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Lev Sergeyevich Termen: The Inventor of the Theremin

The American Period

[Theremin] had presented his instrument in Europe during several concert tours, he had made one or more etherphones resonate, together with human voices, pianos, harmoniums, and celestas; and then, at the end of 1927, he had set off for the United States.

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

Termen's wife Lavinia Williams.
Termen’s wife Lavinia Williams.
[The] time was drawing near in which Termen would become Theremin. In fact, in 1928, the eclectic inventor (he had studied, among other things, the color television and anti-gravitational bridges) disembarked in New York in order to present the etherphone before Toscanini, Rachmaninov, and Ford, and there, he decided to stop. Officially because the climate in the U.S.S.R. had changed, from the beginning when the avant-garde, artistic experiments were supported and financed by the regime – but, according to biographer Glinsky, with an additional, clear motive of committing espionage.

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

[In that period] Théremin brought some modifications to his instrument. He quickly realized that music “produced with gestures” from the hand using the high-frequency vibrator, on which the etherphone was based, was not at all perfect. “Handling” the sound with precision in a small space which was not even one meter wide required sensibility and executive ability uncommon to most, since there were about seventy intervals. So, he built a model with a keyboard, which was a kind of electronic piano, then an instrument with handles having the form of a cello, on which one could play quick passages which naturally were not performable using an etherphone.


America, to be truthful, didn’t give him the success he’s hoped for, but it did offer prospectives which were more promising than those of the Soviet Union, where the initial liberality in the field of art little by little gave way to rigid political control. Here, in the country of unlimited possibilities, other composers began to become interested in Théremin’s instrument. Joseph Schillinger, both mathematician and composer, also a collaborator with Théremin in inventing the electronic organ, in 1929 wrote a First Airphonic Suite, precisely for the etherphone. Shortly after, Théremin built an electric instrument controlled by a luminous flux called the “Rhythmicon” at the request of Henry Cowell, who had been presented to him by Nicolas Slonimsky. This machine was capable of reproducing the most complicated dynamic phrases and offered the precious help of metric and rhythmic combinations to Cowell’s inspirations. The nucleus of the instrument was a photocell. A keyboard controlled luminous impulses by means of the double rotating gears-in front, large sprockets for the rhythm, in back tight sprockets for audio vibrations – and everything was put into motion with single movements. This apparatus, of which two models existed, one in Cowell’s possession and the other given up by Slonimsky to Schillinger – stirred great arousal in 1932 during an early concert at the New School for Social Research in New York. After the critic had agreeably affirmed that the instrument was not able to produce music, Cowell wrote two compositions for it and used it as a type of percussion: the concert was “Rhythmicana” in four movements, a polyrhythmic percussive performance united with an orchestra and “Music for Violin and Rhythmicon.” The first performance of this technical chamber music, which took place in the same year in San Francisco, astonished the critic of the “Argonaut” that he wrote:

“The accompaniment was a strange jumble of intricate rhythms and crisscross currents of such finesse and precision as were never heard before by human ears.”

In the same year, Théremin gave a concert at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan in New York with his students. The stage was set up with electrical equipment, on the floor were various cables. Under the area designated for dancers, antennae were connected in such a way that a ballerina could create her own accompaniment using different steps and positions. One student gave a demonstration. Before the stupefied expressions of the public, she moved across the stage with orderliness, whirled her head with grace, and moved her arms sinuously… and as if by magic, precisely the Ave Maria by Bach-Gounod resonated. Then the students performed various pieces with the etherphone and another, similar instrument with a keyboard, whose sound reminded one of an oboe. Finally, they all came together to form an “electric orchestra.”
[Fred K. Prieberg, Musica ex machina, Einaudi, 1963]

