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

Zenaide Meets Leon Theremin

Photo of thereminist Zenaide Hanenfeldt playing with an ether Music Trio in 1930.
From left to right: George Goldberg, Zenaide Hanenfeldt, Leon Theremin, Arie Abileah (1930).

We don’t know how the meeting between the 19-year-old Zenaide and Leon Theremin took place. But we can imagine that she or her enterprising mother got in touch with the inventor, during one of his stays in Washington. It is well known, however, that Theremin attracted many from the circles of Russian émigrés in the United States.

In 1928 Zenaide started practicing the theremin an hour daily (Anonymous [7], 1929), and in just over a year, she was ready to assume a leading role in Leon Theremin’s entourage.

On March 2, 1929, Zenaide appeared for the first time in public, along with her compatriot Alexandra Stepanoff, as a theremin soloist during the Carnegie Hall recital of “Dematerialized Music” presented by Léon Theremin himself to promote his invention:

Professor Leon Theremin drew “ether-wave music” out of the air last night to the delight and wonder of a fair-sized Carnegie Hall audience. He was assisted by Miss A. Stepanoff, Miss Z. Hennenfeldt, J. Goldberg and A. Abileah.

Several minutes at the opening of the program were taken up with an introductory note and scientific explanation of the “ether-wave music.” Professor Theremin illustrated various points of the talk by playing various short melodies on his queer-shaped geometrical instruments.

The program included compositions of Chopin, Schumann, Tchaikowsky, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Glinka, Schubert, Ravel, Schillinger and other composers.

(Anonymous [8], “Draws Music From Air,” The New York Times, March 3, 1929.)
The first three of the six photographs taken at thereminist Zenaide Hanenfeldt for the RCA Victor Theremin Instruction booklet.
Zenaide Hanenfeldt photographed for the R.C.A. Victor Theremin Instruction Booklet.

Ten days later, on March 12, Leon Theremin signed an agreement with the Radio Corporation of America for the exclusive right to exploit the thereminvox patent (Glinsky, 2000). We know from Albert Glinsky that at a meeting at Schenectady in June 1929, George Goldberg gave RCA representatives a description of the proper way to play the theremin to be included in the instruction booklet of the instrument. We can assume that, on the same occasion, Goldberg also delivered the photographs, which we now see in the brochure since the woman depicted in the photos is almost certainly Zenaide.

The second three of the six photographs taken at thereminist Zenaide Hanenfeldt for the RCA Victor Theremin Instruction booklet.
Zenaide Hanenfeldt photographed for the R.C.A. Victor Theremin Instruction Booklet.

On September 23, 1929, RCA, to coincide with the opening of the Radio World’s Fair at Madison Square Garden, issued a press release announcing the acquisition of the rights to the Theremin patent and that a separate department, headed by G. Dunbar Shewell, was created for the exploitation of the musical instrument. While the product would be available for the home market at Christmas, the first commercial production theremin was placed on the exhibition the same day to offer periodic public demonstrations. Furthermore, two days later, the theremin was broadcasted for the first time on the radio from the Crystal studio at the fair, inaugurating a series of periodic syndicated broadcasts dedicated to “ether wave music,” which should have accustomed the audience’s ears to the sound of the new instrument. The idea of the RCA executives was to launch the theremin as an instrument, accessible even to those who had not received any formal musical education, which would find its place alongside the piano and violin in American homes. RCA’s marketing machine was on and featured promotional events at trade shows and musical instrument shops, concerts in public halls, and radio broadcasts.

That meant, for Zenaide, who found herself at the forefront of the “dematerialized music” phenomenon, the start of a nearly five years involvement with the theremin and the beginning of a short, although intense, career as a product demonstrator, teacher, performing artist and minor radio celebrity. Worthy of note in the chronicles of the time is the fact that Zenaide always received very positive reviews, despite the newspapers, in reporting events of “dematerialized music” sometimes, overcoming the novelty factor, did not fail to pen sarcastic or otherwise merciless comments.

The remainder of 1929 and 1930, the period during which RCA concentrated its efforts on commercializing the theremin, were the busiest periods for Zenaide.

