The Glass Harmonica

by Dorothee E. Kocks

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

The Glass Harmonica by Dorothee E. Kocks In 1761, Benjamin Franklin invented the glass harmonica, a musical instrument which became notorious for the effect it produced in listeners. A series of glass bowls, graduated in size, were set to spinning with a foot pedal and played with wetted fingertips. Their tones lie in an unusual Hertz range at which the brain cannot easily locate the sound's source, probably the reason the music seems so ethereal: "celestial ravishment" in the words of poet Nathaniel Evans. The instrument's most prominent players were women, making it all the more scandalous.

The fictional Chjara is a free-spirited, sensual Corsican woman sent against her will to post-Revolutionary Paris to become an elderly invalid's servant. There, dressed in her master's embroidered waistcoat to pass as a young man, Chjara meets a widowed duchess who delights in the mildly shocking act of befriending her. The duchess introduces her to an American man whose Puritanical father has sent him to Paris on business. Away from his father's supervision, Henry kicks off the traces to explore erotic art and literature: what would become known by the not-yet-invented word "pornography." Henry and Chjara come together with an excitement resembling another discovery of Benjamin Franklin's: electricity.

Soon Chjara is playing the duchess's new instrument, she and Henry are pining for each other, and America looms on the horizon with its untutored masses yearning for sensual gratification even as they condemn it. Chjara's innocent mind is not so divided. "What if we are God's musical instruments?" she wonders, a sentiment that matures as she gains experience: "We please him when we allow the world to make us ring, when we are kindled with aliveness."

The novel, too, is most alive when most sensual, its characters kindled by music and the pleasures of love. If at times it asserts its theme more didactically and repetitively than readers might find ideal, it remains a charming tale, sparkling with originality. (2011; 344 pages, including a Bibliographic Note separating fact from fiction)

More about The Glass Harmonica at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

Interview with author Dorothee E. Kocks

Other novels about musicians:

Music and Silence by Rose Tremain (1999), about an English lute player at the court of the Danish King Christian IV in 1629. More info

Immortal Franz by Zsolt Harsanyi (American edition, 1937), about Franz Lizst, the nineteenth-century Hungarian pianist and composer whose music caused women to swoon. See review or more info at

The Doctor and the Diva by Adrienne McDonnell (2010), about a gifted opera singer who consults a doctor specializing in treating infertility in 1903, when such treatment might be considered scandalous. See review or more info at Powell's Books.

Music played on the glass harmonica, on CD:

Music for Glass Harmonica by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. More info

Glass Harmonica, compositions by Beethoven, Donizetti, Mozart and others. More info

Crystal Spirit, modern compositions by Yatri. More info


Mozart's Adagio in C Major for Glass Harmonica, performed by the Ensemble Modern, at YouTube

Glass Harmonica article at Wikipedia

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