Ce­les­tial har­mony The glass har­mon­ica in Lu­cia di Lam­mer­moor


Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - James M. Keller

IN Santa Fe Opera’s per­for­mances of Lu­cia di

Lam­mer­moor, lis­ten­ers will have the op­por­tu­nity to hear an un­usual mu­si­cal in­stru­ment, the glass har­mon­ica. The idea be­hind the in­stru­ment is some­thing you can try at home. If you moisten your fin­ger and rub the rim of a high-qual­ity wine­glass, it will emit a sus­tained ring­ing sound. Fill the glass with dif­fer­ent lev­els of water — or al­ter­na­tively, stroke glasses of dif­fer­ent sizes — and you will get dif­fer­ent pitches. As­sem­ble a whole set of glasses tuned to the dif­fer­ent pitches of a scale, and you have a proper mu­si­cal in­stru­ment.

As early as 1596 a col­lec­tion in­ven­tory men­tioned “a glass­work in­stru­ment” with a com­pass of three and one-third oc­taves. It may be that the glasses were struck like bells rather than stroked, but in any case nav­i­gat­ing such a set-up would have been dif­fi­cult. One fa­mous fig­ure who ad­dressed the chal­lenge was the in­ge­nious Ben­jamin Franklin, who in 1761 de­vel­oped what he called the ar­mon­ica (some­times re­ferred to in the day as the “glassy­chord”). His so­lu­tion was to in­stall the tuned glasses — bowls, re­ally — con­cen­tri­cally on a hor­i­zon­tal rod; it was con­nected to a foot trea­dle that made the rod and bowls ro­tate. In a later devel­op­ment (per­haps not Franklin’s idea), the con­trap­tion was po­si­tioned in a trough of water, which moist­ened the bowl edges with each ro­ta­tion and ob­vi­ated the need for play­ers to oth­er­wise dampen their hands. By the time he died, in 1790, it ap­pears that more than 5,000 ar­mon­i­cas had been built.

Franklin’s ar­mon­ica is dis­cussed at some length in Thomas E. Chávez’s Doc­tor Franklin & Spain: The

Un­known His­tory, a new book pub­lished in Santa Fe as a lim­ited edi­tion from the Press of the Palace of the Gover­nors. In 1774, Franklin, who was liv­ing in Lon­don, was con­tacted by the Span­ish Em­bassy, which asked him to send an ar­mon­ica to the In­fante, Don Gabriel de Bor­bón, the youngest son of Spain’s King Car­los III. Thus be­gan what turned into a back­alley diplo­matic re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Amer­i­can colonies and Spain, which ended up pro­vid­ing sub­stan­tial funds to sup­port the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion.

Mu­si­cal glasses of var­i­ous de­sign gained a fol­low­ing in con­cert cir­cles. In the 1740s, news­pa­pers in Lon­don and Copen­hagen re­ported about the com­poser Christoph Wil­libald von Gluck per­form­ing on mu­si­cal glasses in those cities, and the com­poser-pi­anist Jan Ladislav Dussek toured Ger­many as a glass har­moni­cist in 1784. Two soloists gained in­ter­na­tional fame. The vir­tu­oso Mar­i­anne Davies be­came known to the Mozart fam­ily and to the ques­tion­able sci­en­tist Franz An­ton Mes­mer, who used the in­stru­ment to in­duce a re­cep­tive state in pa­tients un­der­go­ing hyp­no­sis (or, as it was then called, “mes­merism”). An­other was the blind mu­si­cian Mar­i­anne Kirchgess­ner, for whom Mozart com­posed his Ada­gio (K.356/617a) for solo glass har­mon­ica and his mag­i­cal Ada­gio and Rondo for Glass Har­mon­ica, Flute, Oboe, Vi­ola, and Cello (K.617). Beethoven used the in­stru­ment in 1815 for his in­ci­den­tal mu­sic to the play Leonore

Pro­haska. Its reper­toire was fur­ther en­riched by a hand­ful of B- or C-list com­posers, in­clud­ing Jo­hann Gottlieb Nau­mann, Jo­hann Friedrich Re­ichardt, and Carl Leopold Röl­lig, a glass-har­mon­ica builder, per­former, and com­poser who pub­lished a trea­tise on the in­stru­ment in 1787 as well as a full three-move­ment con­certo to spot­light it.

