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E. Power Biggs Attempts a Keyboard Armonica

E. Power Biggs (1906-1977), the famous English concert organist, was interested in Americana and musical technology, so when, in 1956, the 200th anniversary of Mozart's birth and 250th anniversary of Ben Franklin's birth coincided, Biggs decided to perform Mozart's music on Franklin's invention. Biggs was convinced that the Mozart works could only be played on a keyboard version of the (glass harmonica), and decided to perform the Mozart works on such an instrument for the anniversary.

Here follows an excerpt from E. Power Biggs, Concert Organist , by Barbara Owen (Indiana Univ Pr, 1987, pg. 106–111) that recounts the story of Biggs "keyboard (glass harmonica) "...

"His voluminous correspondence and library research began early in 1955, and one of his first discoveries was that while Franklin's own keyboardless Armonica still existed in a Philadelphia residence, not one keyboard version or fragment thereof survived anywhere. This, of course, was the instrument Biggs was most interested in, since he believed that the music by Mozart could not be played without a keyboard version. When hopes of finding a restorable antique faded, Biggs persuaded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to sponsor the construction of one, and the Academy in turn interested the Franklin Savings Bank in financing the project. One of the Academy's members, Harlow Shapley of the Harvard Observatory, caught Biggs's enthusiasm and became a willing accomplice to his research and fund-raising activities.

"Work got under way in the spring of 1955, with the deadline for completion a year away. By November the glasses were finished, and Biggs and Schlicker [a preeminent organ builder] went to the Corning plant the following month to assist in their tuning. By January the glasses were being fitted to the mechanism in Schlicker's shop, and the problems began showing up. Corning's glasses seem to have been partly at fault. When Schlicker visited the original Franklin instrument in Philadelphia he found that the old glasses were thinner, especially in the treble, and thus easier to make speak. Corning's glasses were also somewhat irregular in shape. In addition, the rubber mounting turned out to be too soft and had to be replaced with wood; and it was discovered that the smaller glasses had to be rotated faster than the larger ones. Finding a suitable covering for the mechanical "fingers" that played the glasses from the keyboard also proved problematic. Wet pigskin and dry rubber gave the best (though slightly differing) effects, but neither was as good as human fingers. And of course there was that nemesis of all musical glasses, breakage. Biggs was still optimistic but, as he confided to John Burchard, president of the Academy, he was also "touching wood, holding on tight, and keeping my fingers crossed."

"A concert featuring the new armonica and (fortunately, as it turned out) other instruments was scheduled for April 11, 1956 at the Kresge Auditorium of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By March 24 there was a note of urgency, even desperation, in Biggs's correspondence with Schlicker. Biggs had planned to come to Buffalo on the 28th "to record a few sounds" for a broadcast, but "as far as a fair chance for me to learn how to play the instrument – we're way past it!" The Academy wanted the instrument on hand by April 3 in order to unveil it to the press. If they could not have it by then, "the concert will have to take place without it, and our work will have come to nothing, for the anniversary occasion will have passed."

"The instrument arrived in time, and the concert went on, a program of works by Franklin and Mozart, performed by Biggs, six members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the popular tenor, Roland Hayes. Biggs wisely brought the Cambridge Portative [a small portable pipe organ], on which he played not only Mozart's Fantasia in F and four of the "Epistle" Sonatas, but also the armonica part of Mozart's Adagio and Rondo for Armonica, flute, oboe, viola and cello. Although Biggs gave a preliminary demonstration of the principle of "glass music" on eight tuned glasses, the armonica itself was used only for three "Divertimenti" – a Minuet from an armonica tutor, an Irish folksong that had been a favorite of Captain Pockrich, and Mozart's short Adagio for Glass Armonica. The tone of the new armonica was wobbly and erratic, and was frequently accompanied by gratuitous squeaks and scrapes. As one of the students later observed, it "wasn't quite a flop, but almost!"

"The discouraging performance at the concert may have had something to do with the Franklin Savings Bank's sudden loss of interest in the project, leaving the Academy and Biggs to hunt up a donor to make up the deficit caused by Schlicker's extra costs in trying to perfect the mechanism. Biggs and Shapely were discouraged, but not quite ready to give up. Just enough publicity had been given the experiment to generate requests from orchestras, chamber music groups, radio, and television for concerts involving the armonica. "Unfortunately", wrote Biggs to Ralph Burhoe, another Academy official, "in every case the answer has had to be no, because the one test of success is whether the Mozart Adagio and Rondo can be played on the Glass Armonica!" He still had hopes that it might be perfected, though, for, "It's certain that if the Glass Armonica were successful it would fill a unique niche, and have continuing interest and use over a number of years."

"In the summer of 1956, Biggs received a request from his old friend Harold Spivacke of the Library of Congress for the use of the armonica in a December program linked to the Mozart/Franklin anniversaries. Biggs doubted that the instrument would be any improved by then and candidly outlined the problems: the glasses themselves were too thick and not perfectly circular, and more research was needed on the "finger" material. Between $3,000 and $4,000 had already been expended on the instrument [equivalent to about $17,000 to $23,000 in 1995 dollars] , and while the Academy hoped to coerce Corning into making a new set of glasses at no cost, Corning decided that it wanted nothing more to do with the project. The harpsichord makers Hubbard and Dowd suggested making a striking mechanism to operate the stationary glasses, but since the musical result would have been more that of a glassichord or celesta, this idea was quickly abandoned.

"In a last desperate attempt to salvage the project, the armonica was turned over to a "think tank" of MIT engineering students. Concentrating first on sound production, the students found that their fingers, dipped in vinegar, still produced the best effect. Other substances and means of exciting the glasses, from violin bows to electronics, were tried without success. Nothing very conclusive emerged, and most of the students felt that the  contraption was better as Franklin had left it, without the keyboard. One was optimistic enough to suggest that "With unlimited funds, it would serve the memory of Franklin well to establish a research project to investigate the use of different bowl and exciting materials and build an accurately engineered Armonica." But the "unlimited funds" were nowhere to be seen. In 1958, at Biggs's suggestion, Shapley approached Henry Ford II regarding the possibility that the glass-blower at Greenfield Village might be able to produce better bowls than Corning had, but nothing came of that either.

"In 1965, answering an inquiry from Leonard Labaree, editor of the Franklin papers, Biggs gave a short and rather dispassionate account of the armonica venture. While the word "failure" was not in his vocabulary, Biggs did have to admit that "our experiment was quite inconclusive," and, with regard to his performance of Mozart's Adagio, K356, "one cannot claim that the tone did any sort of justice to the music." His vision of what might have been was still intact, though, and at the end of his letter he wrote, a bit wistfully,

'Mozart's Adagio and Rondo, K617, which we had hoped to give with such a flourish, was played on the flute stops of the organ. The sound of a delicate flute stop, incidentally, rather resembles that of a glass armonica. Though it lacks, of course, the effect of coming from nowhere, and the slow dying away into silence, which is a quite magical effect with the glasses.'