A Brief History of the Theremin
The theremin could be viewed as the great ancestor of electronic music: Virtually every electronic instrument traces its roots to the theremin’s inventor, Russian physicist Leon Theremin (1896-1993), who produced his first instrument in 1918.
Furthermore, the theremin was the first electronic instrument with virtuoso performers playing solo and concert repertoire written specifically for it by major composers.
Theremin developed a complex timbre for his instrument quite similar to the sound of a bowed violin string. He possessed a keen understanding of acoustics and, working without the benefit of an oscilloscope, produced very complex and pleasing sounds.
How the Theremin Works
Perhaps the most intriguing characteristic of the theremin – apart from its mysterious sound – is the way it is played:
— There are no keyboards,
— no finger boards,
— no strings, valves, hammers or pipes.
— There is nothing to blow on, or into.
The performer literally “plays the air” around the instrument, making absolutely no physical contact with it.
The electronic components of the theremin set up low-power, high-frequency electromagnetic fields around the two antennas, one controlling pitch and the other volume. The player’s hands alter the fields by varying their distance to the antennas. The tone-producing portion of the circuitry is known as a beat-frequency oscillator.
The Enigmatic Leon Theremin
Theremin related in a 1989 interview with musicologist Olivia Mattis, “I wanted to invent ... an instrument that would not operate mechanically ... that would create sound without using any mechanical energy, like the conductor of an orchestra. The orchestra plays mechanically, using mechanical energy, [but] the conductor just moves his hands, and his movements have an effect on the music....”
Theremin discovered the phenomenon that was to become his magical new instrument quite by accident in 1917 at a technical institute in Russia, where he was a student. He was working on a device to measure the density of gasses under pressure. He discovered that the apparatus was very sensitive, interpreting even the slightest motion of his hands in the surrounding air. He attached a set of earphones to the device and could hear the fluctuations of the instrument as musical tones.
With encouragement, Theremin adapted his gas measuring apparatus as a musical instrument. The “Ætherphone,” as he originally called his instrument, was patented in 1921. When the Ætherphone was unveiled at an electronics exposition in Moscow in 1922, the mysterious instrument attracted the interest of Vladimir Il’yich Lenin, who summoned Theremin to his offices for a personal demonstration. Lenin showed keen interest in the instrument, and expressed great optimism that it would advance the cause of Communism by serving as a propaganda tool for national electrification.
Lenin sent Theremin across Russia to demonstrate the instrument; and in 1927 sent him abroad to show off the new Soviet regime’s latest technological and scientific advances. The public was amazed and intrigued by Theremin’s magical playing technique, which added a high degree of theatricality to the performances. When he played at the Paris Opera, police were called to keep order among the crowds that thronged to the performance.
Theremin arrived in America in 1928, woooing New York society with his enchanting instrument. While he engaged in creative work and selling his inventions, he also maintained a secret double-life as a Soviet spy: His mission was to gather information on U.S. innovations in military technology and to find out which side America would take in the event of world war.
Theremin’s activities in America are clouded in secrecy and ambiguity, and the details of his rather sudden departure back to Russia are equally murky. According to various accounts, he returned voluntarily because he was anxious about the impending war, or else because he was forcibly removed from his studio by the KGB.
Theremin himself at different times recounted conflicting versions of his return to Russia, perhaps as a result of advanced age and failing memory – but perhaps also due to the degree of discretion he was allowed; he may have been deliberately vague. And it is also possible that the kidnapping theory arose because of language barriers between Theremin and his American associates.
Recent information has come to light that indicates the reason for his hasty departure was financial trouble: He had fallen into disfavor with close associates whose friendship and generosity in lending money to fund his work he exploited to the point where they finally had enough and closed the door on him. Facing lawsuits and other legal action, he left in haste for his homeland, accompanied by Soviet escorts who may have been mistaken for KGB agents.
Whatever the circumstances were that entangled Theremin at that time, he did return to the USSR in 1938 and soon fell into disfavor there. His outspokenness landed him on the official “disapproval list.” He was accused of anti-Soviet propaganda and sent to gulags and concentration camps. Rumors were spread that Theremin had been executed. However, the Soviets shrewdly recognized his talents, and eventually he was put to work on top-secret laboratory projects under close supervision.
