The Ecphorizer

The Invisible Fluid
Gareth Penn

Issue #13 (September 1982)

The rise and fall of the playing of musical glasses

The soloist set up his wine-glasses on a table onstage in a Dublin music hail. They needed topping up with water, so he went out through a side door to fetch some, leaving the door ajar as he did so. In his absence, a large sow wandered in off the street and trotted across the stage, brushing

The Commission ruled, in effect, that there was no such thing as psychology.

against the table and knocking it over. The crystal glasses smashed into a thousand pieces. The musician came back with a pail of water, spilling some as the sword at his side snagged on the [quoteright]doorjamb. When he saw the mess the pig had made, he dropped the pail and snatched his bulbous bagwig from his head, dashing it to the boards and cursing. His "angelick organ," as he called it, was ruined.

The musician was Richard Puckeridge, surely one of the more colorful figures in history. He was a sometime goose-breeder and brewer of beer, and he stood for Parliament twice from County Monaghan, losing both times. His wife did him the honor of running off with Theophilus Cibber, the son of the Poet Laureate. He was a dreamer and improver. He had plans to plant the bogs of Ireland to wine grapes, to fit men with wings, to make them immortal, and to build unsinkable ships. His wife could have used one of his unsinkable ships; she and her lover drowned in mid-elopement in a shipwreck of off the fog-shrouded coast of Scotland. But despite his other claims to fame, Puckeridge's place in history is assured by his invention of the musical glasses.

Musical glasses are nothing more than wine glasses filled to varying heights with water. The amount of water in the glass determines the note. The performer rubs the rim of the glass with a moistened finger, which sets up a vibration in the glass that produces an ethereal, almost eerie music of angelic beauty. Physics says that this peculiar quality is due to the high partial tones given of off by the glass, many of them inaudible.

Puckeridge was the rage of England. Success breeds imitation, and two years after he began his tour in 1744, a foreign interloper named Willibald Gluck appeared in London to give a concert on the musical glasses, which he claimed to have invented himself. Ann Ford Thicknesse, the wife of Gainsborough's patron, wrote a "method" for students of the glasses. Among other things, she advised soaking one's fingertips in the juice of unripe grapes.

An FRS [Fellow of the Royal Society] named Edmund Delaval made a fundamental improvement in Puckeridge's design. A specialist in glass technology, Delaval made himself a set of glasses of varying sizes, which did not need to be tuned with water. Thomas Gray, who heard Delaval play, likened his music to the songs of nightingales. Oliver Goldsmith reported that in that time, Shakespeare and the musical glasses were the only subjects worthy of conversation in polite society.

One evening, Delaval gave a concert for a number of other FRSs. One of them was an American who was in London to represent the Pennsylvania Assembly in a lawsuit against the proprietors of the colony, the Penn family. His name was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was an incorrigible improver on things. He didn't invent an unsinkable ship, but he did invent the watertight bulkhead. Some time before, he had made basic improvements on the "friction machine" used by experimenters to produce electricity by mounting its glass sphere on an axle which was connected to a crank for turning.

Franklin immediately set out to ergonomize the musical glasses, He had a set of tuned glass hemispheres fabricated and mounted on an axle, which was turned by a treadle. The glasses were arranged like the keys on a piano, in ascending order of pitch, and all were within easy reach of the performer.

His instrument, which he called the "armonica," soon set foot on the continent and took it by storm, especially in Germany. A young musician named Marianne Davies purchased his first copy from him and took it with her on a tour that culminated in a two year stint as favorite at the Imperial Court in Vienna, where she was employed in teaching Archduchess Maria Antonia, who was soon to marry the Dauphin of France, how to play the armonica.

The young Mozart knew Maria Antonia as a child, and he also met Marianne Davies while she was on her Continental tour. His first opera was performed in the garden of Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, who was a leading armonica player and composer. Dr. Mesmer, who was also a pioneer in the area of concentrating planetary influences with magnets in such a way as to heal the sick, eventually got into the practice of inducing trances in his patients by playing for them on the armonica. Mozart later took a friendly dig at his old benefactor by having Despina, in Cosi fan tutte, cure the feigned poisoning of Ferrando and Guglielmo with a "peitra Mesmerica." The accompanying woodwinds quaver in imitation of the planetary vibrations.

After years of armonica-fever, the crisis set in. Players succumbed in droves to a debilitating nervous breakdown from which few recovered. The police in many German cities banned the instrument as a public health hazard. The somatic effects of vitreous music had been anticipated a century before by Phillipp Harsdorffer, who designed a glass instrument, four glasses filled with water, wine, brandy, and oil, each of whose vibrations would correspond to a particular bodily humor. Wine vibrations, for instance, would influence the blood, oil vibrations the phlegm, and so forth. Induced vibration from the voice of a singer can shatter a glass; who can say that the vibrations of the glass cannot also shatter the singer?

Mesmer subsumed his planetary influences under the heading of "magnetism," which he conceived of as an invisible fluid permeating the universe. To Franklin, electricity was another such invisible fluid. To Lavoisier, heat was yet another invisible fluid found in all matter to one extent or another. These conceptions are now seen as obsolete, but there is another invisible fluid whose role in the affairs of Europe in the 18th Century has never received proper recognition: psychology.

From mid-century, there was an explosion of interest in the darker side of the human mind. The great debate in drama was between French rationality and Shakespearean spookiness. AntiRococo, embodied in the pseudo-Gaelic Ossianic poems of MacPherson, swept the European reading public away in an access of balladic nostalgia for a fictitious time when enigmatic events played themselves out in a darkling landscape shrouded with mist, illuminated only fitfully by distant flashes of lightning:

Night came down. In her long locks moved the daughter of Car-ui. Mixed with the harp arose the voice of white-armed Colna-dona. Toscar darkened in his place, before the love of heroes. She came on his troubled soul like a beam to the dark-heaving ocean, when it bursts from a cloud and brightens the foamy side of a wave...

The armonica, with its eerie-ethereal high partials, exactly suited the spirit of the time, a musical instrument which better than any other expressed the voice of the hidden soul. Music, more than anything else, became the exegete of the irrational side of man.

But the age ended. A Royal Commission on which Lavoisier served together with Dr. Guillotin, the inventor of the guillotine, and which was presided over by Benjamin Franklin, found Mesmer to be a charlatan. His undisputed miraculous cures - of what we now know to have been psychosomatic illnesses - were found to be invalid because they had been effected by invisible means. The Commission ruled, in effect, that there was no such thing as psychology. Mesmer appealed in vain to the Queen, Marie Antoinette.

The forces of irrationality had been unleashed, and Europe was soon awash in a sea of blood. Marie Antoinette and Lavoisier both went to the guillotine. Marianne Davies died in poverty and physical misery. Mesmer died in exile and disgrace. Mozart, who had composed for the armonica, died a wretched death, consumed by the paranoid suspicion that his rival, Salieri, had had him poisoned. Napoleon came and went, and the world that had been electrified by the music of the glasses was no more. Puckeridge's instrument survived in quirky England, but Franklin's armonica was forgotten.

In 1835, Gaetano Donizetti completed work on his masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor, which was set in the mist-shrouded highlands of Scotland. To bring out the psychological undertones of the heroine's distressed mental state, he scored the famous "mad scene" for accompaniment by the armonica. But he found there was no one in Naples who could play the instrument in the premiere performance. At the last moment, he rescored the part for the flute. 

This month, our odd-fact-ophile, Gareth Penn, tells us everything that we never realized we had wanted to know about musical wine glasses.  People have learned to beware of dropping casual questions in his presence.

More Articles by Gareth Penn

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