Believe it or not, producing sound by rubbing your fingers over the rim of a half-filled glass can be taken to virtuosic heights.
This street performer harmonizes beautifully to wow the crowd with “Hallelujah,” with no playback or any other added effects.
Centuries ago, people took making music out of water glasses so seriously they turned sets of them into serious instruments: the glass harp.
These instruments have been documented all the way back to the 14th century, but Irishman Richard Pockrich is largely considered the first virtuoso of the glass harp.
He supposedly invented this instrument in 1741, and dubbed it the “angelic organ.”
Pockrich originally imagined it as a symphony that could be played like a set of drums, and experimented using wooden sticks. Eventually he switched to the more resonant sound produced by rubbing the rims of the glass. Using a set of 25 glasses in a wooden box, he performed works like Handel’s “Water Music” for audiences around the British Isles.
Composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (who wrote the famous “Orfeo ed Euridice” opera) was also a fan of the glass harp. In the 1740s, he performed on 26 glasses filled with spring water in London and Copenhagen.
The glass harp inspired Benjamin Franklin to invent the glass harmonica in 1761.
The instrument is basically a series of spin-able glass discs arranged from low to high. Franklin worked with a glassblower to get the disks at such a shape that they produced the right pitch without any need for water.
“The advantages of this instrument are, that its tones are incomparably sweet beyond those of any other,” Franklin wrote in a letter to his friend. He named the instrument the Armonica.
Glass music making, which has existed since antiquity, caught on thereafter, and famous composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky all wrote music for the glass harmonica. The delicate and unwieldy instrument fell out of popularity as big symphonies usurped smaller chamber performances, though Strauss later wrote a piece for the glass harmonica as well.
The German musician Bruno Hoffmann is credited with reviving the popularity of the glass harp. He was trained in piano and organ, but at age 16 discovered the musical glasses and never turned back.
Today there are a number of self taught glass harp musicians, like this street artist, who experiment and perform on goblets and wine glasses. Glass produces a unique sound, and well known pieces played on glass take on an eerie or ethereal color.
The resonant sound is probably most similar to the pipe organ. Hear how well Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor translates from organ to glass harp by the Glass Duo, for instance:
Or Tchaikovsky’s delicate, bell-like “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from “The Nutcracker”:
And here is a very different take of Ravel’s “Boléro” with all of the parts performed by Robert Tiso himself: