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MARCH MADNESS @ LA OPERA

And Benjamin Franklin had something to do with it!

An unwitting star hidden in the orchestra pit makes its company debut when the curtains rise on the “Mad Scene” of LA Opera’s new production of Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor But it won’t make a sound even as it turns around on its iron spindle until Thomas Bloch, acclaimed musician of rare instruments deftly lays his moistened fingers that had also been dipped in powdered chalk on its nested set of thirty-seven gilded glass bowls of pure quartz, coaxing sounds that have been described as sweet, ethereal, “music of the angels” (by Benjamin Franklin’s wife, Deborah)… so hauntingly mesmerizing that the listener could be driven to madness.

franklin-glassharmonica-etudemagBut what instrument is this that cajoled LA Opera into calling a media gathering to a behind-the-scenes demo of the music unique to this operatic score? If one interjected BENJAMIN FRANKLIN’s name into this discussion, the instant reaction would likely be “But what has one of America’s Founding Fathers got to do with this?” A lot, as it turns out! Everyone knows Franklin was all of these: scientist (known for his theories of electricity), inventor (of the North American version of the lightning rod), author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, statesman, diplomat and civic activist who co-founded America’s first hospital and first university ( University of Pennsylvania). But it is not as well known that he was also a musician (albeit rather quirky by some accounts) who composed, wrote song lyrics, played the viola da gamba, and in 1761 invented the mechanized version of the glass harmonica – which became a celebrity musical instrument that was loved and played not only by its inventor but also by the royal and well-heeled celebrities of the time, such as the infamous Royal Highness Marie Antoinette and the Dr. Franz Mesmer (from whose name and practice mesmerism derives its root). Mozart composed for the instrument (“Adagio in C major” K. 356 and “Adagio and Rondo in C minor” K. 617), as did Handel and Beethoven (who wrote a short melodrama where a narrator told a story while accompanied by harmonica), Donizetti and in much later years, Richard Strauss (in Die Frau ohne Schatten). It is Franklin’s glass harmonica that makes LA Opera’s 2014 Lucia quite special, and the stories behind Donizetti’s abandonment of the instrument in favor of the flute, and its fading into obscurity, that add an esoteric layer of madness to the opera’s famous mad scene.

So what happened to Franklin’s glorious invention and why its seeming resurgence (beginning in the 1980s) after a hiatus of nearly 200 years? First let’s get the facts straight. Franklin’s musical invention was inspired on one of his visits to England when he saw a performer play water-filled wine glasses with moistened fingers. Ever the perfectionist, he invented a new version – consisting of 37 bowls mounted on a rotating iron rod that made it possible for a performer to play ten glasses, or ten notes, simultaneously. By the time of Franklin’s death in 1790, more than 5,000 glass harmonicas had been built, and by 1820 the instrument had fallen into oblivion. [An aside: Franklin intentionally collected no money from his invention. The compleat altruist, he refused to patent any of his inventions, saying:

"As we enjoy great Advantages from the Inventions of others we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously."

- words rarely heard in today's acquisitive world!]

So why did the glass harmonica become a fallen star? Stories abound, many of them intriguing tales of madness! Which those attending LA Opera’s media event likely heard for the first time, from one steeped in the lores – Thomas Bloch, one of a handful of of musicians who has mastered the instrument. The original score of Lucia di Lammermoor clearly showed it was Donizetti’s first instrument of choice for his famous mad scene, which he replaced with a flute in the final score for the opera’s premiere at Naples’ Teatro Carlo in 1835 because the glass harmonica player, in a dispute with company officials, didn’t show up because he hadn’t been paid. LA Opera’s Lucia is one of the very few productions in recent decades that has allowed the instrument a comeback. The Met introduced it in its new production of the opera in 2007, with the instrument played by the orchestra’s pianist and celesta player. But it was Thomas Bloch who gave the world première of Donizetti’s original version with glass harmonica, 150 years after its composition, at La Scala, Milan in the 1990s. At LA Opera’s media event, Bloch gave a French-accented encyclopedic account of the instrument’s history (see video clip below), citing the following reasons for Franklin’s invention slipping out of vogue:

