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The Armonica in America

During colonial times, the social lot of the native-born musician was extremely low. Following the model of the ancient Roman Republic, which many colonialists wished to adopt, musicians were routinely counted among the least desirable elements of society. In one tabulation of civic worth, the musician was listed just one notch above the three most useless professions of all: the actor, the sausage maker and the perfumer. It was a rare occurrence for a person to make his living entirely from music in America during the eighteenth century. Most were forced to double up on their talents and offer their services in the manner of one instrumentalist who sought employment in 1767 by advertising in the Virginia Gazette that he "shaves, dresses hair and plays on the French horn."

Franklin rather shared this view: music made an excellent amusement but wasn't really a proper profession.

Stephen Forrage gave a performance on Dec. 31, 1764 "for the benefit of Mr. Forrage and others, assistant performers at the Subscription Concert", including a performance on Franklin's "famous Armonica, or Musical Glasses, so much admired for their great Sweetness and Delicacy of its tone."1


Nevertheless, the landed gentry of Virginia, always well informed about the latest trends in Europe, showed an early interest in the glass armonica. Councillor Robert "King" Carter, probably the richest man in the colony and an avid musician, owned the only known glass armonica in Williamsburg. Carter ordered one of the new instruments in 1764 without ever having heard it. But he had heard about it from Bruton Parish Church's organist Peter Pelham:
Mr. Pelham of this Place is just returned from New York, he heard on that Journey Mr. B. Franklin of Phila: perform upon the Armonica: The Instrument pleased Pelham amazingly and by his advice I now apply to you, to send me an Armonica..."

Carter's instrument was probably the one Pelham played at a concert at Williamsburg's Raleigh Tavern on Thursday, May 2, 1765, when George Washington was in the audience. Although Washington's ledger book makes careful note of the 3 shillings 9 pence he spent for the ticket, there is nothing to indicate his opinion of the music.

The Carter children had a tutor, Philip Fithian, who was less reticent. It was Christmas 1773 when Fithian heard Mr. Carter play Water Parted from the Sea2 upon it, and recorded his impressions in his diary:

Wednesday, December 22 (1773) ... Evening Mr. Carter spent in playing on the Harmonica; It is the first time I have heard the Instrument. The music is charming! The notes are clear and inexpressibly Soft, they swell, and are inexpressibly grand; & either it is because the sounds are new, and therefore please me, or it is the most captivating Instrument I have Ever heard. The sounds very much resemble the human voice, and in my opinion they far exceed the swelling Organ. 3

Philip Vickers Fithian, a plantation tutor in Virginia during 1773 and 1774, mentioned many musical instruments in his journal. In the following reference, the Colonel was Charles Carter, master of the plantation and the father of several children who were being tutored by Fithian:

The Colonel told me last Evening that he proposes to make the vacant End of our School-Room ... a Concert-Room, to hold all his instruments of Music—As he proposes to bring up from Williamsburg his Organ, & to remove the Harpsichord, Harmonica Forte-piano, Guittar, Violin, & German-Flutes, & make it a place for Practice, as well as Entertainment.4

Carter described the armonica as "the musical glasses without water, framed into a complete instrument, capable of through [sic] bass and never out of tune."5

Other music lovers were similarly impressed. Thomas Jefferson was so enamored of the glass armonica that he made arrangements to buy one six octaves long. Unfortunately such a behemoth did not exist, three octaves being the maximum produced at that time by London musical instrument makers.[???] For some reason-perhaps the instrument's high cost-Jefferson never followed through on his purchase.

Nathanial Evans

Nathanial Evans (1742–1767), one of America's earliest poets, was the son of a Philadelphia merchant. He was apprenticed to a counting house, but finding that life disagreeable he returned after his apprenticeship to the College of Philadelphia where, in 1765, "on account of his great merit and promising genius," he was awarded in an M.A. degree although he had never taken the B.A. degree. He then went to England and received ordination from the Bishop of London. In December of 1765 he returned to America and became an Anglican missionary in New Jersey. He died in 1767.

In 1763, he had occasion to hear Franklin's armonica in Philadelphia, and wrote a poem in praise of Franklin in general and the armonica in particular. While Evans was in London, the Chronicle printed it in the late summer of 1765. It was printed again in a collection of his poems (and one sermon), published by his friend William Smith five years after his death.[For a thorough history of the poem, see PBF 10:422ff.)

The last two stanzas of the poem concern the armonica:

To Benjamin Franklin, Esq., LLD.

Occasioned by hearing him play on the Armonica. Written in Philadelphia, 1763.