Among other “various useful things,” he developed the “Buran” (“Bug”) for eavesdropping, for which he was awarded the most prestigious Soviet scientific award, the First-Class Stalin Prize, in 1947. He also exploited the motion-sensitive technology of the theremin to develop the first electronic alarm system triggered by disruptive movement into an electromagnetic field.
As biographer (and friend of Theremin) Bulat Galeyev expressed it, “Theremin was a ‘man of legend,’ and all appearances seem to indicate that many episodes of his life will remain legends forever.” The same writer also mused, “Our planet is probably not completely sane if the military industry can succeed in transforming an artist into a James Bond and a musical instrument into an alarm system. I ask the reader to make an allowance for Theremin, whose suffering outweighed his guilt. But while we might pity him, one could also envy Theremin for the happiness he attained in his fantastically impossible life.”
Clara Rockmore (1911-1998) was without a doubt the most brilliant thereminist ever. She took the instrument to greater heights than any other person, and it was in large part at her behest that Professor Theremin made a number of significant improvements to the theremin. (Philanthropist, socialite, and thereminist Lucie Bigelow Rosen also contributed to the musical and technical enhancements of Theremin’s instrument.)
Mrs. Rockmore elevated the theremin into the realm of serious music, pushing it beyond being merely a novelty or curiosity by turning it into a legitimate new musical instrument. She performed many concerts from the 1930s through the 1950s and appeared with many major symphony orchestras.
Mrs. Rockmore never played for any film scores; in fact, she was immensely offended by the idea of using the instrument for making “spooky noises” — which was what Hollywood composers usually called upon the instrument to create — she felt that such uses demeaned the integrity of the theremin which she viewed as a “serious classical instrument.” This opened the door for the highly (yet less) talented thereminist Dr. Samuel Hoffman to step in and “create musical goosebumps” for movies.
(It does bear noting that Clara Rockmore was approached by composer Miklós Rósza to perform the theremin on his score for Spellbound (see next section) but she turned him down due to previously committed coast-to-coast performance engagements, a decision she apparently regretted in later years.)
[IMG]The Theremin Invades Hollywood [/IMG]
In the 1940s, Miklós Rósza very effectively called upon the theremin for nervous and haunting tonalities in films dealing with psychosis (Spellbound) and alcoholism (The Lost Weekend). Rósza won an Oscar for Spellbound. His score brought far more attention to the theremin than any other musical work up to that time.
A dozen or so other gothic or “noir” 1940s films whose scores utilized the theremin included The Spiral Staircase, The Red House, Lady in the Dark, The Pretender, Road to Rio, and Devil Weed.
And, of course, the theremin was used in numerous 1950s science fiction and flying-saucer movies, most eloquently by Bernard Hermann in his eerie, otherworldly score for The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was also featured in Rocketship XM, The Thing, Five Thousand Fingers of Mr. T, Operation Moon, It Came From Outer Space, and the Biblical epic The Ten Commandments.
Embarrassing lows for the theremin were plumbed in such films as the forgettable Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, and the instrument offered a touch of zany comedy at the hands of Jerry Lewis in The Delicate Delinquent.
The thereminist for all these films was Dr. Samuel Hoffman (1904-1968), Hollywood foot-doctor by day, thereminist by night. (See Dr. Hoffman’s biography at www.137.com/hoffman.) His last film gig was in the late 1950s.
Dr. Samuel Hoffman
Thereafter, the theremin all but disappeared from films until 1994 when Howard Shore used the instrument to great (if tongue-in-cheek) effect in his score for Ed Wood (featuring Russian thereminist Lydia Kavina); and it was also used along with other electronic instuments for the 1996 film Mars Attacks.
(A number of film and TV scores used other electronic instruments such as the Electro-theremin and the Ondes Martenot, or highly processed soprano voices, which are often mistaken as the theremin.)
More recently, musician Dennis James composed a new score for the restored silent science-fiction film Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924, USSR – the restoration was premiered in the 1990s), which incorporates fragments of the original Soviet film score and utilizes the theremin, cristal bachet, piano, phonoviolin, cello and Ondes Martenot.