Bringing the Armonica to the Met

by Joanna Maurer & Ellen Westermann
based on an interview by Lesley Heller

On November 16, 2013, during the Met’s live broadcast of Tosca, the MET Orchestra Musicians celebrated a landmark in the life of their most senior colleague. Celeste/armonica player Cecilia Brauer had reached her 90th birthday, and for half of those 90 years she has been performing at the Met. The musicians not only honored Cecilia with a champagne and cake celebration that day, but surprised her the following morning (on her actual birthday) during a rehearsal. Cecilia fondly remembers, “all of a sudden, the whole orchestra played Happy Birthday. I put my hands over my eyes and started crying. I don’t even remember what I said because this orchestra is so important to me.”

A native of Detroit, raised on Long Island, Cecilia studied piano at the Curtis Institute with the legendary Isabelle Vengerova. As the only female finalist in the Naumberg Competition in 1947, she acquired management by the National Music League. Regrettably, she discovered that women soloists faced an uneven playing field and were commonly passed over unfairly. Cecilia remembers, “back then, many people thought, ‘How can a woman play as well as a man?’” Nevertheless, she was in the middle of a successful career as a soloist and teacher when the Met called in 1972. 

Orchestra manager John di Janni, in need of a new celeste player, asked then-Concertmaster Ray Gniewek if his sister (Cecilia) could cover the celeste part. Ray suggested that he call her and ask. A couple of days later, Cecilia found herself at the first rehearsal of Salome with Karl Böhm on the podium. 

She quickly learned that counting all the way through an orchestra part is distinctly different from performing a concerto. Starting at the beginning, Cecilia prepared as much of the part as she could before that first rehearsal, but Böhm took her by surprise by starting in the middle of the opera. Watching him like a hawk while counting furiously and sight-reading made for a less-than-relaxing debut. At the break, her brother sat with her over a cup of coffee. Cecilia recalls, “I told him I wanted to die! I wanted the floor to open up under me.” Ray pointed out that it was only a rehearsal and tried to bolster her confidence.

The rest of rehearsal looked up. Cecilia recalls, “thankfully, I had practiced Salome’s Dance. I had worked on that part because it was so technical, one of the more difficult celeste parts in music.” From that day forward, Cecilia became a fixture at the celeste. “You need so much concentration during a performance,” she points out. “Being the only celeste player, your nerves are constantly going, keeping you stimulated, along with observing all the notes, the rests, the conductor, plus all the counting. Then you finish playing the score, and your heart and your soul are so rewarded. I still get goose flesh when I hear a beautiful aria. I have to believe that’s maybe kept me going. I don’t know.” 

Cecilia at the glass armonica

Cecilia at the glass armonica

In 1990, another facet of her musical persona serendipitously blossomed. Having been introduced to the idea of performing on the glass armonica by the MET Orchestra’s then-Principal Flutist, Michael Parloff, Cecilia heard a radio broadcast about armonica maker Gerhard Finkenbeiner. By chance, his shop was near to her summer home in Massachusetts. After several visits and some experimentation, she purchased one of his instruments.

Benjamin Franklin created the glass armonica in 1761, inspired by a concert of pitched wine glasses that he attended in 1757. It is a series of 37 glass bowls, of graduated size, mounted onto a horizontal spindle, laid out like a keyboard and played by placing moistened fingers on the edges of the bowls as they spin. It produces a lovely, ethereal sound, but is a finicky and temperamental partner that requires the hands of a master. Franklin introduced it to the public in Europe, where it found sufficient favor to have been adopted by composers from Mozart to Richard Strauss. It is most famously featured in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor

The Met, having had no armonica, had always covered the part in Lucia with a glockenspiel. In 1992, with Sir Charles Mackerras on the podium, Cecilia performed the armonica part on the instrument for which it was written. She also performs in Die Frau ohne Schatten, in which Richard Strauss uses the armonica's spectral timbre as a color element in his orchestration.

Cecilia has become an authority on the history and literature of the armonica, and has lectured and performed worldwide. In one instance, she was privileged to be taken to the manuscript room of the Mozarteum in Salzburg, where a Mozart manuscript rested on a table. The librarian offered her white gloves. Cecilia recalls thinking, “Oh my God, she’s going to let me hold that manuscript! So I put the gloves on and she put the envelope in my hands, and I started crying. And I said to the librarian, ‘I apologize.’ And she said, ‘Oh no, no. I know how you feel.’”

Cecilia feels grateful to have been a part of the MET Orchestra for the past 45 years. “I love this family, this orchestra, and I cannot even imagine retiring! And when I do, it will break my heart.” She is also grateful to the Met for giving her a second career after being a soloist, and for leading her to her “third career, the armonica.”

This article was made possible by Associate First Violinist, Lesley Heller, who sat down with Cecilia for an hourlong interview on May 19, 2014. Lesley writes, “Ceil has led, and continues to lead, a most fascinating life, always learning and taking on new challenges. Seated together on the MET Orchestra’s return flight from the June 2011 Japan tour, we shared thoughts on our mutual passion for making music in animated exchanges. By the end of the flight, we were eager to get together to talk some more and play the Strauss Sonata for violin and piano, which we did within a few weeks at Ceil's lovely home on Long Island. She is a formidable pianist, still in command of her instrument, and it was a privilege to play with her. She is an inspiration to us all, and a fine example of what makes the MET Orchestra great.”