Created by E. Power Biggs
, the keyboard glass armonica
was an attempt to append
a keyboard (similar to an organ
's) to a glass armonica
began research on this device as early as 1955
via library searches and voluminous correspondence
. He discovered, in the process, that Ben Franklin
's keyboardless armonica
still existed, not one keyboard version had 'survived'. I put that in single quotes because the references I am using say it, but given the information I have found thus far, it does not seem that one ever existed.
Not one to be easily daunted, Biggs persuaded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (needs a node) to sponsor his efforts at the construction of his keyboarded armonica. The Academy, in turn, convinced the Franklin Savings Bank to finance the project. Harlow Shapley of the Harvard Observatory became interested in the project, and worked along with Biggs.
Construction of the device began in 1955, with the deadline a year away. Biggs' goal was to complete construction in time to play Mozart's music on Franklin's invention on their 200th and 250th birthdays (which coincided), respectively. See E. Power Biggs. Biggs worked with Schlicker, an organ manufacturer, and Corning, a glassware and ceramics company to assemble the parts for the armonica. Unfortunately, Corning's glasses did not produce the desired sound, and were somewhat irregular in shape. The rubber mounting which was originally used was too soft, and had to be replaced with wood. Also, smaller glasses were required to be rotated faster to produce an adequate and appropriate sound. Other problems arose from the lack of a proper covering for mechanical 'fingers' whick played the glasses. No material was found which worked as well as human fingers. (Note that dismembered human fingers were not an available option. Perhaps in the future genetic engineering will allow the production of a successful glass armonica.) Added to all this was the problem that, on occasion, glasses break.
Biggs was scheduled to play a concert featuring this and other instruments on April 11, 1956 at Kresge Auditorium at MIT. This date was quickly approaching, and Biggs did not have the time to learn to play this rather peculiar instrument.
The concert was played, and included works by Franklin and Mozart, with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Roland Hayes. Biggs brought along a portable organ, the Cambridge Portative, on which he played Mozart's Fantasia in F and four of the Epistle Sonatas, as well as the armonica part of Mozart's Adagio and Rondo for Armonica, flute, oboe, viola, and cello. The armonica itself was only used for three Divertimenti, an Irish Folksong, and Mozart's short Adagio for Glass Armonica. The tone of the keyboard glass armonica was inconsistent, with many squeaks and scrapes. This dismal performance might have been a result of a loss of interest and funding from the Franklin Savings Bank. On a positive note, the concert generated requests for the armonica in various chamber music groups, radio, and television programs. Biggs declined due to the armonica's lack of success even on a piece written for it.
Other efforts and attempts were made at rescuing the project, but failed due to a lack of money. In the end, the project was turned over to an engineering student think tank at MIT. The students found that human fingers dipped in vinegar produced the best sound. Other means of exciting the glasses were without success. No plausible solution was found by the think tank. At the end of a letter to Leonard Labaree of the Franklin papers, Biggs wrote:
'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.' See glass armonica.
(Information herein gleaned from http://www.glassarmonica.com/armonica)