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Zenaide Hanenfeldt: The Scion of Imperial Russia That Became a Theremin Diva

Thereminist Zenaide Hanenfeldt and inventor Leon Theremin.
Zenaide Hanenfeldt and Leon Theremin. (Image: Thereminvox.com).

Zenaide Hanenfeldt was one of Leon Theremin’s first associates in the United States. She played a leading role, from 1929 to 1934, in the American adventure of Leon Theremin, appearing in some of the most important theremin events of the period and experiencing a brief period of intense and ephemeral celebrity as a theremin diva. Later, she almost disappeared into oblivion, confined to stingy annotations in the history of the theremin. Let’s find out a little more about her.

From Imperial Russia to the United States

Zenaide Hanenfeldt was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1909. She was the daughter of Gen. Vladimir Pavlovič Hanenfeldt (1864-1914) and Marie Dimitrova de Mertvago (1878-1934). Vladimir Hanenfeldt was a Baltic German who took a high position in the Russian Empire as a commander of the Tsarist Imperial Guard.

Marie de Mertvago was the daughter of General Dmitrii Fedorovich Mertvago (1840-1918), the descendant of a noble family whose origins date back to fourteen centuries. From 1895 to 1899, Marie’s father held the role of naval and military attache of the Russian legation in Washington, where Marie was known as “the belle of the diplomatic corps” (Anonymous [1], 1923). In 1899 Gen. Mertvago was assigned to the war department at St. Petersburg, where Marie met Vladimir Hanenfeldt, that was to become her husband. In 1908 Zenaide was born.

As a very young child, Zenaide undertook the study of the harp and piano, and, at seven years, she was featured in Russia as the world’s youngest harpist (Anonymous [2], 1933).

Zenaide was thus on her way to a quiet and comfortable life in the high society of Tsarist Russia. But fate had decided otherwise.

In 1914 the First World War broke out, and Zenaide’s father, General Hanenfeldt, who was in charge of a regiment, died two months later, at the very beginning of the hostilities. In 1917, at the outbreak of the October Revolution, Marie and Zenaide fled Russia for Finland, where the Hanenfeldts possessed a summer home. One year later, Zenaide’s grandfather, General Mertvago, also died, and the Finnish civil war broke out. At that point, Zenaide’s mother, seeing the rapid deterioration of the situation and thinking about the safety of her young daughter, decided to return to the United States, where she could still count on many friends. Thanks to the financial support of some of these American friends, the two arrived in New York in January 1919, when it was nearly impossible to get permission to come over.

At this point, Mary, in exile and impoverished, and despite not having worked a single day of her life, had to face the problem of supporting herself and little Zenaide. It was the beginning of an odyssey that led her to change jobs and places of residence many times: teacher of French and music in a girl’s school in New Jersey; nursery governess for a wealthy American family in Florida; music teacher in the Unquowa School in Bridgeport, Conn. (Anonymous [3], 1920); book agent for a Philadelphia firm publishing a pseudo-medical book (Anonymous [4], 1923). At the same time, Mary worked for the community of Russian exiles in the United States, under the umbrella of the American Central Committee for the Russian Relief, by organizing concerts of Russian music (Anonymous [5], 1920) and giving lectures on the conditions of Russia under the Bolshevik regime (Anonymous [3], 1920). In 1923, while temporarily leaving Zenaide in Torresdale, near Philadelphia, where the little girl was attending school, Mary returned to Washington, determined to take advantage of the contacts in the diplomatic corps cultivated at the time of her first stay in the capital. At first, she taught Russian cooking to the wives of Washington diplomats (Anonymous [1]). Then, besides teaching piano and the Russian language, Mary became a frequent lecturer on Russian culture, giving lecture-recitals on Russian music, where she also played piano and Russian theatre. Mary even appeared on WRC radio as a pianist. In the end, Mary and Zenaide settled in Washington and, in 1927, they obtained U.S. citizenship (Anonymous [6], 1924).

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