Aided by thee, Urania's heav'nly art,
With finer raptures charms the feeling heart;
Th'Armonica shall join the sacred choir,
Fresh transports kindle, and new joys inspire.
Hark! the soft warblings, rolling smooth and clear,
Strike with celestial ravishment the ear,
Conveying inward, as they sweetly roll,
A tide of melting music to the soul;
And sure, if aught of mortal moving strain
Can touch with joy the high angelic train,

'Tis such a pure transcendent sound divine
As breathes this heart-enchanting frame of thine.
Shall not the Muse her slender tribute pay?
Her's is no venal, but the grateful lay;
Apollo bids it, where such virtues shine,
And pours a graceful sweetness thro' each line.
Her country too, responsive to the sound,
Swells the full note, and tells it all around.

The first recorded public appearance of the armonica in the New World was in Philadelphia, December 27, 1764, advertised in Franklin's own Pennsylvania Gazette:

For the benefit of Mr. Forage, and other assistant performers at the subscription concert in this city, on Monday, the 31st. of this instant December, at the Assembly Room in Lodge Alley, will be performed A CONCERT OF MUSIC: consisting of a variety of the most celebrated pieces now in taste, in which also will be introduced the famous Armonica, or Musical Glasses, so much admired for the great sweetness and delicay of its tone. Tickets at 7s. 6d. each.6

In April 1765 Washington recorded in his diary, "By my exps. To hear the harmonica 3.9: this was at Williamsburg.[??? See Paul Leicester Ford's monograph on 'Washington and the Theatre' (Dunlap, Sco. Publ. 1899, op.cit. Sonneck (1907), 57, n.3]"]

Other Musical Glasses/Armonica Player

In 1792 Jacobus Pick played a concert for his benefit in Boston:7

A Grand Symphony composed by Haydn
Song by a lady
A Sonata on the Piano Forte by a young lady
A Flute Concerto by a Gentleman amateur
A Song by Mons. Pick
A Grand Symphony composed by Pleyel
The Song of Bellisarius by Mr. Powell
A Grand Overture
A Grand Symphony by Fils
Song by a lady
A Hautboy Concerto by Mr. Stone
A Quintetto composed by Pleyel, and performed by the Gentlemen amateurs of Boston
Several pieces on the Harmonica by Mons. Pick
A Grand Overture.

In 1793 we have a concert in Boston by Jacobus Pick and William Selby consisting of:8

Overture Henry 4th
A French Song by Mr. Mallet
A Clarinet Concerto by M. Foucard
A French Song by Madame Douvillier
A Violin Concerto by Mr. Boullay
An Italian Duetto by Messrs. Pick and Mallet
A Flute Concerto Messrs. Pick and Mallet
La Chasse composed by Hoffmeister
A Piano Forte Sonata by Mr. Selby
A French Trio by Madame Douvillier, Messrs. Pick and Mallet
A Duetto on the Harmonica by Messrs. Pick and Petit
A Symphony composed by Pichell

On Dec. 12, 1793 we have another concert in Boston:9
1st Part

A grand Symphony composed by Pichel
A French Song by Mr. Mallet Hautboy [oboe] Concerto by Mr. Stone An Italian Song, by Mr. Pick (with an Hautboy accompaniment)

2nd Part

A grand Overture
A French Song with the accompaniment of the Spanish guitar and violin, by two amateurs
A Violin Concerto by Mr. Boullay
A Clarinet Concerto by Mr. Granger, Boullay, Mallet and Pick
The overture of Henry IVth10
A French Duetto by Mr. Pick and Mallet
A Sonata on the Harmonica with several known airs by Mr. Pick
A Grand Smphony composed by Pleyel

In 1774 the South Carolina Gazette announced a concert in which:11

The vocal parts [are sung by] Signora Castella, who will also perform several airs on the Harmonica or Musical Glasses.

There is also an interesting notice in the Pensylvania Packet for October 17th, 1774, inserted by H.B. Victor,

musician to her late Royal Highness the Princess of Wales, and Organist of St. Georges in London, mentioning "'a new instrument," a cymbaline de amour, which resembles the musical glasses played by harpsichord keys, never subject to come out of tune. 12

Concerts of several hours duration were not uncommon in the day (prior to recordings, hearing music at all was limited to live performers, and was thus generally rare treat). At the same time, a 'Symphony' ('Sinfonie') might be listed on a concert, but only the first (of usually four) movements might be played.