On October 4, the Boston Globe announced that the theremin was demonstrated to members of the press the night before at a private showing by officials of the RCA and the ninth annual Boston Radio Exposition, which would take place from 7 to October 12. The theremin was to be one of the features which would be displayed at the show. Zenaide and Alexandra Stepanoff demonstrated the theremin four times a day for the duration of the exposure (Glinsky, 2000). On October 11, they presented, under the direction of Leon Theremin himself, a “Theremin Musicale” over WBZ:

A special audition of the RCA theremin “ether wave” musical instrument for the radio audience has been arranged over Westinghouse stations WBZ-WBZA this Friday evening at 8.30. The program demonstration, which will be presented under the direction of Prof. Leon Theremin, inventor, by two of his pupils, Alexandra Stepanoff and Zinaida Hanenfeldt, is one of the unusual offerings of Radio Show Week. It will be the first opportunity for New England radio listeners to hear this modern scientific marvel.

(Anonymous [9], “Theremin” Musicale From Radio Show Over WBZ,” Lewiston Evening Journal, October 11, 1929)

A few days after the closing of the Boston Exposition, Zenaide was back in New York to demonstrate the theremin at Wanamaker’s (White, 1929). And on November 14, she was in Chicago for another demonstration at the Radio Salon of Lion & Healy (Lion & Healy, 1929).

Advertisement for November 1929 recital held by Zenaide Hanenfeldt at Summit (N.J.) Lincoln School.

The same month, on the 23rd, she played at the Summit (N.J.) Lincoln School Auditorium accompanied at the piano by Arie Abileah, and got a more than a positive review from the local paper:

Moving her hands through the air in graceful lines with a range of scarcely six inches, Mme. Zenaide Hanenfeldt, musical artist and pupil of Leon Theremin, entertained an audience of music lovers Saturday evening in Lincoln School with a musical program of beautiful tonal quality evoked from certainly the oddest instrument ever seen in Summit.

The instrument, called Theremin after its inventor, faithfully reproduced the feelings of the artist whose hands moved toward it and away from it but did not touch it. It was as if the artist were coaxing the great invisibile force, electricity, to add one more to its manifold services to humanity – and with marked success.

[…]

The program was played in an artistic manner by Mme. Hanenfeldt who was accompanied by Arle Abilen [Arie Abileah] on the piano. The shading was comparable to the work of our great artists; the phrasing was notable; the tone quality of great beauty. Mme. Hanenfeldt was a pianist when she first became interested in the Theremin. In little over a year practising an hour daily, she has become a noteworthy artist with the Theremin.

Perhaps the most interesting work displayed Saturday evening was in Grieg’s “Ich Liebe Dich,” which she was asked to repeat and in “The Steppe,” by Gretchaninoff. The program included the following numbers: “Melodie,” by Rachmaninoff; “Valse No. 15,” by Brahms; “Etude,” by Chopin; “The Last Rose of Summer,” and “Romance,” by Rubinstein.

(Anonymous [7], “New Ether-Wave Instrument Heard,” The Summit Herald, November 26, 1929)

On January 17, 1930 (Abrams et al., 2017), as part of the theremin marketing effort by RCA, Victor Records published a “theremin exhibition record” aimed at demonstrating what an accomplished player could do with the instrument. Between all of the Theremin pupils, Zenaide was chosen to record two songs with the Victor Salon Orchestra. They were “I’m a Dreamer. Aren’t We All?” and “Love. Your Spell Is Everywhere”. The record gained positive reviews:

“I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All?” (Victor), the song made famous through the talkie “Sunny-Side Up,” as played by the Victor Salon Orchestra, under the direction of Nathaniel Shilkret, with the use of the Theremin, played by Zinaida Hanenfeldt, is pronounced a revelation of reproduction of tune. On the reverse the same musical combination has recorded “Love, Your Spell is Everywhere” (Victor), from the movie hit “The Trespasser.” The rich tremolo effect of the Theremin makes these popular tunes even more attractive.

(Anonymous [10], “Theme Songs Make Hit,” The Birmingham News, April 27, 1930)

And indeed, in these two recordings, one of which you can listen to below and both of them in the Thereminvox Library, we can hear that Zenaide was an accomplished thereminist, given the short time she had to practice on it, and the technical limitations of the RCA theremin. We can only imagine what Zenaide could have done if she could have progressed in the study of the instrument and if she had had at her disposal a custom theremin, such as those built by Leon Theremin for Clara Rockmore and Lucie Rosen.

Zenaide Hanenfeldt
I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All?
Zenaide HanenfeldtI’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All?

