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Adagio in C for Armonica, K. 617

January 31, 2010 – Cecilia Brauer, glass harmonica

While visiting England in 1757, Benjamin Franklin attended a concert by a “wine glass organist.” Charmed by the ethereal tones that the performer drew from the rims of the crystal goblets, the ever creative Franklin imagined a mechanical instrument that would allow for greater technical fluency and a full range of chord voicing. His resulting invention, the “armonica, ” was later described by an Italian acquaintance, Alessandro Vietri:

“I have been to see the Newton of electricity, the famous Franklin. He is a man of over fifty years of age. You know that by pressing and sliding a moistened finger over the edge of a glass a sound is produced. He has made the instrument on this principle. He has strung on a spindle, or common axis, as many glass bells as correspond to the pegs of a harpsichord, proportionately graduated. The spindle turns by means of the left foot, with a wheel, as the knife grinder does. At the same time one touches with the fingers, as one does a harpsichord, the bells which spin like wheels, after having first wet them slightly with a sponge. A melody comes out which goes to the heart.”

Franklin’s musical invention became voguish during the 18th and 19th Centuries. European monarchs were captivated by the instrument, and major composers such as C.P.E. Bach, Gaetano Donizetti, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Camille Saint-Saëns contributed works to showcase its unique sonority. Mozart first encountered the instrument in the Vienna home of the famous German physician-astrologist Franz Mesmer, who incorporated its hallucinogenic strains into his displays of “Mesmerism.”

In 1791 the 35-year-old Mozart attended a performance by the reigning armonica virtuosa of the day, Marianne Kirchgaessner. Blinded at the age of four by smallpox, she had learned the armonica as a child and had become a sensational performer on the instrument. A critic of the day wrote, “she plays with an unbelievable talent, full of gentle grace and feeling.” Mozart evidently concurred. So inspired was he by the performance that he composed for her the Adagio in C for solo armonica; the Adagio & Rondo in C for armonica, flute, oboe, viola, and cello; and he began to write a third work, a Fantasia in C for the same combination, but completed only the first 13 measures. Mozart’s two completed works for armonica ranked among the most popular works in Kirchgaessner’s repertoire.

The four-minute Adagio, composed at the same time as The Magic Flute, perfectly captures the angelic essence of the armonica. Spiritually akin to the dignified chorales and marches that Mozart wrote for the Priests of Isis and Osiris, the Adagio blends innocence and simplicity with an aura of mystery and timeless wisdom.

By Michael Parloff

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