Thanks to these performances (and above all the invention of an electronic security device…), Theremin became a millionaire, married a famous colored ballerina and enjoyed important friendships in the world of art and American finance: the composers Cowell, Varèse, and Schillinger wrote for him; Lucie Rosen, the wife of a banker, insured him financially; Charlie Chaplin bought an instrument from him; even Einstein played a duet with him on the violin, and tried to find an equation that would unite music and physics.
[Paolo Beretta, “Suonare e non toccare,” in Avvenire, Milano, 3 gennaio 2001]

The most faithful supporter of Théremin’s art was Lucie Bigelow Rosen, nicknamed with a bit of exaggeration by the New York Times as the “Théremin’s high priestess.” As the wife of banker Walter T. Rosen, who was a music connoisseur, she had great means at her disposal which she used to spread the music. Théremin was given a studio and huge sums of money to use for the perfection of his instruments.

In that period there already existed an entire series of pieces composed expressly for the etherphone. Philips, a radio apparatus manufacturer, even made preparations for mass-producing Théremin apparatus for domestic use, but then abandoned the project. Afterward, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) began to build the machines.

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

1929 Theremin Advertising
1929 Theremin Advertising.

Having made the enjoyment of music universally possible, RCA takes another tremendous step – making possible not merely the enjoyment of other people’s music, but the actual creation and performance of one’s own music! Now, for the first time in the history of music, anyone, without musical knowledge or training of any sort; anyone, without even the ability to read notes; without tiresome or extended “practice”; without keys, or bow, or reed, or string, or wind, – without material media of any kind – anyone can make exquisitely beautiful music with nothing but his own two hands!

[From the sales brochure for the RCA Theremin, 1929]

LEOPOLD STOKOWSKI, Conductor of the famous Philadelphia Orchestra says:

“It is only a question of a few years before we shall have entirely new methods of tone production by electrical means. Some of these possibilities have been demonstrated by the Russian, Theremin … thus will begin a new era in music … One wonderful feature of the new electrical instrument is or will be, that there is practically no technical difficulty in playing it. There will be no more long hours of practice every day. Electricity will do all the mechanical parts. The musician will give musicianship, interpretation, variety of tone color and tone volume and all the non-material side of music.”

[From the program for a promotional concert presented by piano seller John Wanamaker, New York, 1929]

Still, the strangest irony of the RCA Theremin was its purported ease of operation. To the average consumer, the freedom of space was really disorienting weightlessness. Even a fretless fingerboard or a slide trombone had something to hang on to – a point of reference. The theremin called for the acute, inner ear of a singer to sense the location of each note before sounding it, but without any advantage of a physical sensation in the vocal cords or breath. [A] survey revealed that untrained performers preferred a keyboard orientation, with fixed pitch increments. Adding to the list of hindrances, the theremin was capable of playing only slow music, and it required an accompanying instrument or recording. For a device intended to replace the parlor piano, these were serious defects.

[Albert Glinsky, Theremin. Ether Music and Espionage, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2000]

After some years, the cease of sales (due to the economic depression following the great crises of 1929) forced the interruption of the machine’s production. However, the etherphones which got on the market aroused the interest of some noted composers. Nicolas Slonimsky arranged his piece for the piano called “Dream Scents” and part of Silhouettes iberiennes”; Edgard Varèse composed his “Equatorial” for two Théremin apparatus in 1934 and he widened it’s instrumentation several years later; in 1937, Percy Grainger wrote “Free Music” for six etherphones. Bohuslav Martinu, who took refuge for a number of years to flee the war and foreign domination, composed a “Fantasy” in 1944 for the Théremin instrument, the oboe, string quartet, and the piano, and he dedicated it to Mrs. Rosen. In regard to this piece, the “Neue Zurcher Zeitung later wrote:

“’Fantasy’ for the Théremin, the oboe, string quartet, and piano was an artistic event of grand importance, written by Bohuslav Martinu, who ingeniously utilized the special qualities of the instrument; the spectral gestures of the soloist were also very effective, which reminded one of the magic which is the origin of all music.”

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

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