On January 30, she accompanied Leon Theremin to Baltimore for a concert in a public hall preceded by a presentation behind closed doors during which the inventor illustrated the functioning and logic of the instrument and performed some pieces alone. He then ended up with a two theremins duet with Zenaide:

With Miss Zinaida Hanenfeldt at another “theremin” located near by, Professor Theremin later played a duet, this time making rather sweeping gestures with his hands and getting a volume which filled the hall as if a dozen violoncellos were being played.

(Anonymous [11], “Russian Exhibits Unique Instrument,” The Evening Sun, January 30, 1930)

On February 13th, Zenaide participated in the popular radio program “RCA Victor Hour,” on the WSB and NBC network, during which she performed, with the Victor Salon Orchestra, “Love, Your Spell Is Everywhere,” the song recorded on the reverse side of the disc released by Victor in January. She continued to appear regularly on the radio throughout the year, alternating mainly with Alexandra Stepanoff and, to a lesser extent, with George Goldberg, Henry Solomonoff, and Ildiko Elberth. Her radio repertoire included pieces such as “Cavatine,” “The Rosary,” “Gypsy Love Song,” “Aren’t We All?”, “The Swan”. Regarding the piece by Saint-Saens, the Morning Call wrote:

Vivid tone colorings in Saint-Saens’ “The Swan” will be sketched in ether waves by Theremin when Miss Zanida Hananfelt broadcasts a recital on this new instrument over WJZ and NBC network tonight […] The limpid tone picture of the swan gliding over placid waters is the serious note in Saint-Saens’ humorous suite of musico-zoological doings, “The Carnival of Animals.” While originally intended as a cello solo, the melody is admirably suited for the rich timbre of the Theremin.

(Anonymous [12], “Theremin Interprets Limpid Tone Picture,” The Morning Call, February 22, 1930)
Advertisement for Zenaide Hanenfeldt first Washington D.C. theremin recital.
Advertisement for Zenaide Hanenfeldt’s first Washington D.C. theremin recital.

Back in her hometown, on February 15th, Zenaide gave the first public Theremin concert in Washington D.C., under the auspices of her mother Mary, who, as a tireless organizer of cultural events in the capital, did not fail to organize one for her daughter ensuring her “a good-sized audience, which included many distinguished members of diplomatic circles as well as leading musicians of this city,” wrote the Sunday Star (Anonymous [13], 1930), and also participated to the event explaining the instrument:

Mme. Hanenfeldt said in a brief explanation between numbers which her daughter played that the tone range was limitless, being capable of creating light at the finest degree of vibrations obtainable.

(Anonymous [13], “Ether Wave Music is Demonstrated,” The Sunday Star, Washington D.C., February 16, 1930)

Assisted by Malton Boyce at the piano, Zenaide played “Etude Opus 10, No. 3”, (Chopin); Andante from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”: “Waltz No. 15” (Brahms); “Vocalize” (Rachmaninoff), “Apres un Reve” (Faure), “Le Cygne” (Saint-Saens), “Pavane” (Ravel), and the first “Aerphonic Suite,” by Schillinger.

The Sunday Star also pointed out that:

Miss Hanenfeldt, herself of Russian parentage, is studying with Mr. Theremin in New York, learning to interpret this novel instrument. She is one of a very few people to whom the inventor gladly gives permission to appear in public concerts with his instrument.

(Anonymous [13], “Ether Wave Music is Demonstrated,” The Sunday Star, Washington D.C., February 16, 1930)

Again in Washington, on February 23, an advertisement published in the Sunday Star announced the opening of a school of “ether wave music” under the direction of Zenaide Hanenfeldt, affiliated with the Washington College of Music.

The following month, March 4, thanks to the success of the recital at the D.A.R. Memorial Hall, Zenaide was hired for an after-dinner musicale at the Italian embassy in the presence of Arturo Toscanini and Ildebrando Pizzetti (Anonymous [18], 1930).

A few days later, on March 9, Zenaide presented a short program on the theremin at the Washington College of Music to promote her school “where ether music, the “music of the future,” will be taught by Miss Hanenfeldt and her assistants.” (Anonymous [14], 1930)

Advertisement for the Hanenfeldt School of Ether Music (1930).
Advertisement for the Hanenfeldt School of Ether Music (1930).

