Long before Elvis, another kind of pop music swept the country. The glass harmonica, a musical instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin, caused young ladies to swoon.
A poet of the period described the instrument’s effect on listeners as “celestial ravishment.” Hypnotist Franz Mesmer used the ethereal sound to entrance his patients. Marie Antoinette tried her hand at it before losing her head. And no less than Mozart, Händel and Beethoven composed for it.
Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, the glass harmonica vanished. America’s sexiest musical instrument faded into oblivion.
Now it’s come to life again. The instrument’s convoluted history is the inspiration for an enthralling new novel by author and historian Dorothee Kocks. The Glass Harmonica: A Sensualist’s Tale chronicles the life journey of a young Corsican woman filled with a rapturous love of music. Banished from her island home for “immodesty,” Chjara Vallé is sold as a servant to an opium addict in Paris. Music paves the way for her to flee to the New World with her lover, Henry Garland, a rebel son of New England Puritans. Trouble awaits as they travel the byways of the young nation, she alternately seducing and scandalizing audiences with her playing of Franklin’s instrument and he clandestinely selling erotic literature, “Nantucket husbands” and other risqué items related to the “science of sexual knowledge.”
“The glass harmonica’s heyday was during America’s first sexual revolution, when the tumult of a fledgling nation led to a questioning of Puritan morality and a rethinking of privacy, marriage, and the intimate promises of freedom,” says Kocks. “Between 30 and 40 per cent of brides in the post-Revolution era were pregnant when they got married. Premarital sex was rampant among the sons and daughters of Puritans.”
Praised by reviewers as “bawdy, geographically vast, and sensual indeed,” Dorothee Kocks’s The Glass Harmonica plumbs the intimate details of early American history to craft a rich and enchanting narrative of music, personal liberation, erotic love, and the virtues of sensuality.