the stairs leading to the cellar, and suddenly spotted a burial vault. I watched people putting a corpse into a coffin, and while sepulchral music was being played one was busy bandaging a vein on the arm of a person who was all dressed in white and covered in blood.

Everyone else, apart from the health professionals, was covered in long black coats, and showed bare swords. At the entrance to the vault dead bodies were lying upon each other. The only light in the room came from candles that smelled similar to burning alcohol, and this light made the whole view look creepy and frightful.

As I didn't want to lose my guide I hurried back. As soon as I arrived at the garden entrance the guide stepped inside. Impatiently he grabbed my hand and pulled me along. As soon as I entered the garden I stopped with amazement. I had never seen anything as beautiful as this. All seemed to be set alight by green flames—flames coming out of lamps—buzzing of far away waterfalls—nightingales sang sweetly—there was smell of blooming flowers everywhere—it all seemed unearthly and nature seemed to have dissolved in magic. I was shown my seat behind an arbour with heavenly decorated interior.

Soon a person—who was unconscious—was carried into the arbour and I was given the sign to start playing. (I assumed it was the person I saw earlier in the vault, the one who got his veins bandaged. But I am not sure about this as all tradesmen wear noble robes.) I was too busy concentrating on myself that I did not really have a chance to notice what was going on.

But I did realize that the unconscious person—after I had played the armonica for one minute—recovered and asked full of astonishment: "Where am I? The voices I can hear... to whom do they belong?" Jubilation with trumpets and bass drums—that was the answer. Everyone suddenly grabbed their swords and rushed deeper into the garden, what happened then I cannot recall.

Letter 3

While traveling, the author arrives in a town where the residents...

... were famous for being very religious, and were also easily to impress. Even the name 'armonica' seemed impressive to them. When I offered to play for them the whole community gathered in church celebratory, as to where I followed them. The sacredness of this town and the extraordinary silence of such a big crowd of people—who were so soulful—made this whole event just beautiful.

The expression of impact the armonica showed was new to me. No fainting, no tears but she created merry, hopeful and smiling faces; the same hope that is created when you look across the borders of our life. We parted joyfully, after they had all passed me during the procession, looking at my instrument with silent admiration.

Some of the men accompanied us through the forest to the castle of Earl R., where we stayed the night. Some of them carried the armonica on their shoulders, and they treated it just like a sanctuary. The others guided the way by lighting up lanterns and candles in the street.

Letter 4

While I was on my journey to P.—I got the coachman to stop at a little bridge where I saw a little girl sleeping on the other side. I decided to wake her up with my armonica.

I hid not far from the girl and played a soft melody for her. The soft and quiet tunes seemed ineffective so I decided to play a few stronger chords. Just when I was about to finish playing she suddenly opened her eyes and looked at me. She was frightened, looked around her and started to cry.

After her first movement I stopped playing then continued again quietly; but she started to scream, jumped up and ran away as fast as she could.

When I managed to get out of the bush—my hiding place—she was long gone and I was left standing there surprised.

Even now when I think back on this event I still do not understand why she was so frightened of my music.

Letter 5

... However, I used to have a dog who could not tolerate any other tone but the one of my armonica. It seemed that as long as I was playing it he was always in a comfortable mood. He sometimes went over to the armonica and sniffed it by taking deep breaths.—

The expression of Mr. M.'s dog was however far more flamboyant and well worth observing. I would like to describe the following scene—which I was able to watch many times—as accurately as possible as it was so peculiar.

This dog was remarkably big, humane and lethargic. But he knew exactly at what hour I would arrive at and tried everything to get into the room with me—be it through trick, flattery or violence.... When I began playing he was very alert; but after a few seconds only of me playing the armonica he would nod off and fall into a state of somnolence (= abnormal need to sleep), unable to resist.

A few times he changed his sleeping position and while doing so he tried to cover his ears from the sound of the armonica; but as soon as he lay down he was overwhelmed by sleep again. All his movements suddenly became epileptic. The dog was just like a lifeless machine, only moved by weights and ropes, just like a puppet on a string. His eyes opened up violently and you could see the eyeballs rotating quickly. The mouth started to deform with intensity which lead to unnatural chewing, you could compare him to a ravenous wild dog. His paws moved swiftly as if he was running; and sometimes I noticed a silent bark.

