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Lev Sergeyevich Termen: The Inventor of the Theremin

Return to the Soviet Union

In 1938, he was kidnapped by the NKVD (that would later become the K.G.B.), taken clandestinely back to the U.S.S.R., sentenced for “anti-Soviet propaganda” and isolated in a labor camp in Magadan, Siberia. After a few years, he was assigned to work in a secret research laboratory, where he “collaborated” in the creation of the “buran,” or the “bug.” Rehabilitated, he then taught at the Music Conservatory in Moscow until his death.

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

Rumor has it that he was kidnapped by the K.G.B. (he was sent to a Siberian labor camp for three months). While saving the details for his book, Professor Glinsky said the circumstances were actually more complex than that. The inventor remained under house arrest until 1947 when he was secretly awarded the Stalin Prize for inventing the Soviet Union’s first electronic eavesdropping device.

[Eric Taub, “The Theremin: Music at Your Fingertips, or Your Elbows or Knees,” in The New York Times on the Web, April 22, 1999]

Professor Lev Sergeyevich Termen, known in the West as Leon Theremin, was removed from New York in 1938 by the N.K.V.D., predecessor of the K.G.B., tried, convicted and sent to the hellish Siberian Gulag in Magadan. He wasn’t under “house arrest,” as the article states; he was in prison for some time, as were millions of other innocent Russians during Stalin’s Great Purges. In my film, Professor Theremin, on camera, clearly states, “I was in prison.” Rumor, eh? In addition, Beryl Campbell, the best friend of Theremin’s wife at the time, the dancer Lavinia Williams, recounts on camera Lavinia’s frantic telephone call after Russian goons took Theremin away. More Rumor? I spent five years making “Theremin” and spent a lot of time with the amazing Professor Theremin. His treatment by the Soviets denied the world his genius for over half a century. I stand behind my work.

[Steven Martin, “Another Theremin View,” in The New York Times on the Web, April 28, 1999]

What had happened? According to some, the “flight” was a skillful operation by the N.K.V.D. (the forerunner of the K.G.B.), who kidnapped the inventor; for others – like Glinsky – it was a voluntary return to his homeland to escape his creditors.

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

In 1945, together with the New York City Symphony Orchestra, directed by Leopold Stokowski, Clara Rockmore executed a concert for etherphone and orchestra by Anis Fuleihan for the first time; in the same period, the instrument made its appearance in two film scores by Miklòs Ròsza in order to obtain a psychological effect that would not have been producible in any other way. In Spellbound – wrote “Time” magazine – the “unnatural moan of the contralto” served for the characterization of the fainting hero. In The Lost Weekend, directed by Billy Wilder, the instrument musically symbolized the need for alcohol that reawakened in the young writer, that entices him in the bars, that induces him to steal, until the intentions to commit suicide to become ever-more consistent, and during his delirium, fluttering bats finally appear. It wasn’t the first time that Hollywood took advantage of the etherphone, but these two films caused such a stir that from 1945 on, the instrument became popular in the cinematographic industry.

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

Moog Theremin Advertising
Moog Theremin Advertising
(Photo courtesy of MoogArchives.com).

(…) It was once again in the U.S.A. that (…) a certain Robert Moog, fourteen-year-old with a passion for electronics, built himself a homemade Theremin, copying the plans from a magazine. Moog would shortly become the inventor of the first music synthesizer called, none other than the Moog. And the Big Briar, Bob Moog’s American industry, still builds various models of the Theremin, selling them even on the Internet and in build-it-yourself kits: all it takes is a ‘click’ and $299 to receive a kit with the “unforgettable” instrument right at home, complete with a demonstration video.

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

Unfortunately, the Russian musician/inventor never knew about these events, so rich in favorable prospects.


For many long years, nothing was known about him in the West; even in articles about electronic music which have been published by the Soviet press, his name was missing for a long time, although they must have been proud of the Soviet inventor of the first electronic musical instrument. Only a quick mentioning in the magazine “Sovjetskaja Muzyka” from May of 1961 made note of the fact that Théremin was living in Moscow like before. Stalin’s Esthetics – officially mitigated in the meantime by the Central Commission of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – was at that time rigidly focused on “socialist realism.” Naturally, the fact that, in order to produce sound by means of an electronic tube, the need for a man was only indirectly necessary, and the man was assigned a new function, this gave rise to a series of reflections of a cultural-political nature. It’s true that no prohibition was enacted, however, the musical instrument construction office in use up until that time was closed without delay – as was stated in the “Sovjetskaja Kultura” on August 27, 1953. Later, a Soviet delegation for the construction of electronic musical instruments declared that “the playing of electronic instruments leads to depersonalization of musical exercise.” It’s certain that new material liberty and the absence of every kind of mechanicalness collided violently with the differently-oriented ideology of “socialist realism.” Théremin, his instruments and those of the other Soviet inventors didn’t go hand-in-hand with the conception of the world which was in vigor during those years. This is probably the real reason why they were eliminated.

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

Theremin – who then was “rehabilitated” in his homeland, from 1966 on worked at the Conservatory in Moscow developing other models (including polyphonic ones) of his machine and in 1991, he returned to visit the United States-making it in time to see the revival of his creation, which has been used, for example, by Led Zeppelin, by the Beach Boys, by Jean Michel-Jarre… The inventor died, in fact, in 1993: the day after the “debut” of the American documentary “Theremin. An Electronic Odyssey”, completely dedicated to his incredible history.

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

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