Lev Sergeyevich Termen: The Inventor of the Theremin

The history of the Theremin and its inventor through a collection of press clips.

The Birth of the Theremin

Lev Sergeivitch Termen
Lev Sergeyevich Termen.

In the years previous to 1920, a young student, Lev Sergeivitch Termen (a name which was thereafter gallicized to Léon Théremin), built an electronic musical instrument in St. Petersburg. It was a Thermionic tubed instrument. Théremin was not only a technician, but also a professional musician. He had studied physics at the University of St. Petersburg, studying courses of music theory and cello at the Musical Institute at the same time. In 1919, he had been nominated as Director of the Technical Laboratory (vibration research) at the Physics and Technical Institute. During a conference of Electrotecnicians in 1920, he presented the Termenvoksa or Heterophone, or Theremin, as it was called internationally. Those at the conference saw a small box with two antennae, one on the right and one on the left. Could it be a new type of telegraph? Or an electronic measuring device? Théremin moved to the front of the machine and began working it. There were no handles or keyboard. He waved his hands above the instrument like an orchestra conductor and seemed to obtain sounds as if by enchantment.

[Fred K. Prieberg, Musica ex machina, Einaudi, Torino, 1963]

How the Theremin Works

A small metal rod protrudes from the top of the music stand, from which there is another metal coil located on the side. On the music stand itself, which is connected to the power supply for illumination, rests the music score. The conductor moves near and, having set off a switch, begins to wave his arms, as if conducting. Immediately, sounds begin flowing out from a speaker pointed in the direction of the audience. I certainly hope that the reader doesn’t think, not even for a minute, that I would let a merely far-flung idea flow out from my pen. It’s actually the invention, realized very practically, of a Russian technician, Leon Theremin, who lives in America, where he has already given many demonstrations. A large American producer of records and radio receivers has put the new musical instrument out on the market ever since 1930. The instrument, the “Thereminvox,” has no keyboard, no strings, no horns, and no other devices which would resemble a normal musical instrument. With one’s hand close to the metal rod – the vertical antenna – you hear a sound which becomes ever lower as the hand is moved away, while it becomes increasingly acute as the hand is brought closer. Removing the hand completely from the presence of the antenna, the sound ceases completely. It’s never necessary to touch the antenna. The coil located horizontally on the left side of the machine – the horizontal antenna – serves only for modifying the intensity of the sound produced. Lowering the hand on the coil, the power, and therefore the volume, decreases. So, the right hand regulates the pitch while the left hand regulates the intensity. With radio receivers, in use for several years now, moving one’s hand close to the tuning dial you are able to notice a kind of howling that ceases as soon as the hand is taken away. This phenomenon was then suppressed with the use of screens, made with metallic divisions between the various parts. Ever since that time, Theremin thought about utilizing this phenomenon to create a new musical instrument, which is precisely what he did. The operating principle is as follows: the device produces two oscillations at an inaudible frequency by means of two circuits oscillating at high frequencies. By moving one’s hands close to the two antennae, the vertical one and the horizontal one, a connection between the two circuits is produced. The overlapping of the two inaudible oscillations creates a “beating,” that is, further oscillations that are audible, whose pitch varies with the movement of the hands. The sounds produced with this system have some of the characteristics of a cello.

[D.E. Ravalico, Prodigi e misteri delle radio-onde, Bompiani, Milano, 1935]

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