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Classical Music

For pure sound, a clear choice

Local firm crafts glass harmonicas

WALTHAM -- Bright yellow flames hiss from a half-moon of gas burners as Tom Hession fuses a bowl-shaped glass cap to a Pyrex chromatography column for a medical imaging company. As the clear cylinder spins lazily on a lathe, Hession and fellow glass blower Brendan Coffey name-drop clients.

"Jonathan Davis, from Korn, he bought one," Hession says. "Mark Mothersbaugh, the guy from Devo."

"Neil Young," Coffey prompts from the back of the shop.

"Yeah, Neil Young has one," Hession says.

They're not talking about medical instruments, but about one of the shop's other products, the glass harmonica. For 25 years, Waltham-based G. Finkenbeiner Inc. has been the leading manufacturer of the instrument, once a fashionable ornament of parlor and concert hall. The lanky, laconic Hession, the firm's head glass blower, proudly continues the tradition started by founder Gerhard Finkenbeiner, but is amused by the outsize ratio of publicity to production, compared with the shop's volume of scientific glass blowing.

"The harmonica has always been really a sidelight," Hession says, "but wherever I go in the country, there's always someone who knows we make them."

In 1761, Benjamin Franklin, visiting Europe, heard one Edward Delaval perform on the musical glasses -- 50 crystal wine glasses, mounted in a cabinet, tuned by being filled with varying amounts of water, and played by running a moistened finger around the rims, producing an icy, distant falsetto. (The British poet Thomas Gray had also heard Delaval, remarking, "I thought it was a cherubim in a box.")

Franklin improved the instrument, horizontally mounting a set of permanently-tuned glass cups -- the smaller the cup, the higher the pitch -- on an axle that revolved via a foot pedal. Instead of navigating a jungle of stemware, the player merely touched the compactly nested spinning edges. Franklin's "armonica" became a runaway success. Mozart composed for it. Virtuosos toured with it.

The instrument was so popular that when the more familiar mouth organ was invented in the early 1800s, manufacturers conveniently appropriated the name, which had picked up an "h" along the way.

Finkenbeiner first saw a glass harmonica in a Paris museum in 1960. As a teenager in Germany, recruited into the Third Reich's flying bomb factory, he had studied electronics and apprenticed with a master glass blower; after the war, he worked for the French Navy. An enthusiastic pianist and organist, Finkenbeiner pursued musical inventions on the side; a request from a priest friend prompted his creation of a two-foot-long glass bell, a thin quartz rod encased in a vacuum tube. Struck by a tiny hammer and amplified 10,000 times, the sound uncannily imitates a heavy church bell.

In the 1960s, Finkenbeiner moved to the United States and opened his shop in Waltham, producing custom glass for laboratories and electronics manufacturers -- and glass bells. Inspired by the discarded ends of quartz furnace tubes used in making semiconductors, Finkenbeiner finally designed and built his first glass harmonica in the early 1980s, and set about singlehandedly creating a market for them.

He continued manufacturing and proselytizing for the instrument until his disappearance in 1999: an avid pilot who often delivered his products across the country in person, Finkenbeiner took off from Norwood Memorial Airport on a May afternoon and was never seen again.

Harmony and healing
Turning from the chromatograph to the harmonica, Hession loads a General Electric type 214 quartz glass tube onto the lathe. Hession says that the purity and evenness of the tubes, a high-quality industry standard, are ideal for making harmonica cups: fluctuations in the chemical composition or the thickness of the glass walls can produce a "wah-wah" overtone, distracting from the harmonica's pure sound.

Quality isn't cheap -- Finkenbeiner harmonicas start at around $7,000, the price escalating as more cups (and range) are added. In an upstairs storeroom stacked with cups (Hession uses spare time to blow extras, maintaining stock for when orders come in), Coffey displays an unusually large, low-pitched example.

"This cup alone would probably cost around $1,500 to $2,000," he figures, "between the cost of the quartz, the hydrogen" -- used to fuel the required 2,000-degree-centigrade flame -- "and the labor."

The price and scarcity -- only around 200 instruments have come out of the shop -- attracts collectors of expensive curiosities. Office manager Diane Hession, Tom's wife, once got a call from the Sultan of Oman.

