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Music: Leon Theremin

This article, published by the New York Times on April 26 1967, revealed to the world that Léon Theremin was still alive and working at the Moskow conservatory. Harold Schonberg, chief music critic of the newspaper, followed an almost unnoticed clue contained in the 1966 Gleb Anfilov book Physics and Music: “Curiously, Gleb Anfilov (…) treated Lev Sergeyevich purely as a figure from the past, but he dropped in one telling clue to the present: a full page photo of the inventor as a mature man. (…) The caption below read: ‘Léon Theremin is playing Rachmaninov’s Vocalise on his Théréminvox, Moskow Conservatoire, 1966.’.” [Albert Glinsky, Theremin. Ether Music and Espionage, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2000, 307]. Schonberg’s article caused a reaction and Léon Theremin’s old American associates started corresponding with him. “It was too much for conservatory officials. They had looked the other way long enough. Not only did the inventor represent an art esthetic contrary to Soviet ideology – and not befitting the conservative stronghold of the conservatory – but he was still a carrier of state secrets (the Times article revealed that he contributed ‘to the war effort, with secret work in electronics’.”. [Albert Glinsky, Ibidem, 310]. Soon after all of Theremin’s instruments were thrown out and accurately destroyed with an ax and the inventor was discharged from his post. (Valerio Saggini)

Inventor of Instrument Bearing His Name Is Interviewed in the Soviet Union

Léon Théremin
Léon Théremin.

Moskow, April 25 – Remember Leon Theremin who used to play the theremin and was such a hit in the United States about 35 years back?

Leon Theremin who used to stand in front of an electronic contraption and conjure otherworldly sounds from the ether. Leon Theremin, the man described by Time magazine as having “the most beautiful hands in the world.” Leon Theremin, whose instrument was played in recital by such spectacular ladies as Lucy Rosen and Clara Rockmore. Leon Theremin, the man who gave a concert at Lewisohn Stadium and created a theremin of such prodigious sound that nobody could hear the orchestra. Leon Theremin, who worked on new sounds with Leopold Stokowski and Henry Cowell.

Mr. Theremin disappeared from sight shortly before the war, and nothing more was heard of him. Only a few knew whether he was alive or dead.

But he is very much alive.

He is a spry, voluble man of 71, and he is a professor of acoustics at the Moskow conservatory.

He returned to Russia because that was where he was born and his country was in trouble. He wanted to help.


He did contribute to the war effort with secret work in electronics. But now he is back at his first love, not dreaming up, but actually making a series of electronic gadgets, each more fantastic than the next.

The other day he took a visitor through his laboratory, talking a blue streak. He is a slim man with a large head and diminishing gray hair. He looks and acts like the prototype of the absent-minded professor.

“I have developed an electronic organ tuner,” he said, pausing before a knobbed, tubed contraption, “It can tune an organ to any scale, tempered or otherwise.

“Here,” he said, turning to another collection of tubes and resistors, “is a machine to photograph sounds. It has 70 channels a half tone apart. And here is my rhythmicon. It can produce any combination of complex rhythms. Let me play you seven against nine. Or would you like to hear 5 against 13? Very important. A conductor can stand here and learn to beat four with one hand and five with the other.”

A theremin was off in a corner. “Play it,” a visitor urged.

Mr. Theremin switched on the current and stood before the instrument he had invented in the middle nineteentwenties. The theremin has a metal loop at one side, a rod at the other, and both hands passing through an electromagnetic field can produce a sound not unlike an eerie throbbing voice. Or perhaps a cello lost in a dense fog and crying because it does not know how to get home.

Mr. theremin arched his back and faced an imaginary audience. His eyes closed. He looked noble. Suddenly his hands, still strong and beautiful, shot out, and the melodic line of Chopin’s E Flat Nocturne filled the air. Mr. Theremin is still quite an impressive showman. The visitor applauded.

Impatient to get on, Mr. Theremin urged the visitor along.


“This,” he said “is a piano tester. It measures the evenness of a piano’s scale. We tested may fine European pianos against the Steinways here. The Steinway was best. Here is some work I have been doing on the pedals of the piano. With this you can see by colored lines the pianist’s pedaling. Very important. We have compared and graphed the pedaling of many great pianists in the same piece. Very interesting.

He put on a tape of Sviatoslav Richter playing Chopin’s C Sharp Minor Scherzo, and the listener stood transfixed as two colored lines, one for each pedal, arched out, retreated and intersected.


“Richter uses more left pedal than most pianists,” Mr. Theremin said. Let us please go on. Here is a Spectrograph to measure tone colors. Here is a machine to slow up sounds without changing pitch. Now I will show you something special.”

He ushered the visitor into a room in which a small dance floor had been constructed. Mr. Theremin stood on the floor, raised his arms, made motions, and started to play the Massenet Elegy on nothing at all.

The room was filled with sound, and it was positively spooky. No wires, no gadgets, nothing visible. Merely electromagnetic sorcery.

“I made my last public appearance in 1938,” Mr. Theremin said. “I sometimes think it would be nice to come back once more to the United States and show my latest instruments.”

[The New York Times, April 26, 1967]

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