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Thomas Bloch - glassharmonica

Thomas Bloch owns and plays two armonicas
in 442 Hz and in 430 Hz made for him in 1989 and 2008
titre Thomas Bloch

performer of rare instruments

"Thomas Bloch is unquestionnably a virtuoso and a musician"
The New York Times






audio - video
press kit

ondes martenot
cristal baschet
theremin cello
musical saw
crystal voice duet

recording studio



A brief text about facts regarding this musical instrument in crystal and how to make music with glasses is followed by a more complete text written by Thomas Bloch for the booklet of his CD "Music for glassharmonica" published by Naxos (ref. 8.555295), then by a link to a 9 pages articles (in French) and by a repertoire of works composed for it. It is possible to hear excerpts of this CD and to see more videos on the audio - video page of this site.

  • The glass armonica in brief...

gravure glassharmonica Cecilia Davies comtesse de Brionne - collection Thomas Bloch

Marianne Davies playing
for Comtesse de Brionne

(Thomas Bloch's coll.)
     Since the 9th century, people have struck glasses with sticks to make music, to obtain sounds. Much later, in 1743, the Irishman Richard Puckeridge had the idea of rubbing the edge of stemmed glasses standing on a table and more or less filled with water to alter the pitch of the sounds. He called the instrument seraphim (or sometimes musical glasses and later glasharfe or glass harp, glassharp, glasharp...).

     In 1761, Benjamin Franklin improved the method and finalized the glass armonica (or according to the country: armonica de verre, harmonica de verre, glassharmonica, glass harmonica, glasharmonica, glasharmonika, glas harmonika, glass organ, glassarmonica, üveg-harmonika, organo de cristal, orgue de cristal, orgue de verre, crystal organ, crystal armonica, armonica de cristal, harmonika szklana, armonica a bicchieri...).

    It was generally composed of 20 to 54 blown crystal glass or quartz bowls (37 is a standard size). They were fitted into one another, but not in contact, with a horizontal rod – whose rotation was controlled by a pedal – going through their centers. The diameter of a bowl determines the note, the frequency. The bowls, once set in rotation around the rod, the interpreter rubs the edges with wet fingers. In this way, complex chords can be played and the virtuosity increases.

     Glass harmonicas were banned by a police decree in some German cities and disappeared in 1835. Among the reasons put forward : the sounds made by the instrument frighten animals, cause premature deliveries, shoot down the strongest man within one hour (according to a medical dictionary published in 1804) and drive the interpreters to madness (maybe because of lead poisoning; 40% lead glass was used). However, Paganini called it an "angelic organ", Marie Antoinette played the glass harmonica, doctor Franz Anton Mesmer used it to relax ( mesmerize) his patients before examining them (a kind of new age music), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, Gaetano Donizetti and Richard Strauss composed for it and writers such as Goethe or Chateaubriand praised it.

     The master glassblower Gerhard Finkenbeiner who rediscovered it in the 1960's rebuild it today since 1982.

    Thomas Bloch plays its instruments (in 442 and in 430 Hz) and is one of the very few professional glassharmonicist in the world.

Thomas Bloch mains glassharmonica

Thomas Bloch
plays his glass harmonica
made by Gerhard Finkenbeiner

Thomas Bloch plays an excerpt from the Mozart's Rondo K.617 (quintet)

Thomas Bloch plays Karl Leopold Roellig's Commodetto



by Thomas Bloch

© Thomas Bloch / Naxos, 2001
from the booklet of the Thomas Bloch's CD
"Music for Glass Harmonica" (réf.: Naxos 8.555295)
english translation : Michelle Vadon

glassharmonica de Thomas Bloch seul

Thomas Bloch's glassarmonica
made by
Gerhard Finkenbeiner

     Glasses filled with varying amounts of water so as to alter the pitch of the sounds obtained by striking them with sticks were already used in early times by the Persians, the Chinese (shui chan), the Japanese and the Arabs (the tusut was mentioned in 1406), but the technique took a decisive turn in 1743 when an Irishman, Richard Puckeridge, had the bright idea of standing the glasses on a table and rubbing the rims with wet fingers. 

