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The Armonica in Germany

Though the armonica was invented in England, it's really in Germany that it found its home—embraced and loved like nowhere else.

The instrument soon aroused widespread interest.

1766: The armonica is described in the Hanoversche Magazin1 and the Leipziger Wöchentliche Nachricten die Musik betreffend2

1768: Marianne Davies performed in Vienna [??? Or 1769].

1769: Frick tours throughout Germany. He gives a concert in Frankfurt on September 16, which includes this description of his instrument: "This instrument consists of pure glass bells, from which one hears a fine and singing tone unlike anything else in music."3

1773: Frick tours Germany again, (Hamburg in February), and leaves for Russia

1776 or 1777: Frick returns to Germany from Russia

1778: Frick leaves for London

1780: Roellig takes up the armonica and goes on tour

1781: Roellig performs in Hamburg

1782: The Almanach für Deutschland auf das Jahr 1782 ("Almanac for Germany for the year 1782") announces Franklin's new invention4:

Of all musical inventions, the one of Mr. Franklin has created perhaps the greatest excitement. Concerning the way of producing tones, it is an entirely new kind of instrument. But considering the remaining aspects, it has similarites to the glockenspiel, the electrical machine, and the so-called Nuremburg Geigenwerk5

It goes on to mention among "clever instrumental artists in Germany" who performed on the Armonica one Fricke, Court Organist of the Markgraf von Baden-Baden, and a certain Röllig and Kirchgaessner.6

1787: Roellig's Über Die Harmonika: Ein Fragment

1788: Roellig performs in Hamburg

1791: Kirchgaessner performs in Vienna; Mozart composes his quintet (K617) for her; Roellig moves to Vienna

1792: Kirchgaessner performs in Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, Hamburg and Magdeburg

1796: In November Kirchgaessner performs in Hamburg in November and December

1800: F.F. Hurka (1762–1805) a minor musician of Bohemian origin, a tenor singer in various towns and concert director in Berlin, includes a song about the armonica in a collection published around 1800. The song is entitled 'An die Harmonika', a setting of words by 'Richter' (probably Jean-Paul Richter). The first and second of the six stanzas are as follows:

Youngest and fairest of the fair daughters of sweet harmony, to whom that mother gave omnipotence in magical sounds, thou, sent to comfort mortals whom the goddess saw lamenting, wert turned aside from Elysium and didst become—`Harmonika'.

When first every ear hearkened to the new sound, all the sons of earth abandoned themselves to enchantment: their intoxicated spirit seemed to hear the harmony of the spheres and the song of the angels in praise of the Uncreated.7

1801: Kirchgaessner performs in Hanover and Frankfurt

1804: Kirchgaessner performs in Leipzig. Roellig dies in Vienna

1805: Kirchgaessner performs in Berlin and Breslau

1806: Kirchgaessner performs in Vienna.

1808: Kirchgaessner performs in Prague; Kirchgaessner & Goethe meet.

1809: Kirchgaessner performs in Stuttgart, dies in Schaffhauser.

1812: Hanslick records a concert given at Belin which includes a trio for three armonicas!8

1813: E.T. Hoffman publishes a review of Beethoven's Piano Trios, Op. 70[AMZ, 15:3, March 1813, 141–54, quoted in Hoffman, ed. Charlton, p. 300ff.??] in which he says of a certain passage in the Beethoven piece:

If these sextuplets are played with a dexterous light touch with the soft pedal down and the dampers raised, a susurration is produced that recalls the aeolian harp and the glass harmonica and has a quite wonderful effect when combined with the bowed notes of the other instruments.

To the soft pedal and the sustaining pedal the reviewer added the so-called harmonica pedal. The Germans added a pedal to their pianos called the "String Harmonica" or the "Harmonica Keyboard Glide"—the keyboard would slide over a tiny amount that resulted in only two of the three strings being struck by the piano (the third would sympathetically vibrate), making the sound quieter and more ethereal. It's still present on modern grand pianos, except that the hammer now strikes only one of the three strings when the pedal is depressed—it's now called the una corda pedal.9

1815: Beethoven composes his Melodrama for the glass armonica

1819: A letter by Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler appears in Der Freimüthige[xvi, April 29 and 30, quoted in Hoffmann/Charlton 414ff]. First he discusses why the armonica is going out of fashion, and of the cause of all the 'fainting-spells' the armonica caused:

Haude and Spener, in No. 31 of their journal[i.e. Berlinische Nachrichten von Staats- und gelehrten Sachen, March 13 1819] make it clear that Frau K[rickeberg]'s armonica playing was rather lacking in effect, and ask how it is that the armonica in general is no longer so effective as formerly; perhaps our nerves have become hardened or softened, or perhaps the fault lies in our ear-drums, now that they have been spoiled by all the drum-beating, trumpeting, tromboning, and keyed-bugling. On the other hand the Freimüthige für Deutschland, in No. 62 of that journal,[March 27, 1819] calls the armonica the most beautiful and sonorous of all instruments, and praises the inspired fingers of this gifted artist which summoned forth the instrument's ethereal echoes.