On April 25, at Carnegie Hall in New York, an “ether-wave music” concert was held, which saw the debut of the ensemble, dubbed “Ten Victor Theremins.” (Glinsky, 2000) The group included eight RCA Victor Theremin, a Theremin keyboard, and a Theremin Cello. Zenaide was part of the ensemble together with Eugene Hegy, Anna Freeman, Louis Barlevy, Ildiko Elberth, George Goldberg, Lucie Bigelow Rosen, Wallingford Riegger, Henry Solomonoff, and Leon Theremin himself. They were accompanied on the piano by Arie Abileah and harp from Stephano by Stephano.

Photo of the "Ten Victor Theremins" theremin orchestra.
The “Ten Victor Theremins” ensemble. From left to right: Eugene Hegy, Anna Freeman, Louis Barlevy, Ildiko Elberth, George Goldberg, Leon Theremin, Lucie Bigelow Rosen, Wallingford Riegger, Zenaide Hanenfeldt, and Henry Solomonoff.

On July 16, Zenaide accompanied the Hungarian pianist Miksa Merson to a concert in Newport R.I., under the auspices of the Newport Art Association and the patronage of Count Lazslo Szechenyi, Hungarian ambassador to the United States. In reporting the event, the Sunday Star of Washington D.C. wrote:

Zenaide Hanenfeldt, the young Russian who plays the ether-wave instrument, shares the program with Mr. Merson. She received her instructions from Leon Theremin, inventor of the ether-wave instrument, and is associated with him in both his studio and concert work. She is one of the foremost exponents of this development, which Morris Gest describes as nothing short of a miracle. Her rendering of her instrument is both subtle and delicate.

(Anonymous [15], “Plays in Newport,” The Sunday Star, Washington D.C., July 20, 1930)
Advertisement for Zenaide Hanenfeldt's second Washington D.C. theremin recital.
Advertisement for Zenaide Hanenfeldt’s second Washington D.C. theremin recital.

On November 1st, Zenaide, returning to Washington D.C., performed again at the D.A.R. Memorial Hall and, once again, received very positive reviews. Elena De Sayn, another Russian émigré, violinist, and writer, noted in the Sunday Star:

AT D. A. R. Memorial Hall last night Zenaide Hanenfeldt demonstrated that Mr. Theremin’s amazing invention which allows one to draw music out of the air may be definitely classed among the novelties that will last. As revealed at a similar concert in this city last season, this ether wave music is rich and warm and reminiscent of the cello or viola. It has, too, a personality of its own, which by means of the subtle hands of the artist became last night pleasingly melodious and stimulating from first to last.

What was particularly remarkable about the concert was the fact that difficult compositions by Liszt and Wieniawski could be so easily reproduced and created faultlessly out of space. Miss Hanenfeldt, even in the most exacting spots of the former’s “Etude in D Flat,” gave scarcely an indication of insecurity in tone. The melody was fashioned, furthermore, with surprising strength in the louder passages, and with surprising stability in the softer—the vibrato at all times sounding with a crystal-like quality.

A program that ranged from Handel to Bizet, from Jarnefelt to Chopin, kept an audience well satisfied. As an additional number, Miss Hanenfeldt explained the mechanics of the Theremin instrument, or rather the means by which this music is brought from the air. Those to whom this newest addition to mechanical inventions and to the ranks of music is still a mystery should by all means avail themselves of the next opportunity to hear it. If there are any more remarkable wonders of the age they have yet to come. And, of course, Miss Hanenfeldt is – according to the books and to popular verdict — the most noted of its exponents.

(De Sayn, “Etherwave Concert,” The Sunday Star, Washington D.C., November 2, 1930)

Eighteen years later, the impression of Zenaide’s performance was still so vivid in De Sayn’s mind that she recalled it, by contrast, in another review, this time decidedly negative, of a recital given by Lucie Rosen in Washington in November 1948:

The first artistic exponent of the theremin 20 years ago was Zenaide Hahnenfeld, a talented teen-ager, who was taught by the inventor, Leon Theremin. She was heard in a successful recital here in Continental Hall before an audience which included official Washington and practically the entire Diplomatic corps. Exploiting all the possibilities of the instrument as to volume and color, her playing was notable for exquisite effects and beauty of tone.

(De Sayn, “Kindler Gives D. C. Premiere Of Berlioz’s ‘Harold in Italy’.” The Evening Star, Washington D.C., November 22, 1948)

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