Dur­ing the in­stru­ment’s hey­day, the Ger­man mu­si­col­o­gist Friedrich Röch­litz cau­tioned: “The har­mon­ica ex­ces­sively stim­u­lates the nerves, plunges the player into a nag­ging de­pres­sion and hence into a dark and melan­choly mood that is an apt method for slow self-an­ni­hi­la­tion. If you are suf­fer­ing from any kind of ner­vous dis­or­der, you should not play it; if you are not yet ill you should not play it; if you are feel­ing melan­choly you should not play it.” In­deed, some per­form­ers did have prob­lems of this sort, which may pos­si­bly have re­sulted from con­tin­u­ous con­tact with strong vi­bra­tions or per­haps from the lead con­tent of the glasses. Com­bined with the in­stru­ment’s un­earthly tone, this dis­posed some com­posers to use it to im­ply mad­ness.

Donizetti em­ployed it as an ob­bli­gato in­stru­ment (along with harp) in his 1829 opera Elis­a­betta al castello di Ke­nil­worth, in a late-in-the-plot aria in which pas­sion­ate Amelia is stretched to her lim­its by be­ing

caught in a web of de­cep­tion that in­cludes her se­cret mar­riage to one of Queen El­iz­a­beth’s courtiers. He saw a per­fect op­por­tu­nity to use the in­stru­ment again in Lu­cia di Lam­mer­moor, to mir­ror the ti­tle char­ac­ter’s de­range­ment in her Mad Scene. As the pre­miere ap­proached, how­ever, he al­tered the or­ches­tra­tion, sub­sti­tut­ing a flute in place of the glass har­mon­ica (or “ar­mon­ico,” as he spelled it on his man­u­script). Per­haps the glass-har­mon­ica player Donizetti had ex­pected left Naples be­fore the piece was per­formed, or he or she was not up to the de­mands of the part (a real pos­si­bil­ity given the flow­ing fig­u­ra­tion of the ob­bli­gato part), or the avail­able in­stru­ment did not have suf­fi­cient range. The flute ver­sion is the more prac­ti­cal, and it be­came the stan­dard, although var­i­ous forms of glass har­mon­ica are oc­ca­sion­ally used to­day, re­flect­ing the com­poser’s orig­i­nal in­ten­tion though not what was ini­tially played.

Friedrich Heinrich Kern will per­form the part in Santa Fe. A Ger­man now liv­ing in New York, he is prin­ci­pally a com­poser and pi­anist, but a few years ago a col­league in Ger­many, Sascha Reck­ert, got him in­volved with an en­sem­ble formed to delve into “glass mu­sic.” Reck­ert de­vel­oped a mod­ern­ized ver­sion of the glass har­mon­ica called the ver­ro­phone, in which tuned glass tubes are mounted next to each other “al­most like pan­pipes, but fifty times larger,” as Kern de­scribed it. In re­cent months, Kern has played his ver­ro­phone in Lu­cia di Lam­mer­moor pro­duc­tions in sev­eral Ger­man houses, in­clud­ing the Cologne Opera, and last week he packed it care­fully into the back of his car to drive it cross-coun­try to Santa Fe.

“Com­pared to the his­toric ar­mon­ica,” he said, “the ad­van­tage of the ver­ro­phone is that it is much louder and has a bet­ter tone. It doesn’t need am­pli­fi­ca­tion and can project over the com­plete orches­tra. I also have an ex­ten­sion of spe­cially made ex­tra glasses tuned for higher notes, which are needed for Lu­cia’s ca­denza.” He finds that the in­stru­ment adapts well to the range of reper­toire his en­sem­ble ex­plores — orig­i­nal works and ar­range­ments of mu­sic old and new — as well as to oper­atic works that call for glass har­mon­ica, such as Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schat­ten and George Ben­jamin’s Writ­ten on Skin. He him­self is writ­ing a new cham­ber piece for ver­ro­phone, cello, and pi­ano, to be pre­miered next year in Mu­nich and New York.

But Lu­cia di Lam­mer­moor re­mains the bread-and-but­ter part for glass har­mon­ica play­ers, to the dis­tress of flutists. “Con­duc­tors are more and more in­ter­ested in us­ing the orig­i­nal in­stru­ment,” Kern said. “In fact, the con­duc­tor was the per­son be­hind it for Santa Fe — Cor­rado Ro­varis, who is a spe­cial­ist in Ital­ian opera and felt it was manda­tory to have it here. In the li­bretto, you read Lu­cia’s words at one point in her Mad Scene: ‘Un’ar­mo­nia celeste … Dì, non as­colti?’ (A ce­les­tial har­mony … do you not hear it?). The ethe­real sound of the glass har­mon­ica per­fectly reflects how Lu­cia is get­ting more and more in­sane. It adds a whole dif­fer­ent di­men­sion.”

The ethe­real sound of the glass har­mon­ica per­fectly reflects how Lu­cia is get­ting more and more in­sane. It adds a whole dif­fer­ent di­men­sion.

— mu­si­cian Friedrich Heinrich Kern

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