By RAYMOND WHITE
Benjamin Franklin was an amateur musician with wide-ranging musical interests. He played the harp and the guitar, and he perfected an instrument called the "armonica" — the design for which appears in the Library's Franklin exhibition. Sometimes known as the "glass harmonica," it achieved limited popularity in America, but attracted far more attention in Europe, where composers such as Mozart wrote music for the glass instrument.
The Heineman Foundation Collection in the Library's Music Division includes
a letter from Franklin to Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), an American
statesman, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and generally
regarded as the first native-born American composer of a secular song.
Writing from London on Aug. 15, 1765, Franklin inquires about Hopkinson's
recent performance on the newly-invented armonica: "Did it answer Expectation,
so as to please; or was it drowned by the other instruments[?]"
The Music Division also holds an extremely rare imprint of "L'Armonica: Lettera di Beniamino Franklin al padre Giambatista Beccaria…" (Turin: Stamperia Reale, 1769). One of only four copies known to exist, this pamphlet transcribes Franklin's letters to Father Beccaria, Italian philosopher and scientist, in which he describes the armonica in detail.
Included in the Library's exhibition is a manuscript volume of hymns titled "Die bittre Gute, oder Das Gesäng der einsamen Turtel-Taube" ("The Bitter Good, or The Song of the Lonesome Turtledove"), produced by the German Seventh Day Baptists at the Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County, Pa., in 1746. Once owned by Franklin, the volume contains a facsimile copy of the manuscript of a string "Quartetto" attributed to "Sig[no]re Benjamin Francklin." The piece is notable because of its unusual instrumentation—three violins and cello, as opposed to the traditional violins-viola-cello ensemble. Musical historians disagree as to whether the attribution to Franklin is accurate.
Raymond White is a senior music specialist in the Library's Music Division.