Artist Interview: Dennis James, glass harmonica

Artist Dennis James, glass harmonica

Dennis James joins Ars Lyrica's 2017/2018 season in Sweet Philomela in Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on Friday September, 22 at 7:30PM.

Curios what a glass harmonica sounds like? Watch Dennis on YouTube

What does “artful women” mean to you?


In the context of this performance, I think of the fact that women were the predominant players of glass musical instruments at the time of their introduction and initial popularity. By the early 1770s several female musicians were touring with Benjamin Franklin's extraordinary armonica and major composers had begun to write music especially for them to play using it. Performing music with sets of individual musical glasses had become extremely popular earlier in the 1700's with such active players as Miss Wilkerson, Miss Lloyd and Miss Ford. Anne Ford, supposedly a pupil of the pioneering 17th & early 18th c. Irish player, Pockrich, was herself an accomplished player who accompanied her own singing with the stroking of the rim-rubbed glass instruments.  She published a book of "Instructions for playing on the Musical Glasses with such directions that any person of a musical turn may learn it in a few days, if not in a few hours," considered today to be the earliest known method for playing the musical glasses.  


The famous Davies sisters, Marianne and Cecilia, were the fine ladies described in Oliver Goldsmith's 1766 Vicar of Wakefield who would "talk of nothing but high life, and high-lived company, with other fashionable topics such as pictures, taste, Shakespeare and the musical glasses." English relatives of Benjamin Franklin, it was Marianne Davies who initially made the armonica popular throughout Europe soon after its invention having been given one by the inventor. Already a seasoned public performer at the musical glasses for a decade, in early January of 1762 (at the age of 18) she performed with her armonica in London at "the Great Room in Spring Gardens, accompanied occasionally with the voice and German flute".  


Miss Davies introduced the armonica to Italian concert-goers later that year and was after commanded to give a performance to the Imperial Court at Vienna, where Gluck was chapel master.  Metastasio, the court poet, wrote an Ode on the "Nuove instrumento di musica, inventate dal celebre Dottore Franklin" set by composer Hasse for Armonica and soprano especially for Marianne and her sister Cecelia, herself a celebrated singer, to perform at the Duke of Parma's wedding. While in residence at the Viennese Imperial Court, Davies was instructor to both the young Archduchess Maria Antonia (better known as Marie Antoinette), and also the soon-to-be-notorious Viennese hypnotist, Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer. It was also during Davies' Viennese stay that the instrument came to the attention of the composer whose work would give it lasting fame, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. 


Next on a list of "artful women" associated with glass is Angelica Kaufmann - the famous painter who became the first female member of London's prestigious Royal Academy of artists. She was renowned for playing Franklin's armonica, said "for spiritual purposes."  The most famous "artful woman" in glass music at that time must, however, have been the blind armonica virtuosa Marianna Kirchgaessner (1770-1808 ). It was she who inspired Mozart to write some of his last compositions for the delicate glass instrument. Newspaper accounts of her playing are innumerable- here from the "Hamburgischer Correspondent": "Her adagio is ravishing and her allegro is admirable.  She plays the instrument with such lightness that it is as if she had a keyboard beneath her fingers, performing grace notes and trills which have hitherto been considered impossible."


Each of these performers eventually became quite ill, thought by most caused by their career long associations with Franklin's mechanized musical glasses. Marianne and Cecilia Davies had shared a career of sparkling success for over 20 years when Marianne was forced to retire in 1785. It was said this was not because of her age (she was just over 40) but "because her nerves had been ruined". By the beginning of the 19th century these persistent deleterious rumors, likely stemming first from the Davies tragedy plus the forced withdrawal of the composer Naumann from performing also apparently due to the glass, spread warnings to both performers and listeners alike. 


During the blind armonica virtuoso Marianna Kirchgessner's passage through Stuttgart during her last professional tour, a famous composer of ballads, one J. R. Zumsteeg, personally directed her concert and admired her beautiful play. These were the last tones of music heard by him, for a vehement attack of 'cramp in the chest' terminated his life that very night- he was found dead in his bed. Marianna was shortly thereafter seized with a fever, from which she never recovered, and she expired on December 9, 1808, her death attributed to "deterioration of her nerves caused by the vibrations of the instrument." 


In 1798 Friedrich Rochlitz wrote in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, "There may be various reasons for the scarcity of armonica players, principally the almost universally shared opinion that playing it is damaging to the health, that it excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood, that it is an apt method for slow self-annihilation.... Many (physicians with whom I have discussed this matter) say the sharp penetrating tone runs like a spark through the entire nervous system, forcibly shaking it up and causing nervous disorders" He went on to give some warnings:



- If you are suffering from any nervous disorder you should not play it,

- If you are not yet ill you should not play it excessively,

- If you are feeling melancholy you should not play it or else play uplifting pieces,

- If tired, avoid playing it late at night.