I for my part, not having heard these ethereal echoes, must agree with Messrs. Haude and Spener that the astonishingly magical effect produced by the armonica years ago is now completely a thing of the past. But I am sure that our nerves have remained exactly the same, and that our eardrums, however battered they may be by drums and trumpets, are certainly still able to detect ethereal echoes too.


Now if the Freimüthige für Deutschland calls the armonica the most beautiful and sonorous of all instruments, then as a hardened musician I would reply that from the musical point of view the armonica is one of the most feeble and imperfect instruments there are! Of the welter of trivial ariettas and variations and polonaises and other insipid trifles that are normally played on it I will say nothing except to remark that, to a finer ear at least, any melody on the armonica sounds stiff and wawkward. The fault lies in the instrument's mechanism, which makes it impossible even for the most practised player to connect the notes together in an artistic sense. This mechanism also precludes any rapid execution. On the other hand, the armonica affords the advantage of the organ, that the note continues as long as one's finger touches the glass. This property means that the characteristic quality of the instrument can be fully exploited only in slow music written in stric style.

Interestingly, swooning at the sound of the glass armonica seems to have been a method for women to attract men:

Now if it is true that the armonica has such limited capabilities in music, then it is clear that the admiration and wonderment created by its novelty was aroused merely by its tone... In addition, the armonica's popularity rose during the period of delicate nerves, and when it was claimed that the armonica exerted a magical influence on the nerves, the instrument could not fail to captivate every sensitive soul. For any young lady of breeding it would have been most ill advised, as soon as the glasses were even touched, not to fall into a tolerably convincing swoon; she would have risked becoming an immediate object of indifference to any young man of refinement, however long he had courted her with amorous glances. Even ladies of more mature age fancied themselves transported back ten or fifteen years by all the pangs of blessed rapture, and received an heart and a novelette in the bargain! Of the use made of the instruments by Mesmer I prefer not to think!

Now, it seems, the age of delicate nerves and swoons is just about over.

He concludes with a story worthy of Roellig:

The best armonica player of recent times I have heard was a fine man of gentle and pleasing character who, returning home from the French war, resided for a few days in the same house as me. I am referring to none other than my inestimable friend, the Bashkirian Colonel Tetulow Pripop who, unjustly, has become little known in the musical world. This man was totally obsessed by the armonica which he found in my house; he played the whole day long, and was able to elicit from the instrument the strangest sounds on could ever hear; the melodies and chords he produced also rejoiced in the most amazing originality. The distinctive, inimitable sound which other good armonica players achieve only now and then, and which insensitive people claim to resemble the scraping of a knife across a window-pane, was so completely within the colonel's power that he was able to produce it uninterruptedly.

The manservant to my dear Tetulow Pripop, a jolly young fellow with a most endearingly tigerish physiognomy, was so beside himself at his master's virtuosity that with loud howls he threw himself down and kissed his feet. Yet it was not surprising that this person was so deeply moved, since he too ws musically gifted and was able, when playing his long, narrow, Bashkirian pipe, to awaken trul idyllic sensations in the breast. One was momentarily transported to the most beautiful toad-pond a sensitive soul had ever sat beside.

I will eternally remember the occasion when Tetulow Pripop played the armonica for the last time. Overcome by profound emotion, he had removed his large, pointed fox-fur capas well as three small caps he was wearing beneath it; he sat there in his red cape, conjuring forth the most exquisitely ethereal harmonies, at which his tiger was also moved to wail and moan dreadfully.

Finally, as though in heart-breaking grief at the departure of their beloved friend, the majority of the glasses burst into pieces.

Thereupon the Bashkirian Colonel Tetulow Pripop pulled on a pair of white kid-gloves and hurried away to his regiment.

I have never seen the good man since.10.

Schiller introduced it into his Geisterseher (Sämmtliche Werke)11 and in one of his letters wrote: "Die Wirkung dieses Instruments kann in gewissen Situationen mächtig werden. Ich verspreche mir hohe Inspirationen von ihr (Bd. 2, p.423)."

Other writers: Jean Paul (as in his Hesperus, Titan, and Quuintus Fixlein, Schubert and Wieland (cf. Neue Deutsche Merkur, 1804) were also enthusiastic.

1Stück 59. Cited in Forkel (1782), 30

2S. 71. Cited in Forkel (1782), 30

3Quoted in Israel (1876), 50

4 Forkel (1782), 30

5a keyboard instrument in which the strings are rubbed by a moving band. Invented in 1575 by Hans Haiden of Nürnberg; Vincenzo Galilei saw one in Munich and later described it. See Marcuse (1964), "Geigenwerk", p.202

6Sonneck, Suum, 66

7Quoted from, and translated by King (1956) 68

8 Hanslick (1869) 1:135

9See Harding, 44ff.

10Hoffmann/Charlton 418–19

11edited by E. von der Hellen, 1904, Bd. 2, p.275