Harmonica, a generic term applied to musical instruments in which sound is produced by friction upon glass bells. The word is also used to designate instruments of percussion of the glockenspiel type, made of steel and struck by hammers (Ger. Stahlharmonika).
The origin of the glass-harmonica tribe is to be found in the fashionable 18th-century instrument known as musical glasses (Fr. verrillon), the principle of which was known already in the 17th century. The verrillon or Glasspiel consisted of 18 beer glasses arranged on a board covered with cloth, water being poured in whenever it was found necessary in order to alter the pitch, and the sound being produced by passing the moistened finger around the rims. (Or sometimes the sides of the glasses were struck instead by wooden sticks.) Gluck gave a concert at the "little theater in the Haymarket" (London) in April 1746 at which he performed on musical glasses a concerto of his composition with full orchestral accompaniment.
When Benjamin Franklin visited London, in 1757, he was so much struck by the possibilities of the glasses as musical instruments that he set to work on a mechanical application of the principle involved, the result being the glass harmonica finished in 1762. The instrument was for many years in great vogue. Mozart, Beethoven, Naumann and Hasse composed music for it, while it had its celebrated virtuosos, such as Marianne Davies and Marianna Kirchgessner.
The name, harmonica, is applied also to the aeolina, a small mouth organ, invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1829. A few free reeds, each supplied with wind separately from the mouth of the player, are fastened in a small metal box. The tune is made by moving the instrument to and fro across the mouth, simple tunes being the result.
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