History in the Fiction

The main characters in this novel are fictional. There is no archive of their letters, and yet The Glass Harmonica draws deeply from historical records. This bibliographic note describes the non-fiction foundations of the novel, as well as some specific threads of accuracy. In the end though, this is a work of imagination.

Nearly forgotten today, the glass harmonica arguably deserves the label of first pop-music phenomenon. Invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, the instrument had the advantages of vaguely dangerous sounds and great PR: a blind woman virtuoso musician toured the concert halls of Europe with it, Mozart composed for it and Franz Mesmer mesmerized his patients with it. (1) Audiences fainted at the eerie music of the glasses, and news of the listeners’ ‘celestial ravishment’ spread widely. (2) One had to be careful with ravishment in those days, as today. Its effects seemed so powerful that some German towns banned the instrument. (3) Before 1802, nearing the end of its heyday, the fictitious German Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler looked back with some irony at the fad, including the sexual undertones.

For any young lady of breeding it would have been most ill advised, as soon as the glasses were even touched, not to fall into a tolerably convincing swoon; she would have risked becoming an immediate object of indifference to any young man of refinement, however long he had courted her with amorous glances. Even ladies of more mature age fancied themselves transported back ten or fifteen years by all the pangs of blessed rapture … (4)

The instrument’s notoriety grew in part because the most wellknown players were women, which was unusual enough in a time that discouraged, if not disbarred, women from the early ranks of professional musicianship. Playing the glasses proved fraught with dangers for these women. (5)  Doctors hospitalized some players, including the renowned Marianne Davies, for hysteria. (6) While some speculate that lead poisoning from the glasses caused the women to go mad, science appears not to bear out this theory. Much more likely is the broader historical interpretation that doctors diagnosed any woman who broke the social rules as suffering from ‘hysteria’. The doctors employed a language of pathology as part of a larger cultural pattern of disciplining free-thinking women.

The strange effect of the glass harmonica does have some scientific basis. Because the hertz range of the sound is uncommon, the brain doesn’t quite know where to place the source of the sound. (7) Contemporaries of the period debated the effects of the instrument. (8) Karl Leopold Röllig’s treatise, mentioned in chapter four, exists (though I did invent Röllig’s trip to Paris). He’s the one who cast the instrument as so powerful, you had to take the music in small doses to survive the impact.

Not only these soft ‘airwaves’ which fill your ears can have serious consequences but also the percussion and the constant straining of the cups with already fragile nerves on your fingers can cause illnesses which can –sometimes – even end fatally. (9)

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