‘Armonicists’ Debate Source of Beethoven’s Maladies
A glass instrument that produces the hypnotic music of wet crystal is sounding a clarion call for debate over the lead poisoning of Beethoven.
The glass armonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, was demonstrated to Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when Franklin visited France during the American Revolution. Both composers then wrote music for the instrument, which created an international sensation--and superstition.
The instrument consists of blown crystal bowls, in graduated sizes, arrayed along a spindle that rotates while the player places moistened fingers on them. In the early history of the instrument, lead glass stemware was sometimes used instead of crystal, and leaded paint was applied to some of the bowls to differentiate those notes.
Recent California-sponsored studies of Beethoven’s hair show the composer had a concentration of lead 100 times higher than is normal today, according to the Health Research Institute in Naperville, Ill. Researchers commissioned by San Jose State University say it’s virtually certain Beethoven had lead poisoning, or plumbism, which could explain some of his illnesses, his strange behavior, maybe his deafness and quite possibly his death.
Armonicist Mayling Garcia of Corrales believes Beethoven’s association with a lead-glass armonica may have been instrumental in his death. Beethoven was exposed to the armonica before his symptoms started as a young man, she said.
Rumors of lead poisoning were associated with the glass armonica, also sometimes called a glass harmonica, for years before the Beethoven study was released last October, says William Zeitler of Seattle. He is among about a dozen armonicists in the United States.
“It’s been kind of running around in the armonica community as long as I’ve been involved,” said Zeitler, a pianist who took up the armonica six years ago.
Modern armonicas are made in the United States by G. Finkenbeiner Inc. of Waltham, Mass., where the glass bowls are blown and the electrically rotated spindles are built. Lead glass and leaded paint are no longer used in them.
Garcia, 35, said company founder Gerhard Finkenbeiner told her about historic armonica lead contamination--and more.
The armonica was greeted in colonial America with allegations of witchcraft. People who played it were said to have later gone insane.
Franz Anton Mesmer, a pioneer in hypnosis and a contemporary of Franklin, used it to entrance some of his subjects.
In Germany, where the armonica was popular for years after Franklin introduced it, the instrument was banned in some states after a baby’s unexplained death during a concert, according to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
“That was the last straw,” Garcia said. “People were that scared. It was literally legally banned.”
Zeitler doesn’t buy the Beethoven armonica theory, saying there’s nothing to substantiate it.
A 582-strand Beethoven hair sample, taken just after his death at age 56 in 1827, was purchased at auction for $7,300 in 1994 by Ira Brilliant, founder of the Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University, and Alfredo Guevara, a surgeon from Nogales, Ariz.
William Meredith, director of the Center for Beethoven Studies, said it’s a long stretch to prove the armonica killed Beethoven, who lived in an era when lead was everywhere--in pewter drinking vessels, dinnerware and utensils, in the leading of windows, in candles, in water pipes, in paint.
“Perhaps he chewed on his pencils,” Meredith said, “but we are very far away from knowing what was the source of Beethoven’s lead poisoning.”
Garcia first heard the armonica played by a street musician in Cambridge, Mass., in 1987. “I thougt: What is she doing playing for tips in a hat? She could be a star,” Garcia said.
She persuaded Finkenbeiner to teach her how to play the instrument before he disappeared in May 1999, believed lost in the crash of a light plane.
Garcia performs 50 to 100 times a year, often playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sports events. She has appeared on the Univision Spanish-language television show “Sabado Gigante” and gives free demonstrations at schools throughout the country.
At a performance in January at Onate Elementary School in Albuquerque, she enthralled 30 youngsters, ages 5-11, during an after-school Campfire program.
“I could not believe how quiet you guys were,” she told the children afterward.
But that’s typical, she said.
When she played the national anthem at a hockey game, she said, “you could have heard a pin drop.”
Mayling Garcia: https://www.welcome.to/mayling
William Zeitler: https://glassarmonica.com/zeitler
San Jose State: https://www.sjsu.edu/depts/beethoven
G.Finkenbeiner Inc.: https://www.Finkenbeiner.com
The Franklin Institute: https://sln.fi.edu