Benjamin Franklin

Biography

Born: January 17, 1706; Boston, MA   Died: April 17, 1790; Philadelphia, PA  
An amateur musician, this extraordinary scientist, printer, and American statesman nevertheless made significant contributions to the art.

Apparently self-taught, Franklin played the harp, guitar, glass dulcimer, and his own invention, the glass harmonica (aka the glassychord), a mechanized version of the ancient musical glasses (which were arranged in varying configurations and tuned by altering the water levels). Franklin added a
Read more foot-pedal or treadle which rotated glass semi-spheres of different sizes mounted along a rod or camshaft, so that the performer only had to place his dampened fingers lightly on the rims. The sound produced was a sweet, ethereal resonance without attack, somewhat like a bowed psaltery. Many fine compositions were written for Franklin's instrument, notably W.A. Mozart's Adagio and Rondo for glass harmonica, flute, oboe, viola and cello, K. 617, and Adagio in C major, K. 617a, J.F. Reichardt's Rondeau for glass harmonica, string quartet and bass, K.L. Röllig's Quintet for string quartet and glass harmonica, J.A.P. Schulz's Largo, and Naumann's Quartet for glass harmonica, flute, viola and cello. The controversial Friedrich-Anton Mesmer had winds, piano, or glass harmonica playing in the background at his faddish "animal magnetism" curing sessions, which were attended by Mozart and his father.

The Franklin house (which burned in 1810) contained an elegant music room, called the "blue room," where Franklin would often play duets with his daughter Sally, she on harpsichord and he on the "armonica." Sally's instrument was purchased after composer Francis Hopkinson emphasized Sally's talent to Franklin. On the other hand, Franklin's "Ladies' Library" encouraged young women to turn toward church music and hymns rather than "be conquer'd by the first Temptation."

Franklin preferred simple tunes, mainly sad Scottish airs, and criticized incomprehensible modern phrasing in a short treatise on musical aesthetics. He loved to sing (often bawdy) catches and drinking songs at musical clubs and with his Masonic brothers; and he apparently wrote a catch in praise of the human elbow, neither too near the hand or shoulder, but perfectly located to carry wine.

As a printer, Franklin produced three hymn books for the Ephrata Community Göttliche Liebes und Lobes Gethöne (Godly Love and Ringing Praise, 1730), Vorspiel der Neuen Welt (Prelude to the New World, 1732), and Jacobs Kampff und Ritterplatz (Jacob's Struggle and Knight's Castle, 1736), and reprinted Isaac Watts' Psalms and Hymns.

There is a continuing mystery surrounding a curious String Quartet for 3 Violins and Cello (actually a suite of dances) with Franklin's name on it, kept at the Bibliothčque Nationale in Paris. The experimental aspect of the piece is that all of the strings are pre-tuned (in scordatura) to the necessary pitches, so the players have only to bow the correct open (unfingered) string at the correct moment. However, there are other copies of this first of two such quartets attributed to Ignace Pleyel (in Prague), Fernandini (in Vienna), Joseph Haydn (in Zittau), and an anonymous copy (in Göttweig). Read less
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  • 1.
    The Early String Quartet in the USA
    Label: Vox Box   Catalog: 5057 Release Date: 04/08/2008   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  Benjamin Franklin,  Charles Tomlinson Griffes,  Charles Martin Loeffler,  George W. Chadwick  ... 
    Performer:  Isabelle Byman
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kohon String Quartet
    CD: $13.99
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