Rediscovered Stories: The Glass Harmonica – Delirium or Delightful? An Interview with Glass Armonica expert William Zeitler

A Q&A by Jeannette Ronson 

According to William Zeitler’s book The Glass Armonica – the Music and the Madness, rumors of the instrument’s music leading to madness snuffed out the glass harmonica fad during the early nineteenth century. Mozart and Beethoven composed music for this instrument that emits eerie and unearthly sounds through the principle of rubbing wet glass. Ben Franklin played his own self-designed glass harmonica of thirty-seven glass bowls spinning through water. But whispers of melancholy and insanity resulting from its alien sounds have continued to scuttle around this instrument for the last two centuries.

Today, William Zeitler produces musical scores on his glass harmonica for Hollywood films and television with his “neo-medieval” composition style. He also performs with the Blue Man Group and professional orchestras. His is one of the few glass harmonica professionals in the twenty-first century, and the resurrection of the skill to play this instrument wasn’t easy.


PY: When did you first learn about glass harmonicas (also referred to as “armonicas”), and what prompted you to attempt to master the instrument?

WZ: I’ve been a musician since I was five and have a degree from Cal Arts. About fifteen years ago, I tripped over a CD by Mozart and contemporaries for the glass armonica. I thought, What’s that? This is too marvelous. I have to do this. A company in Boston blew the glasses. Various artisans in the Seattle area, where I lived at the time, fabricated the rest of the instrument. Then I had to figure out how to play it on my own, as I couldn’t find any teachers.


PY: What difficulties did you encounter while mastering this instrument?

WZ: Superficially, it looks like playing a keyboard, but it took me a while to realize that is not the case. At first, I couldn’t get it to play at all. Then I realized that it’s not at all like pushing down a lever, like a piano for example; rather it’s like your finger is a violin bow, and you’re bowing the glasses like a string player. Once I realized that, I was able to build a playing technique around that principle. The process took a while, but at least I understood the real problem.


PY: In your 2013 book, The Glass Armonica – the Music and the Madness, you present research on the notion that the sounds created by the instrument make one go insane. What are the craziest stories you encountered about this myth?

WZ: First, Franz Mesmer, the eighteenth-century German hypnotist, played the glass armonica and used it to “mesmerize” his patients. Second, an impresario named Robertson at the time of the French Reign of Terror produced “ghost shows” in the crypts of an abandoned convent outside of Paris, using an early slide projector called “the magic lantern” to project images on smoke and hidden screens. He accompanied his ghost shows with a glass armonica. But by far the strangest story comes from Weimar, Germany, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At that time, there was a rampant fear of being buried alive while assumed dead. In case such a thing happened (if a person was indeed still alive after burial), morgues tied strings to a glass armonica to alert the living. How that was supposed to work, I have no idea!


PY: How has the glass harmonica affected your approach to or perception of music?

WZ: The glass armonica has definitely enlarged the aperture of my musical imagination: partly because of the challenge of learning to play an instrument that is really a lot harder than it looks with very little to go on, and partly due to the necessity of adapting and writing music that accommodates its considerable idiosyncrasies.

The glass armonica had its heyday at a time when the world of music was in tremendous transition. At the end of the eighteenth century, the aristocracy was changing due to events such as the French Revolution, Napoleon ending the Holy Roman Empire, and the American Revolution. Up to that time, a host of musicians who had made their living playing for the nobility suddenly found themselves scrambling for income. They turned to selling tickets for concerts in large halls. The larger the hall, the more tickets you could sell. In other words, the world was changing dramatically, and musicians adapted. Our world is constantly changing, and so is our music.