"I thought it was a prank -- and he didn't speak English very well, so at first he sounded kind of rude," she remembers. " 'I want a glass harmonica,' he said, 'the best one you have on the shelf.' We were supposed to bring it to Logan Airport, where his plane was waiting to pick it up." It was an extravagant wedding present for a musically-inclined bride.

Normally, harmonicas are custom-built to order, but there happened to be an extra one in the shop for the sultan. "I only wish it had been one of our $40,000 models," she laughs.

Another market has been practitioners of New Age and holistic vibrational healing techniques. It's a big enough part of the business that Coffey knows the lingo. He points out a compact, one-octave model: "That's probably for a healer," he says. "They'll sometimes ask for only seven cups -- just enough to open up the chakras."

It recalls the instrument's most infamous advocate, the 18th-century Austrian doctor (and -- small world -- patron of Mozart) Franz Anton Mesmer, who often enhanced his wealthy clients' magnetism-based "therapy" with harmonica improvisations. Mesmer's dubious reputation helped create a diabolical aura around the instrument: It was said to destroy the nerves of both player and listener.

Hession voices the rational opinion that players were being mildly poisoned by lead in the crystal bowls, gradually entering the bloodstream through the fingertips (not a problem with quartz). As for the alleged effect on the listener, even some contemporaries regarded the furor as simply effective marketing: In 1819, the writer E.T.A. Hoffmann wryly observed, "For any young lady of breeding, it would have been most ill-advised, as soon as the glasses were even touched, not to fall into a tolerably convincing swoon."

Reflecting popular perception, the mad scene from Gaetano Donizetti's 1835 opera "Lucia di Lammermoor," famous for its high-wire soprano-flute duet, was originally scored with glass harmonica. Cecilia Brauer, who plays celesta and piano with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York, will perform the restored harmonica part for the Met's new production of "Lucia" in September.

"It creates a spookier sound," she says.

Brauer came to the harmonica backward, via a last-minute change on a 1990 concert by the Met Chamber Players. "They quickly had to substitute something," she recalls, "and they chose the Mozart Quintet" K. 617, which contains a substantial harmonica part.

Brauer played it on the celesta -- a keyboard instrument with a high, metallic, bell-like timbre -- but six months later, she happened to see an interview with Finkenbeiner on television, and, remembering the Mozart, became curious. She eventually met Finkenbeiner and acquired her own instrument, and now performs in recital, with opera and ballet companies, and on the occasional film score -- one of a few dozen modern musicians resurrecting the harmonica's artistic profile.

Brauer describes the delicate relationship between moistened finger and bowl: "If the water's too hard, it'll be a scratchy tone; if it's too soft, it won't sound at all. Then the temperature of your body might be wrong -- it's very temperamental."

But she loves the instrument's handmade aspect. No two are exactly alike, which "gives it the personality."

Carrying on
Back in the shop, Hession's bowls begin to take shape. As flames -- white-hot, this time -- impart a fierce glow to the spinning quartz, Hession methodically builds up the tube's walls, and soon the angular shoulders of a pair of cups emerge. Once the cups are hardened and scored apart, another glass blower, Shaun Conroy, grinds and polishes them, fine-tuning the pitch, readying the final assembly.

Hession, who joined the company in 1979, sweeping floors while a student at Waltham Vocational School ("I never dreamed I'd be working here for the rest of my life," he says), has worked on every one of the firm's instruments, but only started blowing the cups after Finkenbeiner's disappearance. "The harmonica, that was his baby," he says.

Perhaps encouraged by the harmonica's eerie associations, conspiracy theories followed Finkenbeiner's disappearance; Hession dismisses them, blaming simply a heart attack or other sudden incapacitation.

"He always said that if something happened to him in the air," Hession recalls, "he would just turn on the autopilot and let the plane fly out to sea."

Eight years later, as the Hessions prepare to take ownership of the firm, they've been going through much of Finkenbeiner's legacy, the inventions and unfinished projects that still crowd corners of the storeroom.

"It's been hard," Diane Hession says. "He was like a father to us." But the shop -- and its unlikely musical progeny -- are now part of their legacy, too.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at

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