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Lev Sergeyevich Termen: The Inventor of the Theremin

Reactions in the Soviet Union

It’s probably not surprising to anyone that Théremin’s invention provoked a chorus of indignant protests; the waves of opposition increased for ten years. But eventually, consent took over. And besides, the news continued to spread about some new instrument for making “electronic music,” and some clairvoyant individuals had already recognized the need for music made for the radio. In the “radiophonic” structure of these instruments, whatever they may have been, they saw the convincing proof of the radiophonic principle. But it was the music writers/composers who made the final call. Ernst Toch, after one of the first concerts in Germany with Théremin’s instrument, wrote:

“I, personally, have been trying for several years to widen the ranges of the orchestra in clear, determinate directions only… With Théremin’s instrument, one can find part of what I had in mind realized, and further, it presents unexpected possibilities of a new sonorous realm.”

The first composer who utilized the new instrument was Andrej Filippovic Pascenko, student of Maximilian Steinberg and director of the Musical Library of the Philharmonic Orchestra in Leningrad for many years. In 1923, he wrote a symphonic Mystery for termenvoska and orchestra, which was performed for the first time in Leningrad in May of the following year under the conductorship of V. Dranisnikov. In December 1924, Théremin requested for the copyrights for his invention from the patent office in Germany, and the patent office in the United States registered a perfected model of the instrument with the number 1661058 on February 28, 1928. This was an apparatus with eleven tubes, and the copyrights were composed of forty paragraphs which Théremin had listed with extreme precision.

During the 1920s, an atmosphere favorable to political and artistic experiments still dominated in the Soviet Union. Just as there had been a clean-cut from tradition in politics, so was the case for the field of music. At first, at least, many bridges were burned. The Soviet government financed experiments on new artistic means with great generosity. At the bottom of it, all was the desire to place a kind of equally new music, as an artistic symbol, side-by-side with the new social system. The government’s help was guaranteed even for the boldest progressivists. In 1924, the State Institute of Music in Moscow (GIMN) received a technical physics department. In the same year, S.N. Rshewkin, a member of the acoustics commission, was working on an electric harmonium having four separate generators. He wanted to produce four-voice chords.

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

Futurism, as is already known, had differentiated political outcomes: if, in Italy, the principal representative of the movement, the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, adhered to Fascism, in the Soviet Union the futurists participated in the moment of greatest innovative tension in the artistic world that followed the October Revolution. It is thanks to this climate that we can also include Lenin in our gallery of personalities who have been curious in different ways about new musical instruments (from Busoni to Varèse, and on to the “King of Brakes,” George Westinghouse). The Bolshevik leader assisted in a demonstration of a new instrument, the etherphone, and congratulating the inventor, surprised him with his immediate comprehension of the new musical horizons open to the device.

[Franco Fabbri, Elettronica e musica, Fabbri Editori, Milano, 1984]

Lenin emphatically declared: “Communism is electrified socialism.”

[Claudia Azzalin, “Suonare e non toccare,” in Virtual, Milano, maggio 1996]

Poster for 1927 Paris Opera demonstration of Léon Théremin.
Poster for the 1927 Paris Opera demonstration of Léon Théremin.
[Lenin] first proposed to [Termen] to study into creating an electronic alarm for the Kremlin (!), and then sent the same inventor on various tours abroad with his instrument, in such a way as to produce propaganda about the “scientific progress of the socialist, soviet homeland.” For once, he was right: in fact, during an evening in Paris, Termen had tremendous success before such musicians as Ravel and Respighi, with hundreds of people, unable to enter the theater, held back by the police. Berlin, Frankfurt, London, Dresden, Hamburg, Leipzig, Munich…

[Paolo Beretta, “Suonare e non toccare,“ in Avvenire, Milano, 3 gennaio 2001]

In 1924, the year of Lenin’s death, the State Institute of Musicology in Moscow had been equipped with a technical-physics department, but the impending changes in the Soviet world wouldn’t reveal themselves as being favorable to maintaining a climate of openness and experimentalism from the which the debuts of the Termenvoksa had so authoritatively benefited.

[Franco Fabbri, Elettronica e musica, Fabbri Editori, Milano, 1984]

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