J.C. Muller warned in his instructional manual of 1788: "If you have been upset by harmful novels, false friends, or perhaps a deceiving girl, then abstain from playing the armonica--it will only upset you even more. There are people of this kind--of both sexes--who must be advised not to study the instrument, in order that their state of mind should not be aggravated."


When word began to circulate that there was illness attributed to the instrument, people began to panic, blaming the instrument for everything from domestic disputes, premature births, and mortal afflictions, to convulsions in cats and dogs. In certain German States it was banned by police decree "on account of injury to one's health and for the sake of public order." As J.C. Muller wrote in 1788, "It is true that the armonica has extraordinary effects on people, different ones on each person according to his temperament. But that these are detrimental to the health has never been proven. If playing the armonica were to bring the performer gradually closer to death, or at least cause certain illnesses, that would be truly terrible."


What are your thoughts about the piece/program you are performing this season?


Hasse enjoyed a reputation in Italy somewhat similar to Handel's and Gluck's and his L'Armonica is the oldest surviving instrumental ensemble composition written to include the glass armonica. For years later Metastasio's ode was known to have been preserved, but Hasse's music had disappeared. The work thus remained forgotten until the complete original manuscript turned up in a Milano library. Having performed the work now for nearly thirty years I can say it ranks together with the famous Mozart Concertantequintet K. 617 for Armonica and Strings as the the most challenging technically to perform while reigning as the most beautiful in the entire glass music repertoire (a list that today numbers over 500 compositions by major composers in the 18th and 19th centuries alone).


 Name an ‘artful woman’ that has had the most influence on you?


I would have to credit, thinking in my fifty year career long pursuit of unusual music instrument studies,  as the most artful woman that I encountered, the one who affected most all of my career activities, would have to be Clara Rockmore (the famed theremin virtuosa). She had a career as the finest thereminist ever beginning in the mid-1920s and she became the most active performing artist at the instrument in its entire history.


The Theremin was a pioneering electric instrument invented in 1919 by a Soviet physicist named Leon Termin. I fortunately had the opportunity in the early 1990's to study it with her as one of her final students learning her personally developed aerial fingering technique.


When did you first start singing/playing?  


I began my musical career at the age of seven by studying the "stomach-piano" (accordion) because it was the local instrument of choice for budding musicians in Cleveland, Ohio in 1957.  However, it was one day during Science Class in seventh grade that I had an epiphany that caused me to change instruments.  I had the realization that none of my classmates wanted to hear my renditions of Lady of Spain complete with bellows shake.  We had an electronic organ at home, and as I mentioned, I had previously embarrassed my brother Rodger with competitive technique display in a bouts of sibling rivalry when I was 9 and he was 12, so I guess it was a no-brainer for me to make the shift finally when I turned 12.


 Who are your musical inspirations?


My musical inspirations come from my fellow performers. I've had a now fifty year career as a touring instrumentalist and I have to say all of the musicians with whom I've worked over these years havebeen my major inspirations - a few names to mention:  Bruno Hofmann, Anner Bylsms, guitarist John Williams, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Christopher Hogwood, George Benjamin. 


What kind of music do you listen to today? 


Well, for today as the example, I've been listening to performances of major keyboard works by CPE, WF and WC Bach getting ready for my appearance next Tuesday at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. I'm also listening today to my most recent recorded performance of my film score that I prepared for the 1924 silent film Ben Hur. I'll be performing that again tomorrow afternoon at 3 o'clock in Bellingham, Washington. 


What embarrassing songs might I find on your MP3 player? 


Well, I do have the master recording from which I worked out an arrangement by ear when I was seven years old for my first big accordion project. It is entitled "The one eyed one horned flying purple people eater"


Where would you most like to perform?


I'd like to perform ragtime piano on the famous Mississippi riverboat, the Delta Queen.


If you weren't performing, what would you be doing?  


That's easy - at the moment I'm gleefully studying flameworking, the craft of working with rods of glass manipulated in the flame from a torch.  Today I would be making small animals and marbles. 


What hidden talents do you have?


I can put the stem of a cherry in my mouth and tie a knot in it with my tongue 


Any loves, other then music? 


Collecting antiques, painting plein-airand riding my Indian chief motorcycle.


Any celeb crushes?  


That would be Vilma Bankey, the costar with Rudolph Valentino in the 1926 silent film Son of the Sheik.  Oh, be still, my beating heart!


Best advice ever given?  


Every time you touch your instrument, be it for rehearsing or performing, whenever, just every time make sure the sound is beautiful.


 Secret craving? 


 My friend's special recipe for rum banana bread.


 Favorite food/restaurant? 


Weisswurst in the restaurant in the Munich airport terminal arrivals area each time I arrive on that morning flight from the United States 


Favorite song of all time?


 "Someone to Watch Over Me"  tied with "Our Love is Here to Stay", both by George Gershwin

Hear Dennis James in Zilkha Hall on Friday, September 22 at 7:30pm in the first concert of the 2017/2018 Artful Women Season, Sweet Philomela.