The ‘instrument of madness’ for Lucia di Lammermoor at the Teatro Massimo tomorrow. Here is the glass harmonica: it was said to cause nervous breakdowns even in players.

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It is a very ancient instrument, found in Persia and India in the Islamic Middle Ages. In Europe, the earliest attestation is in Gaffurio’s treatise Theorica musicae (1492), where an engraving shows a ‘Pythagorean experiment’ with glasses filled with water according to precise proportions being played with two sticks swiped against the rim. It is the harmonica a bicchieri, or glasharmonika, that will be played in Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor on stage at the Teatro Massimo from tomorrow, Wednesday 30 March. Right from the start, due to the difficulty of finding a virtuoso of the instrument capable of accompanying the soprano’s cadenza, Donizetti envisaged an alternative version for flute. Playing the glasharmonika at the Teatro Massimo will be Sascha Reckert.

Donizetti chose to accompany the famous scene of the protagonist’s madness precisely with the glass harmonica to render the arcane ‘celestial harmony’ heard by Lucia, but also to suggest to the listeners the connection with psychic illness. The German physician Franz Mesmer used its sound for his experiments on animal magnetism, a therapy for diseases or dysfunctions of the organism based on his controversial theses. Perhaps also for this reason, the instrument had a pronounced connection with madness from the very beginning, also due to the theory that rubbing the glass against the fingertips had a negative effect on the player’s nerves. It was said to cause nervous disorders, convulsions in dogs and cats, marital disputes, and even to have awakened the dead from the dead, so much so that in some German cities the instrument was banned by the police. During the 18th century, the instrument spread throughout Europe, with several possible ways of producing the sound: either with chopsticks, or by directly touching the rim or the upper outer side of glasses with the fingertips.

From the 1830s, the instrument’s popularity declined. The glass harmonica experienced a relative revival from the last decades of the 20th century onwards; today’s instruments have a more powerful sound and do not cause problems of nervous sensitisation. It is therefore finally possible to perform the madness scene from Lucia di Lammermoor as it was imagined by the composer.