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Bohuslav Martinů and Lucie Rosen: the Path to Fantasia for Theremin

Lucie Rosen and the Fantasia for Theremin

Lucie Bigelow Rosen playing the Theremin.
Lucie Bigelow Rosen playing the Theremin.

Lucie Bigelow Rosen was born in 1890 to a prestigious New York family. She was a descendant, from mother of statesmen, eminent scholars and members of high society, and from father of a general during the civil war. After his mother’s divorce and subsequent marriage to Lionel Guest, fourth son of the 1st Baron of Wimborne, she settled in Canada. Lucie, a restless and independent spirit, cultivated, from a young age, an interest in art. As a child, she studied violin and piano at the New York Music Conservatory, then attended Royal Victoria College and continued studying the violin at the Royal Conservatory in Montreal. She then studied French, German, the classics, and sculpture at McGill University. In Montreal, Lucie loved to attend theaters, opera, dance shows, and museums.

In 1914 she married Walter Tower Rosen, a prominent New York lawyer and international banker, as well as a talented pianist, passionate art collector, and art patron. He was, in fact, a charter member of the Society of Friends of Music and a director of the Theater Guild in New York City.

The passion they shared for the arts led them to live for long periods in Venice in an apartment on the Grand Canal and later to build a new country residence near New York where to spend the summer months and cultivate their artistic interests. They bought a hundred-acre property, and in the heart of a wooded area, they built a Mediterranean-style villa of more than twenty rooms, richly furnished and embellished with works of art from Walter’s vast collection. The entire west wing of the house was designed as a music room where the Rosens entertained friends with musical recitals. The property was named Caramoor in homage to Walter Rosen’s mother, Caroline Moore Hoyt.

The buzz generated by the press’s coverage of the European tour undertaken by Léon Theremin after leaving the Soviet Union reached the Rosens while they were in Salzburg at a music festival. The news aroused Lucie’s curiosity, who finally had the opportunity to get to know the inventor and his instrument personally at a soirée in New York in 1929. Lucie fell in love with the theremin and decided without hesitation to devote herself entirely to it by abandoning the study of the violin. She became a student of Theremin, and within six months, she ventured into her first public performance as thereminist, at Carnegie Hall, as a member of the Theremin Orchestra.

Lucie and her husband visited the Theremin laboratory at the Plaza Hotel and were fascinated by the number of inventions, not just musical, developed, or in development by Theremin. They also became aware of the economic difficulties the inventor was in and decided to help him by renting him temporarily, on favorable terms, a five-story building at Thirty-seven West Fifty-fourth Street. Theremin moved to 54th Street, allocating the first floor to the laboratory, the second to his students, the third to the Terpsitone, and the upper level to his residence. Contrary to the initial intentions of the Rosens, Theremin remained in the building for eight years, making it a reference for the New York’s art community:

The Theremin Studio was more than a laboratory. It would become a watering hole for intellectuals and cognoscenti drawn to Theremin’s ideas – a place for aesthetic discourse – and a hotbed where musicians and artists of New York’s avant-garde would labor to breed strange hybrids of art and technology, already in the ’30s trafficking in a world of multimedia and arts synthesis. (Glinsky, 2000)

One of Lucie’s main concerns was to increase the theremin repertoire with compositions that would enhance its expressive potential, consistent with the inventor’s intentions, in terms of extension, articulations, dynamics, and timbre. Like Clara Rockmore, she disdained the amateurish use of the instrument that would transmit a caricatured image of it to the audience’s ears. For this reason, she commissioned original compositions from talented composers, including Sandor Harmati, Jenö Takács, Mortimer Browning, John Haussermannm, Isidor Achron, and Bohuslav Martinů.

We do not know what instructions Lucie gave Martinů, but we know what she generally asked the composers to whom she commissioned new pieces for theremin:

When composers ask me what general instruction is needed to write for the theremin,” she explained, “I would say they should think of a song; a song for an archangel’s voice, of five octaves, and incredible power and sweetness, that can dive to the rich low tones of a cello, and include the thin high harmonics of the violin; that can be heard in great spaces without effort, through and above a great orchestra, blending with other instruments and voices. (Glinsky, 2000)

Martinů began working on Fantasia for theremin, oboe, piano, and string quartet in the summer of 1944 while on vacation in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where he had mostly devoted himself to writing his third symphony. He finished Fantasia, with the help of Carlos Salzedo, on October 1st, shortly after his return to Manhattan.