     Benjamin Franklin first saw that instrument which was also played by the composer Gluck, at a concert given by the English virtuoso Delaval. It was called the angelic organ, then musical glasses, seraphim or glass harp. Franklin, fascinated by the "soft and pure sound of the musical glasses", modified them so as to increase their possibilities. In a letter to the Turin scientist Giovanni Battista Beccaria in 1762, he explained how he had improved them. He called the new instrument the Armonica because of its harmonious sounds (in its acoustic meaning because of its richness in overtones - "harmonics"). He had glasses of different diameters blown, each corresponding to a note, instead of filling glasses with water. When the bowls are chromatically fitted into one another, but not in contact, with a horizontal rod going through their centre, the rotation of which is controlled by a pedal, complex chords can be played and the possibilities of virtuoso performance are increased.

     A number of instruments derived from the glass harmonica have been built since that time: the melodion, the eumelia, the clavicylindre, the transpornierharmonica, the sticcardo pastorale, the spirafina, the Instrument de Parnasse, the glasharfe, the piano harmonica of Tobias Schmidt, who also built the first guillotine, the uranion, the hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica and others.

     The glass harmonica was very popular from the start. Some four hundred works were composed for it, some unfortunately now lost (four works by Mozart including his very last chamber music work, Beethoven, Donizetti, C.P.E. Bach, Hasse, Reicha...). There was probably about a thousand instruments built over the course of some seventy years.

     The instrument, adored or hated, roused passionate responses. Paganini declared it to have "such a celestial voice", Thomas Jefferson claimed it was "the greatest gift offered to the musical world of this century", Goethe, Mozart, Jean-Paul, Hasse and Théophile Gautier all praised it. A dictionary of instruments mentions that the sounds "are of nearly celestial softness but (…) can cause spasms". In a Traité des effets de la musique sur le corps humain (Treatise on the Effects of Music on the Human Body) by J.M. Roger in 1803 it is said that "its melancholy timbre plunges us into dejection … to a point that the strongest man could not hear it for an hour without fainting". It was also used for Magic Lanterns sessions.
manuscript Mozart adagio und rondo K.617 - glassharmonica - collection Thomas Bloch
Manuscript from Mozart showing the main themas
from the Adagio and Rondo K.617
for glass harmonica, flute, oboe, viola and cello (1791)

glassharmonica de Benjamin Franklin - drawing - collection Thomas Bloch

The Armonica
according to the 2nd italian
publication of

Benjamin Franklin's letter
priest Beccaria
     It is true that some performers on the instrument ended their lives in mental hospitals, among them one of the best, Marianne Davies. In his Anleitung zum Selbstunterricht auf der Harmonika (Method of Self-Instruction for the Harmonica), published in 1788, Johann Christian Müller answered objections: "It is true that the Armonica has strange effects on people (…). If you are irritated or disturbed by bad news, by friends or even by disappointment from a lady, abstain from playing, it would only increase your disturbance".

     The glass armonica was accused of causing evils such as nervous problems, domestic squabbles, premature deliveries, fatal disorders, and animal convulsions. The instrument was even banned from one German town by the police for ruining the health of people and disturbing public order (a child died during a concert). Franz Anton Mesmer, a Vienna doctor known for his experiments (... the mesmerism) and for using hypnosis to treat his patients (...mesmerized), would use the glass harmonica in his treatment. He was forced to leave Vienna after a blind pianist, Marie Paradies, recovered her sight but to the detriment of her mental health. Rumours of this kind contributed to the death of the Armonica, which in 1829 had been considered "the fashionable accessory of parlours and drawing-rooms".

     Although Karl Leopold Röllig in the late eighteenth century, had tried to add a keyboard to the glass harmonica in order to avoid the possible danger caused by rubbing the fingers against the glasses, few later composers were interested in the instrument. The increasing intensity of the sound of orchestras deterred musicians from using a fragile instrument with such a delicate sound. Yet, there were two outstanding exceptions. In 1835 Donizetti used it in his opera Lucia di Lammermoor in the mad scene, in which the glass harmonica was soon replaced by two flutes (the part recorded here is the original version, crossed out on the manuscript) and Richard Strauss wrote for it in the last act of his opera Die Frau ohne Schatten, first staged in Vienna in 1919.

