History of the Glass Harp

Unraveling the Controversial History and Enigma Behind the Glass Harp Name


Many of those who see a set of wine glasses for the first time consider it most avant-garde to use it as a musical instrument. And it amazes them to learn that in the Far East glass instruments were already known in the Middle Ages. There are few clear indications as to when glass made instruments appeared for the first time. Traditional stories trace it back to 12th century China and also to 14th century Persia. In Europe, the earliest references to glass music date back to 1492.

From this time onward amateur events which featured performances on sets of wine glasses, fine tuned by the addition of small amounts of water, were documented. In 1742, the Irishman Richard Pockridge constructed and performed on an angelic organ - a set of tuned wine glasses; three years later composer Wilibald Glück delighted European audiences with his verrillon, also a set of wine glasses. It was the start of a new musical tradition.

old musical glasses

grand harmonicon

Sewing machine?

The popular modern history of glass music begins with Benjamin Franklin's invention of the glass harmonica in 1761. Working with a London glassblower, he eliminated the need for water tuning by having each glass made with the correct size and thickness to give the desired pitch without being filled with any water. He made a set of glasses more compact and playable by nesting them inside each other, mounted on a spindle which was turned by a foot treadle - as in the case of sewing machine. Masters of this instrument quickly arose, and the glass harmonica took its place in the world of European art music. Among the composers writing for glass harmonica were W.A. Mozart, J.G. Naumann, L.van Beethoven, and many others. But although glass music had become such a favourite in a very short time, it died out very rapidly and disappeared completely from the European music scene after 1835. In the 20th century Richard Strauss was the first to use the glass harmonica again in its Die Frau ohne Schatten ( Vienna, 1919), but the lasting revival of glass instruments is attributed to Bruno Hoffmann, who devoted his whole life to promoting these instruments and the music.

Without water...

The end of the glass harmonika era did not mean that this angelic organ ceased to be popular. The instrument has always been alive as a source of inspiration for innovators questing to achieve its optimum form. The grand harmonicon created by F. Hopkinson-Smith (1797-1872) was the next step in that direction. His instrument, made of 25 wine glasses fixed within a square box, did not have to be tuned with water. Smith discovered a method of mechanical tuning wine glasses by means of grinding the glass. Thus a new embodiment of angelic organ was born, one which was closer to the modern glass harp invented by Bruno Hoffmann. Hoffmann was a man who devoted his whole life to the promotion glass music. Its renaissance in modern times we owe almost entirely to him. He slightly modified the form of glass harp - the most striking innovation was his use of specially cast glasses, whose shapes were optimum for the instrument.

glass harmonica

Singing glasses?

Performers playing on instruments made of wine glasses today use terms which are not always unambiguous. The most popular ones are (1) the very general term musical or singing glasses (German: Glasspiel, French: verillon), and (2) glass harp - which is a reference to Hoffmann's set of glasses (German: glasharfe, French: harpe de verre) In Europe the tradition revived by Hoffmann is maintained today only by a few musicians. In Poland it is cherished only by the Glass Duo.

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Articles written by Anna Szafraniec from GlassDuo have been published in two respected musical periodicals: Ruch Muzyczny (english version) and Twoja Muza.