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 back-alley 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 pan-pipes, 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.”