     Thanks to a German performer, Bruno Hoffmann, who did not play a glassarmonica but a glasharfe (glasses standing on a table) or glass harp, and thanks also to a German-born master glass-blower, Gerhard Finkenbeiner, who had settled near Boston in the United States, a new generation of performers and of composers has rediscovered the glass harmonica since 1982 (Björk, Tom Waits, Damon Albarn / Gorillaz, Amadeus and Flight over a kuku's nest by Milos Forman, La Marche de l'Empereur - The March of Penguins in its original version...).

     To build a glass harmonica, Gerhard Finkenbeiner (1930 – 1999) and today Tom Hession, his associate, use quartz, the purest glass, in the shape of a long cylinder, heated to 3100°F and blown, then cut into spheres and then half-spheres, so as to produce two bowls. The process is completed for tuning by dipping the bowls in hydrofluoric acid to adjust their thickness.

    In the eighteenth century, 24% lead glass was used. The bowls were ground and tuned with an emery grind-wheel. As the depth of a bowl decreases, the pitch becomes higher. Sometimes, the seven colours of the rainbow were used to symbolize the seven diatonic degrees, with black figuring for the inflected notes. Finkenbeiner and his associate use transparent glass, with gold for the rims of the bowls corresponding to the black keys of a keyboard, as Roellig did in the eighteenth century.
Gerhard Finkenbeiner glassharmonica

Gerhard Finkenbeiner


Angelika Kaufmann glassharmonica - collection Thomas Bloch

Angelica Kaufmann playing the glass armonica

(Thomas Bloch collection)
     Glass harmonicas belong to the family of autophone rubbed instruments. The glasses start vibrating according to a relaxation principle: when a finger rubs a bowl, it alternately catches and releases. This creates a series of impulses which set the bowl into vibration. The phenomenom is complex, so the master glass-blower needs the greatest skill to give the instrument its own character. A number of parameters can play a part, modifying the tone, the mode and the harmonic composition of the bowls. Thus, two bowls giving the same note will have different timbres according to the materials used, their shape, their thickness, their dimensions, and any hidden defects.

     It is said that sounds and noises are closely related to each period of time. It would be interesting to know what brought about the revival of the glass harmonica at the end of the twentieth century and the passion it has aroused, simply the result, perhaps,of new demands from musicologists and performers seeking authenticity.

     All in all, though, we may echo the words of Lucia di Lammermoor, Un’ armonia celeste, di’, non ascolti ? (Can you not hear a celestial harmony ?).



a nine scanned pages newspaper article written in French for Crescendo magazine by Thomas Bloch in 1991

Thomas Bloch plays Johann Friedrich Reichardt's Rondeau
 UANL Monterrey orchestra (conductor : Felix Carrasco)

Thomas Bloch plays J.J.S. von Holt Sombach's Allemande from 1ere Suite

  • REPERTOIRE  (excerpt)

About 400 works were probably composed for the armonica between 1761 and 1835 and in 1917. Today, the composers are re-discovering it and use it in various styles : ballet music, songs, movie music, rock, theater-music, contemporary music, operas, electronic music, open air shows...

