Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Rose Armonica

One of Ben Franklin’s most beautiful failures was his “Rose Armonica,” a delicate construction that replaced the keys of an organ with roses. Each petal of the Armonica had a thread pulling a stopper to a whistle. Each rose determined a different note, though the various petals determined various hues of sharpness, flatness or “textures” a facet the meaning of which is lost to history. The sharps and flats took the musicality of this instrument well outside the usual octave of Western music, a point that was not initially grasped by Franklin.

Of course, the delicacy of the “keys” and their wilting properties made this an experiment he could only pursue seasonally. Franklin would joyfully play his instrument and tweak its parameters through June and then prune it back in exasperation by July, done for another year.

One of the distractions this already very complicated instrument generated was the attraction of bees and other insects. Franklin eventually attempted to incorporate the bugs into his instrument. He designed tonal tubes of glass, filled with honeycombs of bees, and he devised a system of hammers which would aggravate the bees of certain “notes” lending ambient buzzing tones to the music. It is this sliding range of notes and buzzing that has caused some musical historians to speculate that the Rose Armonica sounded sounded something like the moog synthesizers of the 1970’s.

The atonal harmonies led to some controversies. When the “Great Awakening” Anglican minister George Whitefield heard the device played, he declared it “music of the devil.” As he made this pronouncement several bees flew into his robes and stung him. He had to strip naked in public and there was quite a scandal.

Whether is was because of this religious outcry or just dissatisfaction with the workings of the instrument, Ben Franklin soon after dismantled the Rose Armonica, though some of the discoveries he made studying led to his more lasting and successful Glass Armonica, which adhered to a more familiar Western tone scale.

There were only two people who could ever play the Rose Armonica with any facility, and they were Franklin himself and his apprentice, Stephen Malworth. Malworth wasn’t as technically able to translate the contemporary tunes of his day as Franklin was, but he was innovative in his improvisations along the invented scale of sharps and flats. He had a brief career playing a simplified version of the Armonica as chamber music for such dignitaries as Thomas Jefferson and other intellectuals of the Early United States, but was hounded by those who thought he was playing devil music and by the limitations of his fragile instrument. Sadly, Malworth died for his art, stung to death by a flock of bees.

Unfortunately, all designs for the Rose Armonica have been lost, and all attempts to recreate the instrument have been disappointing. It is likely that no one living will ever hear the music of the roses as they were played in the 1700s.

--Dan Kilian
Another Musical Inventor

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