On Lucia di Lammermoor & the glass harmonica with Thomas Bloch
On Lucia di Lammermoor & the glass harmonica with Thomas Bloch
Taped by FanFaire.com - the webzine that celebrates MUSIC! at the Los Angeles Opera media event "Lucia & the Glass Harmonica" on March 7, 2104 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion http://fanfaire.com
Excerpts from a FanFaire conversation with glass harmonica player Thomas Bloch
Excerpts from a FanFaire conversation with glass harmonica player Thomas Bloch
Filmed at the LA Opera media event "LUCIA & the Glass Harmonica" on March 7, 2014 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Thomas Bloch plays underwater music by Michel Redolfi
Thomas Bloch plays underwater music by Michel Redolfi
Taped by FanFaire - the webzine that celebrates MUSIC! at the LA Opera media event "Lucia & the Glass Harmonica" on March 7, 2014 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion http://fanfaire.com

1) While Franklin and Mesmer used the instrument to treat certain maladies, it was said that the sound of the glass harmonica was so supernaturally beautiful and mesmerizing, it could cause synaptic misfires that led to a cacophony of brain activity that drove listeners to madness. A 1798 report by Friedrich Rochlitz reads:

“There may be various reasons for the scarcity of armonica players, principally the almost universally shared opinion that playing it is damaging to the health, that it excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood, that it is an apt method for slow self-annihilation… Many (physicians with whom I have discussed this matter) say the sharp penetrating tone runs like a spark through the entire nervous system, forcibly shaking it up and causing nervous disorders.”

2) As music halls became larger, the delicate high-pitched sounds generated by the instrument were not powerful enough to fill the hall.

3) Some of the regular harmonica players complained that the vibrations entering their fingertips as they played were emotionally upsetting, causing mental anguish.

4) The above was thought to result from lead poisoning from contact of the moistened fingers with the harmonica’s lead glass and the painted rims. Indeed, there were reports of deaths presumably from lead poisoning among glass harmonica players. But in the 18th and early 19th centuries, lead was a commonly used metal, cases of lead poisoning among harmonica players may have been caused by contact with other lead-containing materials.

5) The harmonica was blamed not only for all sorts of maladies including muscle spasms, nervousness, melancholia, cramps, and dizziness, but also for domestic disputes, premature births, even convulsions in dogs and cats, providing authorities in some towns reason enough to ban the instrument.

It is interesting to note that Donizetti himself suffered from a probable bipolar disorder and was institutionalized because of insanity. Today, happily, Thomas Bloch and his ilk are in no imminent danger of lead poisoning or being driven to insanity as glass harmonicas are now made of quartz – reworked in the 1980s by the German-American master glassblower and musician Gerhard Finkenbeiner who perhaps deserves credit for the renaissance of the instrument. It is his version of clear glass bowls equipped with gold bands mimicking 18th-century designs, the gold bands being the equivalent of the black keys on the piano that Bloch, who in the 1980s and ’90s was only one of two glass harmonica players in the world, plays today. In 1999, Gerhard Finkerbeiner mysteriously disappeared in a probably small plane accident, but his company Finkenbeiner Inc. of Waltham, Massachusetts, continues to produce versions of these instruments commercially. Thomas Bloch’s repertoire of glass harmonica music continues to expand beyond opera and classical music into genres that include film scores, underwater music, music for commercial ads, etc. On March 30, Bloch collaborates with an award-winning French harpist for a program of traditional (Mozart’s Adagio & Rondo, K. 617; Mendelssohn’s Prelude & Fugue in e, Op. 35) and contemporary (Rota’s Casanova; Farr’s Kembang Suling) works for “a fascinating and very unusual listening experience” at  the Henry Residence in Pasadena – part of the Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series. Benjamin Franklin’s 18th century musical invention resurgent!
- © 2014 Gloria Cajipe / FanFaire.com

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