APPEL David August von : Cantata Il trionfo della musica  glassh., 3 voices, harp
BACH C.P.E. : Sonata H.643  glassh. and cello - Sonatina H.491  glassh., 2 violins, cello - Sonatina  glassh., 2 vls, viola and cello  
BEETHOVEN Ludwig van : Melodram (Leonore Prohaska)  glassh. solo and spoken voice
BIZET Georges/ HALEVY F. : Noe  opera in 3 acts
DONIZETTI Gaetano : Lucia di Lammermoor : scena della pazzia (mad scene)  soprano, choir, orchestra and glassh.
FRANKLIN BenjaminQuartetto  quatuor ou orchestre à cordes, glassh. ad lib.
HASSE Johann Adolf / METASTASIO Pietro : Cantata "L'Armonica" : Ah, perche  soprano (male soprano), glassh and small orchestra
HOLT SOMBACH J.J.S. von : Adagio  glass harmonica and strings quartet – 1ere Suite  glassh. solo ...
MEHUL E. : Konzerstück  glassh. and harp
MOZART Wofgang Amadeus : Adagio und Rondo K.617  glassh., flute, oboe, viola and cello - Adagio K.617a (K.356)  glassh. solo 
MOZART W.A. Fantasia in C K.616a   glassh., flute, oboe, viola and cello (uncomplete - 13 bars)
MOZART W.A. / HAENDEL G.F. : Hercules  orchestration attributed to MozartMessiah  orchestration with glassh. by Mozart
NAUMANN Johann Georg : 12 sonates  glassh. solo - quartet   glassh., flute, viola and cello…
REICHA Anton : Grand Solo  glassh. and orchestra  - Johanna d'Arc  glassh., spoken voice and orchestra  ...
REICHARDT Johann Friedrich : Rondeau  glassh., string quintet - Herkules Tod  glassh. and spoken voice  ...
ROELLIG Karl Leopold : Quartet  glassh., strings - 3 concertos  glassh. and orchestra - Kleine Tonstücke  glassh solo  ...
SAINT SAENS Camille : Le carnaval des animaux  ensemble with glassh.
SCHULZ Johann Abraham Peter : Largo  glassh. solo
Richard : Die Frau ohne Schatten ("The wife without shadow")  voices, choir, orchestra and glassh.
TOMASEK V.J. : Fantaisie  glassh. solo
VANHAL Johann Baptist : Theme und Variationen  glassh. solo
WARTENSEE Xaver Schnyder vonDer durch Musik überwundene Wütherich  glassh. and  piano
WEBER Carl Maria vonAdagio und Rondo  glassh. (organ) and orchestra

        Other classical composers : Hector BERLIOZ, L. CHERUBINI, G.B. FLASCHNER, P. FRICK, S.I. DAVIDOF,  M.I. GLINKA, J.S. von MASEK, Johann Christian MÜLLER, Ignace PLEYEL, G. SARTIE, Joseph SCHLETT, J.A. SCHMITTBAUR, F.L. SEIDEL, C.D. STEGMANN... 

        Recent composers (from the 20th and 21rst centuries) : Damon ALBARN, Irinel ANGHEL, Alfredo BANDONI, Thomas BLOCH, Denis BORTEK, Fulvio CALDINI, Régis CAMPO, Tristan Patrice CHALLULAU, Jeffrey CHING, Philip CLEMO, Guillaume CONNESSON, Chick COREA, David COULTER, CharlElie COUTURE, George CRUMB, Martin DERUNGS, Lynn DRYE, Paul EARLS, Terry EDWARDS, Gary EISTER, César ESPEJO, Gregory FRITZE, Orlando J. GARCIA, Harald GENZMER, Stefano GIANNOTTI, Bruno GOUSSET, Massimo GRAZIATO, Pedro GUAJARDO, Heinz HOLLIGER, Paul JOTHY, John KEFFALA KERR, Jonathan KEREN, Détlef KIEFFER, Joseph KLEIN, Frédérique LAGNAU, Vadim LARCHIKOV, Henri LASSERRE, Rob LORD, Michel LYSIGHT, Henk van der MEULEN, Jan Erik MIKALSEN, Cyril MORIN, Michel REDOLFI, Etienne ROLIN, Nino ROTA, Karl RUETTI, Philippe SARDE, Robin SHIELDS, Emilie SIMON, Giorgio SOLLAZZI, Stuart STAPLES, Vladimir TOSIC, Olivier TOUCHARD, Devon Yasamune TOYOTOMI, Tom WAITS, Richard WELLS, Bernard WISSON, Patrick WOLF, William ZEITLER, Jean-François ZYGEL...

Thomas Bloch gives to the actor Alan Alda his first glass armonica lesson

Thomas Bloch - glass harmonica

Thomas Bloch
playing his glass harmonica
Benjamin Franklin - glassharmonica - painting

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
playing the glass harmonica by Alan Foster, 1926
(cover from "Etude Magazine", January 1927)

Thomas Bloch - glassharmonica

Thomas Bloch
with his glass harmonica