This scenario usually lasted for approximately half an hour. When he woke up he seemed as if he awoke from a dream, he was yawning, seemed droopy and fearful...

He concludes his article:

It is advised not to touch the armonica if you are not in good spirits or not entirely healthy. It is no instrument to be used for just sheer amusement; it is worth much more. And if you are aware of how much it is worth then it will keep this value forever.

You should play it only now and then—and when you do—only for a short time.

If you consider that passion never lasts for a long time—but the armonica always tries to express the highest level of passion—you'll find that it manages to create passionate sensations in only a short space of time.

If you would like to try and resist the magic of the armonica you have to start early on, as it proves to be very difficult.

You should especially avoid playing her around midnight. I have never heard it singing with more passion than during the silent night, where everything seems quiet and still. The night went by in an instant and in the morning I felt as if I had not slept at all...

It gives great pleasure to everyone who plays it and everybody will be captive to its irresistible charms. It can become really dangerous if you do not try to moderately escape from this well-spring of innocent pleasure...

If you compare the impact the tone has on the audience (with much stronger impression on the player himself)—the unique sound of these tones—with the many repeats—everybody will have to admit that playing this instrument is not an easy task.

Not only these soft "airwaves" which fill your ears can have serious consequences but also the percussion and the constant straining of the cups with already fragile nerves on your fingers can cause illnesses which can—sometimes—even end fatally.

I can give evidence from my own experience—so I will now tell you a little about my history of illnesses which will hopefully be a warning to everyone. (An elaborated history of my illness—the beginning of it—its activity-peak-decrease—the way the diet influenced it and the constant use of a cold bath—it all would be far too much detail to tell you.) A persistent tremble of nerves, twitching of muscles, dizziness, cramps, swelling and palsy of the limbs were usually the results whenever I played my beloved instrument too much.

The most cruel side effect of all was however, that I started to imagine things, I dreamed with my eyes open, in the middle of the day I saw creatures (people) from different centuries, in the evening and at nights I saw ghosts which seemed to move with the wind, and which created strange noises and threatened me with my downfall.

Of course I only had myself to blame for feeling so miserable—as I kept on playing my instrument day and night. I was happy whenever I played my beloved armonica, I felt so much passion—how could I have anticipated that it would make me so sick?

During my travels I spoke to many different doctors but no one managed to come up with a reason for my bad health. I eventually realised that I needed a break and that I had to stop playing for a while when I was unable to lift my armonica as I was simply too weak.

Every time I recovered quickly, usually without the help of any medicine. But every time I had played for a while I fell ill again. I eventually decided—and it was a very hard decision—to quit playing the armonica all together.

This was six years ago—and I have not been ill since.—(I am not allowed to play any instrument which is similar to the piano or the violoncello as this usually leads to short breath and palpitations. And this snatches away all hope of ever being able to play the armonica again.)

I realised that my illness had been genuine, and that I had not imagined it when it failed to return after I had quit playing my armonica. It was even more convincing when I found out that the same thing had happened to Miss Davis [sic] and Organist Frick.

Miss Davis had to stop playing in Wetzlar, Frick in London. I do not want to blame Frick for keeping his illness a secret. I am assuming it might have been "revenge" on Germany as it seemed that many people did not care about him as an artist.

I don't want people to think the same of me—not only Germany but the whole world should realise that the armonica is a gift to them but can make you ill if you use it too often. I have warned many people not to play the armonica too much—artist and dilettante will read my warnings—but as soon as they play again they will forget about it.

I wished however, that this fabulous instrument would be honored to highest perfection.


1NOTE: in German "ö" = "oe". In this book I consistently spell his name "Roellig", but in the literature in general you will therefore also see "Röllig" which is also correct.

2MGG 7:610

3Groves, ???

4Roellig, 5

5Roellig, 5