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No. 1377:
Ben Franklin and Music

Today, Ben Franklin talks about music. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

bfrank2.jpgBen Franklin was many things: statesman, scientist, writer, inventor, printer. He also had a quirky interest in music. He played several instruments, and he invented one called the glass armonica. It worked on the same principle as the rubbed rim of a wine glass.

So my antennae recently went up when our University acquired a 1769 edition of Franklin's treatise on electricity. Along with Franklin's foundational work on electricity are letters on many other subjects. His brother had sent a ballad that he'd written. Franklin writes back from England, where he was serving as a Colonial representative. He talks about the homespun sentiments of the ballad. We don't see its text, but Franklin says,

If you had given it to some country girl in Massachusets [sic], who has never heard any other than psalm tunes, or [ditties like] Chevy Chase, but has a naturally good ear, she might more probably have made a pleasing popular tune for you, than any of our masters here.

That's a swipe at the great Baroque composers around him. He doesn't like what they're up to. He says,

The reigning taste seems to be quite out of nature,
or rather the reverse of nature.

Franklin objects strongly to the way they set words to music. He encloses an aria from Handel's oratorio Judas Maccabaeus and uses it to show how text settings are becoming dysfunctional.

Accents, he says, are often in the wrong place. He objects to what he calls Drawling and Stuttering -- drawing words out on tied-over notes and fragmenting them with elaborate trills and other ornaments. He objects to placing words so they're Unintelligible. He objects to the Tautology of needlessly repeated words. A century later, Tennyson would also complain that

Musicians always make me say twice what I would say only once.

The last item in Franklin's list is Screaming without cause.

I've sung a lot of Handel's music myself, and I've often loved the way he sets words. But I was raised on Handel. Franklin was honing a vision of a nation run by hard-working citizens, and they didn't create music like this. Franklin thought vocal music should be a tuneful but straightforward vehicle for text. He adds a comment any good singer had better heed today. He says many leading English singers are lazy about consonants. Their singing isn't about words; it's only about showing off their vocal technique.

He finishes with an analogy. Wigs were invented to replace missing hair. But they've turned into something with no relation to natural hair. The wigs of the wealthy are patently false.

Years later, a much older Franklin turned up in France representing our new nation. He brought along his glass armonica, and he appeared in the salons flaunting his unwigged, balding head. By then, Franklin's egalitarian ideas were no longer just ideas. The straightforward, tuneful, wigless country that he'd worked to create was now a reality. And, by now, Franklin was the perfect representative of that new country.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Franklin, B., Experiments and Observations Made in America at Philadelphia ... 4th ed., London: Printed for David Henry; and sold by Francis Newbery, at the corner of St. Paul's Church Yard: MDCCLXIX. The letter to Franklin's brother appears on pp. 473-478, and a letter describing the design of the glass armonica appears on pp. 427-433.

This book was selected to represent the UH College of Engineering in the Library's celebration of passing its two millionth volume landmark. This particular volume was subsequently owned by Michael Faraday. The selection and acquisition was made with help from Roger Eichhorn, Kitty Elledge, Ray Flummerfelt, Stuart Long, Dorothy Barrera and myself from the College of Engineering, and Margaret Culbertson and Derral Parkin from the UH Library. The book was purchased from Antiquariat Botanicum in Beltsville, MD.

My thanks to Ed Doughtie of Rice University for the Tennyson quotation.

For more on Benjamin Franklin use the SEARCH function. See especially, Episodes 510141, and 710.

Click on any of the thumbnails below to see a full-size image

From left to right: Title page, a tornado over water, the Franklin Stove


From left to right: three pages of Franklin's letter to his brother.


From left to right: three diagrams of electrical apparatus