Friday, 4 May 2018

"Armonica a bicchieri" in Donizetti´s operas.

There´s a video which has become quite popular among percussionists in the last few days. It features a rehearsal of "Lucia di Lammermoor" at the Metropolitan Opera; more precisely, the famous "mad scene" ("Il dulce suono...", act III, scene 2). The curious thing about it is the historically informed approach, as the famous flute solo is played on the instrument it was originally scored for: the "armonica a bicchieri" (harmonica made of glasses). The information you are about to read has been taken from the fantastic "The Timpani and Percussion Instruments in 19th Century Italy", by Renato Meucci, a book I wholeheartedly recommend.

The "armónica a bicchieri" is an instrument regularly present for more than a decade solely at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. It´s made of musical glasses, rubbed with the fingers, and the most reliable description can be found in a treatise of 1846 by the Neapolitan Vito Interlandi:

There are different types, but that in use at the moment is composed of two octaves of glasses set in a kind of box adapted for this purpose, and tuned with more or less water in the glasses that are of different sizes, from C below the staff to C above it, an further still to high F, going beyond the two octaves according to the maker. The melody is played by the right hand and the bass by the left. The tips of the fingers, wetted with the water, rest lightly on the rim of the glass, and going round its circumference draw out the sound. The famous Franklin raised the status of this toy to an instrument in 1763. 

Interlandi adds that, at the moment his treatise was published (1846), the instrument was still used occasionally in the theatre since " must be left near the harpsichord for placing special instruments such as the harp, musical glasses, or others, when they are needed".

There are two Donizetti operas, both written for the Teatro San Carlo, in which the musical glasses are explicity requested: "Elisabetta o Il castello di Kenilworth" (1829) and "Lucia di Lammermoor" (1835). At least since 1833, among San Carlo´s orchestra musicians was an "armonica" player, the same Domenico Pezzi, for whom the Lucia part was written, but who, at the last moment, was not able to play it; thus the substitution in extremis that assigned to the flute one of the most famous solos in the opera repertoire of the 19th century.

According to Gabrielle Dotto, in his article "Voci celesti e scelte critiche", included in a hand bill of a production of "Lucia" by La Scala, in the autograph manuscript, in the particella for the armonica, there´s a note stating "cancellata ma ancora ricostruibile" ("cancelled, but still redoable"). Pezzi had rehearsed the part together with Taccchinardi-Persiani (the soprano who premiered the opera), but he was already having problems with the management of the Theatre, as another armonica part had to be cancelled in a previous ballet: "Amore e Psiche" (the part, profetically, being given to the flute). The Teatro San Carlo fired Pezzi stating he was not reliable, as cancelling the part in the ballet was due to him leaving the city without previous notice. On the other hand, Pezi, who was paid per gig (a pioneering freelancer), declared that the Theatre, in finacial difficulties, fired him so as to save on his emoluments. When asked by the Theatre what to do after firing Pezzi, Donizetti decided to substitute the armonica with "una coppia di flauti" (a couple of flutes). So, on September 26th, 1835, the night of the premiere, the armonica didn´t sound.

I´d like to add that the term "armonica" was also used to name an instrument made of small glass strips, played with mallets or, later on, with hammers operated by a keyboard ("armonica a tastiera"). These instruments had singular success in Italy, as proved by several examples conserved in private collections.

So, dear flutists, you now know this solo belongs to us 😉. 

I have played "Lucia di Lammermoor" several times, but no armonica was used due to it not being available. Wold you have imagined something like this?, would you like to play the armonica part? Tell me your thoughs.

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

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