In 1794 a P.A. Van Hagen gave a concert in New York consisting of:13

Act I

Overture Henry 4th and Entre Act Martini
Song of Nina Mr.S Melmoth
Concerto on the Violin Master Van Hagen
Song 'Sweet lillies of the valley' Mrs. Hodgkinson
Sonata Grand Piano Forte Mrs. Van Hagen

Act II

Overture of Pleyel
Song "The Highland laddie" Mrs. Melmoth
Concerto on the Violin Mr. Van Hagen
Song 'Sympathetic Echo', accompanied by the Clarinet Mr. Hodgkinson
Concerto Grand Piano Forte Mrs. Van Hagen
Duett 'Cher object', Miss and Master Van Hagen
Concerto (by particular desire) on the Carillon, or Musical Glasses. Composed by Mr. Van Hagen
Finale by Ditto

And in 1794 we have a concert in Boston:14

1st Part

A grand Symphony by Pepichell [Pichl]
Song by Mrs. Pick
Flute quartetto by An amateur etc.
Overture to the Deserter15
Song by Mrs. Pick
Chace [La Chasse] by Stamitz, the horn part by Mr. Pick

1st Part

Overture of Blase Babet16
Italian Duetto, by Messrs. Pickand Mallet
A Violin Concerto by Mr. Boullay
Song by Mrs. Pick
Duetto by Mr. and Mrs. Pick
Several airs on the Harmonica by Mr. Pick
The Battle of Ivri17

In 1795 a concert was played at Petersburg, Virginia:18
Part 1.

A Grand Sonata of Pleyel's on the Piano Forte, accompanied on the violin By Mrs. Sully and Mr. Pick.
A Favourite Song 'Whither my Love' By Mrs. Pick.
A Favourite Scotch Reel, with variations By Mrs. Sully.
The Favourite Duett of 'the Way worn traveller' By Mr. and Mrs. Pick.
A Grand Sonata of Steibelt's, to conclude with the favorite Air of 'The Rose Tree' with variations By Mrs. Sully.
The Marseilles Hymn, in English By Mrs. Pick.

Part 2.

A Grand Sonata of Clementi's on the Piano Forte, accompanied on the violin By Mrs. Sully and Mr. Pick.
A French Song By Mr. Pick.
The Favourite Air of Lira Lira, with variations, from the Surrender of Calais19 By Mrs. Sully.
An Italian Duet, sung by MRs. Sully and Mr. Pick
The Favourite Air of Moggy Lauder, with variations on the Piano Forte By Mrs. Sully.
The Hunting Song of Tally Ho! By Mr. Pick.
Sonata on the Italian Harmonica, with several known airs. To begin precisely at 7 o'clock. Tickets at 6 s. each...

In 1795 a concert was played at Charleston:20

Act 1st.
Overture, composed by Girovetz
Song, by Mrs. Pick
Quartetto Pleyel
Concerto on the Clarinet, composed and performed by Mr. Dubois
Song, by Mr. J. West
Rondo Pleyel
Act 2st.
Sinfonie Haydn
Song, by Mrs. Pick
Concerto on the Violin, by Master Duport La Motte
Song, by Mr. J. West
Sonate on the Pianoforte, by Mr. Eckhard Dussek
Duetto, by Mr. and Mrs. Pick
Pot Pourris on the Harmonica, by Mrs. Pick
Sinfonie Pleyel

A John C. Moller became rather a specialist on the armonica, which by 1795 was becoming "old news". Nevertheless he seized the opportunity to "introduce that instrument ... of which the late Dr. Franklin was the inventor"21, and, said Moller:

This instrument since so much improved in Europe by the first artists is, in point of tone and sweet harmony, second to none and in performance of modulation from which it derives its name, not excelled by any other.

The audience could judge for themselves from the program he presented:22

Act I

Overture Haydn
Song, arranged for the Harmonica by Moller
Quintetto Pleyel
Concerto Violin Gillingham
Full Piece Pleyel

Act II

Overture Haydn
Overture Pleyel
Quartetto, Harmonica, 2 tenors and violoncello by Moller
Concerto Violoncello Manell(Menel)
Fantasia Pianoforte Moller
Finale Haydn

1Quoted in Sonneck (1907), p.69

2Loesser, 438

3 Fithian (1957), 37

4 Fithian (1957), p. 51

5 Fithian (1957), 243

6Quoted in Sonneck (1916), 68

7Columbian Centinel, Nov. 21, 1792, quoted in Sonneck (1907), 290

8Columbian Centinel, June 15, 1793, quoted in Sonneck (1907), 286

9Quoted in Sonneck (1907), 293


11Oct. 24, 1774; quoted in Sonneck (1907), 23]

12quoted in full in R.R.Drummond's Early German Music in Philadelphia, NY, 1910, p.29 This 'cymbaline de amour' presumably has something to do with Francis Hopkinson's improvement.

13Daily Advertiser, March 21, 1794, quoted in Sonneck (1907), 237

14Columbian Centinel, August 23, 1794, quoted in Sonneck (1907), 297

15Dibdin or Monsigny



18Virginia Gazette and Petersburg Intelligencer, June 25, 1795. Quoted in Sonneck (1907), 59

19by Arnold

20Advertised in the City Gazette, March 26, 1795, quoted in Sonneck (1907), 30

21Philadelphia Gazette, April 3 and May 1, 1795, quoted in Sonneck (1907), 142

22Quoted in Sonneck (1907), 143