About this piece Miloš Šafranek writes:

Besides the interesting problem which the instrument itself poses—used today in orchestration by French contemporary composers, with its beautiful, deep tones—there is nothing in this commissioned work which goes beyond the typical Martinů chamber music, even though the emphasis here is on the solo electrical waves and certain new and striking effects are obtained. (Šafránek, 1944)

And indeed, in this magnificent piece, it is perhaps not inappropriate to find a certain routine, in a good sense. In Fantasia, we hear the typical Martinů’s piano obbligato, with its percussive accents, the masterfully arranged long-line strings, and the nervous rhythm. The oboe cuts through the ensemble “as a mediating instrument.” (Mattis, 1999) The “dramatic intonations and the Slavic inflections” (Gentilucci, 1969), other typical features of Martinů, give the piece a robust sentimental charge without renouncing, as always in Martinů’s writing, a clear and organic construction. The theremin part covers a range of four octaves and showcases the potential of the instrument in terms of articulations and dynamics. Yet another confirmation of Martinů’s exceptional writing skills.

Lucie Bigelow Rosen 3 nov 1945 Townhall theremin recital leaflet.
Lucie Bigelow Rosen 3 nov 1945 Townhall theremin recital leaflet.

In November 1945, Lucie premiered Isidor Achron’s Improvisation and Martinů’s Fantasia in her usual annual concert at Town Hall. In Fantasia, Lucie was accompanied by Carlos Salzedo on the piano, Robert Bloom on the oboe, and the Koutzen Quartet on the strings.

Olin Downes reviewed the performance for the New York Times

Lucie Bigelow Rosen’s Theremin recital last night in Town Hall offered two new works by modern composers. The “Fantasia” of Bohuslav Martinu for Theremin, piano and string quartet, and Isidor Achron’s “Improvisation” for Theremin with piano accompaniment were heard for the first time anywhere … No doubt Martinu’s composition is one of the most important new works that Mrs. Rosen has thus far produced. The solo part is written in special ways considered appropriate for the individual instrument, with ensemble scoring which skilfully sets off its quality. There are beautiful pages in this score, and certain new and striking effects are accomplished. Mrs. Rosen intelligence and feeling were evident in all that she did. She had a large and interested audience. (Downes, 1945)

The echo of the premiere reached Europe, enough to make the Neue Zürcher Zeitung write

‘Fantasy’ for the Théremin, the oboe, string quartet, and piano was an artistic event of grand importance, written by Bohuslav Martinů, who ingeniously utilized the unique 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. (Prieberg, 1963)

Fantasia remained one of the most replicated pieces in Lucie’s repertoire, which, however, judging by the critics of the time, who, on other occasions, had not been stingy with positive reviews, was not always up to it, in terms of execution. In reviewing a concert held by Lucie with the National Gallery Orchestra, directed by Richard Bales at the National Gallery of Art, Elena de Sayn wrote:

The music of Martinu’s “Phantasy” was especially forceful and beautiful. It could, possibly, be played by one of the deeper-toned instruments and make a stunning- number. Mrs. Rosen does not possess either ability or musicianship to cope with the problems of the compositions she essayed. Her pitch is insecure; the weak and often wailing sounds she extracted from her instrument were wobbly and devoid of quality, volume or nuance. (De Sayn, 1948)

Similarly, Lucie’s Fantasia performances weren’t always welcomed during Rosen’s third and final European tour:

The Daily Telegraph snorted that “Martinů’s Phantasy, a well-written piece, showed up the poor theremin’s rusticity in the company of such well-bred instruments as string quartet, oboe and piano. (Glinsky, 2000)

Although Lucie Rosen trusted that the theremin would be a source of inspiration for composers, Martinů did not write any other pieces for the instrument. Still, Fantasia remained a point of reference for any thereminist as well as a satisfying listening experience for the audience, when performed well. For this, we must be grateful to Lucie Rosen and the battle she stubbornly fought to affirm the role of the theremin as a real instrument of contemporary music. Although that battle seemed lost during the long period in which the theremin assumed the role of a special effect, Lucie’s passionate effort reveals its importance today. We are indeed witnessing a renaissance of the theremin. And new talented thereminists such as Lydia Kavina, Carolina Eick, Charlie Draper, Thorwald Jorgensen, and Katica Illényi draw on the theremin repertoire built by Lucie Rosen and show the world the beautiful potential of the theremin.

Listen to Fantasia performed live by Lydia Kavina in the Thereminvox Library or watch the video on YouTube.

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