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Vera Meyer's Glass Harmonica
By THOMAS P. CALDWELL
The February 2010 release of Martin Scorcese’s new film, “Shutter Island”, gave Vera Meyer a lot of exposure, but as one of the extras in the Dachau flashback, her three seconds on film without screen credit will not bring her much fame.
Vera MeyerThat is all right with Meyer, who is thrilled simply to have been part of the production after answering an online casting call from New York and spending five days as an extra during filming in the Boston area.
Meyer is a woman of many interests and she already has attained a level fame as one of 10 musicians in the world who play the glass harmonica.
The instrument, invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, was very popular for a 40-year period after it was introduced, but it slipped into obscurity amidst rumors that it would cause insanity, nervous disorders, convulsions in dogs and cats, and marital disputes, as well as waking people from the dead. German police actually banned the instrument.
Contributing to the glass harmonica’s bad reputation was its use by the German-born Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer. In addition to his work with metal rods and magnetism, Mesmer employed the glass harmonica in treating his patients. When he was run out of Paris in disgrace after his work in animal magnetism fell into disrepute, he reportedly left his wife behind but took his glass harmonica with him.
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A sketch of Benjamin Franklin with his invention, the glass harmonica.
Gerhard Finkenbeiner at work building a glass harmonica.
TOM CALDWELL PHOTO
Statues representing her parents.
TOM CALDWELL PHOTO
Vera Meyer's collection includes old stereoscopic slides.
TOM CALDWELL PHOTO
Vera Meyer plays her glass harmonica.
Vera Meyer performing with her glass harmonica.
People have postulated that lead in the glass would get into the bloodstream to cause nervous disorders in the player, but that does not explain how members of the audience supposedly were driven insane by the instrument.
Meyer has had no ill effects she’s aware of.
Her introduction to glass music was much like Franklin’s: She came across a street musician making music by running a wet finger around the rim of a series of 70 wine glasses. Like Franklin, she was fascinated by the sound, but, unlike Franklin, she did not think of removing the stems from the glasses and turning them on their sides, placing them on a rotating rod.
After learning to play music on crystal glasses, Meyer learned of Gerhard Finkenbeiner who was building Franklin-style glass harmonicas. She ended up acquiring one of his first glass harmonicas. The individual bowls on the instrument were fabricated by blowing spherical shapes down the length of glass tubing, then cutting the spheres in half to create two separate bowls, or cups. Fine-tuning was achieved by then either grinding the cups or immersing them in a bath of hydrofluoric acid to thin the walls.
Franklin placed his glass harmonica in a case much like an old-time sewing machine with a treadle to turn the metal rod. Finkenbeiner’s version has a handle on the side that can be used to turn the bowls, and there also is a silent electric motor that can be used when electricity is nearby.
As her skills at playing the instrument grew, Meyer became co-founder of Glass Music International to bring together those with an interest in glass music. (The term “harmonica” was derived from the Italian word for “harmony”.)
While she has played with famous orchestras, including the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Zubin Mehta, she found she was more comfortable at smaller, less formal venues. Recent engagements include Madbury and Amherst NH and Acton MA.
For the most part, however, she plays as a street musician in Harvard Square during the warm months. With an international audience there, she has learned the national anthems of most countries so, when people approach, she can ask them where they’re from and then play their nation’s theme. She says several people have broken out in tears, so pleased were they to hear the familiar tune, and they thank her for taking the time to learn their national anthem.
Meyer, who also plays the recorder, is interested in most varieties of music, as well as several other subjects, from academia to politics. She is a member of an international folk dance community and plays once a month for an international music club at dance parties.
While she was born in Cambridge MA, Meyer’s parents, Alfred Meyer and Eva Apel, had fled Nazi Germany shortly before the war and her paternal grandparents, Gustav and Therese (Melchior) Meyer, died in a German concentration camp in Auschwitz. Her father joined the U.S. Army and trained as an intelligence officer at Camp Ritchey MD. He would earn a Bronze Star for going to the German front and convincing German soldiers there to surrender.
After the war, the Army sent Alfred Meyer to Harvard to learn Russian and he became assistant director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard.
Her parents met each other when Alfred Meyer saw a bicycle that had been made in his hometown of Bielefeld, Germany, outside the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library. He waited for three hours on the steps of the library to find out who owned that bicycle and how it got there. It was the first year that Harvard’s Widener Library was open to women and the woman who arrived to claim the bicycle was Eva Apel.
Eva’s uncle, musicologist Willi Apel, who wrote the Harvard Dictionary of Music, had been invited to teach at Harvard in 1936 and Eva’s family left Berlin to come to this country shortly afterward—and she had brought the bicycle with her.
Eva would become a physical therapist.
It was Willi Apel who would introduce Vera’s parents to Acadia National Park in Maine in the 1940s. They bought a piece of land there for $300, before that area appreciated in value. From the deck of their dwelling, no other homes are visible on Long Pond. The family has enjoyed canoeing and kayaking on the pond and now maintains two rental cabins there as well.
In addition to inheriting that property, Vera’s Massachusetts home holds a large collection of heirlooms and relics her family brought from Germany, including a large, 26-pound bronze menorah dating from the 1800s. There are volumes of German history in books that have art plates and illustrations protected by silk tissue. The collection also includes stereoscopic slides, chandeliers from her mother’s home, and sculptures — as well as a huge collection of records, many of them pristine in unopened covers.
“I really don’t know what to do with them,” she said of the large collection heirlooms.
Her parents were classical music buffs. Her father played the piano while her mother played transverse flute and recorder. While Vera never had any classical training, she is self-taught in many areas. She’s a member of a baroque recorder group and the Boston Recorder Society, and she loves playing ensembles on that instrument as well as using her skills on the glass harmonica.
Meyer has full-time employment with Medical Information Technology, Inc., known as MEDITECH, a Westwood MA-based software firm serving health care organizations worldwide. She began in systems support but now works in a “non-technical” area. It is yet another side of Vera Meyer.
She loves to do gardening during the summer and will “rebuild pianos when I can”. She said she likes detail-oriented work with her hands, and the precision needed in restoring heirloom grand pianos is very satisfying. She restored a Steinway B from 1889 that once was owned by David Epstein, ex-conductor of MIT Symphony.
“I own that piano, if anybody wants to buy it,” she noted.
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