Cecilia Brauer sits in the music room of her Merrick home, treating me to a Chopin etude with all the skill and sensitivity expected from a pianist who plays with the Metropolitan Opera. In the great American virtuoso tradition, her manner seems effortless, but decades of experience as a soloist, accompanist and teacher are evident in the rich, ravishing waves of music she so modestly summons from her baby grand. After concluding the etude, as if suddenly remembering an earlier comment I had made about my idolatry of the composer Charles Ives, Brauer bursts into his "Central Park in the Dark," pounding out its ragtime tangles with the same offhand precision she brought to Chopin. A glance around the room offers similar serendipity: Along with the piano and an ancient, ornate harmonium, the place is crowded with relics of her long career and family life. The ceiling is laden with hundreds of suspended antique toys and gizmos, and a large window lined with old glassware imparts a gentle blue tint to the afternoon light.
No question, though, the most mysterious and inviting aspect of this sweet circus of curios is an odd contraption waiting in an honored space beside the piano. Built of glass and wood, with a design half Shaker and half Harry Partch, this is my reason for visiting. It's called an armonica.
"Franz Mesmer used it to induce trances until he was run out of town for witchcraft!" Brauer shares her history of the instrument with characteristic glee. "Because of its eerie, ethereal sounds, they said it would bring up the ghosts of the dead." Well, it does. Stroking the rotating blown-glass bowls with wetted fingertips, Brauer coaxes unearthly tones that, as she says, "come from nowhere and permeate everywhere." One moment it's an ensemble of theremins, then it's a dream-world calliope, then a choir of carillon bells. Between bits of Mozart and Strauss, pieces written for the instrument, Brauer regales me with tunes ranging from the Stephen Foster melodies she often performs for school groups, to folk songs and the holiday favorites heard on her self-released CD, The Angelic Sounds of Christmas. All of it sounds new and timeless, the seemingly endless sustain of the armonica's brilliant overtones permitting the listener to savor each chord as it slowly washes under the next.
"The sound has no beginning and no end," Brauer observes. It's easy to understand why the instrument enjoyed a voguish popularity through the late 18th and early 19th centuries, before increasingly larger orchestras overwhelmed its subtle sound, and traditions of home parlor music gave way to more passive musical habits. The armonica was invented in 1761 by Ben Franklin, Brauer's hero.
"My 'three Bs' are Brahms, Ben and Brauer," she declares, referring to her late husband, Frederick, upon whose death in 1990 Cecilia first fell under the spell of Franklin and his instrument. "I'd been playing since the age of nine, and studied at Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. I toured for years, but when we first started a family, I cut back on the concerts and recitals somewhat to concentrate on raising my son and daughter and giving private piano lessons."
When her husband passed away, Cecilia took a therapeutic vacation in Massachusetts, where she discovered the armonica and met the glass artisan who'd revived it, Gerhard Finkenbeiner. By then her children were grown and starting their own families, and the time was ripe for a new beginning. She had Finkenbeiner build her an armonica, and she applied her considerable energy to mastering its daunting technique.
"Another door opened, and I decided to go for it," she says. "If it weren't for Benjamin Franklin, I wouldn't have done it." Her passion for the patriot is what she says drives her school performances, in which she dons period garb to play the armonica for her young audiences and share lore about Franklin: "I tell them he was a down-to-earth renaissance man who invented such things as swim fins and the odometer without ever taking a patent! He felt that others should benefit from his ideas."
In her own way, Cecilia Brauer is as driven as Big Ben. At a time in life when many are long retired, the 76-year-old Brauer continues to preach the gospel of Benjamin Franklin at her school gigs as well as museums and Colonial re-enactor events. She tours the world with the Met orchestra, playing celeste and piano, and is currently preparing to supply the armonica part (usually omitted or played on celeste) in Donizetti's original version of "Lucia Di Lammermoor," conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras next month at the Metropolitan Opera. These accomplishments of an ongoing life in music are casually mentioned as Brauer shows off her scrapbook she gives her highbrow triumphs no more emphasis than the fact that her CD rated four stars in the New York Post. "I beat the Beach Boys and Cyndi Lauper," Brauer laughs, with a mixture of confidence and humility she credits to her hero.
"Franklin was this great genius who loved writing bawdy lyrics to sing with the boys in the tavern," she says. "When those students send me pictures of Ben and armonica-inspired poems they've created after my performances, that's what delights me."
It's proof that even though Brauer plays an ancient instrument, she moves in modern circles. For further evidence that she's plugged in, she's not only got an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) but even has a website (http://www.gigmasters.com/ armonica/) that features playing the instrument. It looks like a cross between a sewing machine and glass-and-wood insect.
Words and music mix easily for Brauer. As she perches in front of her armonica, she punctuates her reverie with strange, percussive swipes at the glass bowls part of a newly composed avant garde work for armonica she's been invited to perform for a recording.
"It's important for the soul, music is," she says. "When you're older, past caring about football scores and all that, why would you sit in front of the boob tube when you can settle down into the beauty of music?"
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.