Russia's Revolutionary Era
Theremin was born Lev Sergeivitch Termen in 1896, in St. Petersburg, Russia. His ancestors may have come to Imperial Russia because of religious persecution in sixteenth-century France. He was fascinated with science as a youngster and took music lessons on the cello as well. Theremin's early life was disrupted by international and domestic political upheavals. Russia was involved in World War I, and in the third year of the conflict, a group of Communists and Socialists seized power, ousted the tsar, and installed the world's first communist state. The events of 1917 ushered in a genuinely revolutionary era in the newly "Soviet" cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and its proponents and supporters were determined to rouse Russia from centuries of anti-progressive thought and create the first modern, egalitarian society. Science and rational thinking were heralded as the way to progress, and experiments in all fields, including the arts, were encouraged.
Theremin studied physics and astronomy at the university in St. Petersburg and served in the army during the war years, when he taught electrical engineering at a military school in the city and also continued his cello studies at the St. Petersburg conservatory. By 1920 he was heading the experimental electronic oscillation laboratory at the Institute of Physical Engineering in St. Petersburg. He was particularly interested in the possibilities of vacuum or electron-tube technology, a recent development. He first worked on a government project for an alarm that, using radio technology, went off when a person approached, and from those experiments he created the first "theremin." Its sine-wave tones came from a set of oscillators, which worked on the principle of heterodyning. Heterodyning referred to an audio state in which two sets of electronic oscillations are in phase; the device had an electromagnetic field that emitted sounds when a person stepped into it. Thus Theremin found that with a set of horizontal and vertical antennae on the box, he could control a wide range of sounds by simple hand movements, with a degree of sensitivity that was unlike that of any other musical instrument ever created.
Demonstrated for Lenin, Einstein
Theremin originally called his invention the "aetherphon," since it seemed to produce sounds from the air. He gave a performance of it for Soviet premier Vladimir I. Lenin at the Kremlin in Moscow in 1922 and reportedly gave one of the early ones he had built to Lenin as a gift. The device caused a minor sensation in Soviet Russia, still in its heady post-revolutionary modernization fever, and in 1924 it debuted with the Petrograd (St. Petersburg) Philharmonic in the instrument's first public performance. Theremin was hailed as the "Soviet Edison," and further research was encouraged. For a time, he worked on advanced vacuum-tube technology that was instrumental in the development of television, and he took part in a 1926 demonstration at the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute of the first transmission of non-static images onto a screen.
Lenin was eager to show the world the advances that Soviet scientists had made, and Theremin was invited to participate in an international publicity tour. He arrived in western Europe with his theremin in the summer of 1927, giving lectures and demonstrations in Berlin, Paris and London. It caused a sensation everywhere. In Berlin, Albert Einstein was in the audience, and "said it was an experience as significant as that when primitive man for the first time produced sound from a bowstring," according to a New York Times report from the era. After a lecture and demonstration at Albert Hall in London, the fascinated Times of London critic wrote enthusiastically of Theremin's apparatus. "Particularly striking was one experiment, in which an echo of a series of notes was made to sound as if it had came from the farther side of the hall," the Times correspondent noted. After that, the lights in Albert Hall were dimmed, and "the inventor showed by electric lamps that it was possible to change the colour of light with the change in pitch of notes," the Times writer testified. "The colour of the electric flame graduated from a deep red through the various colours of the spectrum to bright blue as the notes ascended in the scale."
Theremin arrived in New York City just before Christmas in 1927. Journalists came aboard his ship before its passengers disembarked in order to interview him. He was described as "a modest and almost diffident physicist and not a world-famous inventor," a New York Times journalist reported. "Of course, I hope the apparatus will be manufactured in quantities in the United States," Theremin told the newspaper. "But I am not old enough to worry about the money I may obtain. I am more interested at present in demonstrating my musical discovery, and I hope to test the musical preferences of the American people."
The first American public performance of the theremin took place in the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel in late January 1928. This audience included world-famous conductor Arturo Toscanini and Theremin's fellow Russian, pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, who expressed a desire to try the instrument. "As it stands now, the instrument is the raw material of music," violinist Joseph Szigeti told the New York Times that evening. "What can be done with it remains to be seen. The question is whether it will inspire men of genius. Its future depends on what men of genius do with it." Another New York Times article from that week discussed Theremin and his invention at length, with an accompanying illustration and the caption, "The Symphony Orchestra of the Future Will Play Concealed Instruments by the Waving of Hands." "In rapidity and delicacy of response, Theremin's instrument far excels a piano or a violin or any other known musical instrument," the paper's music writer, Waldemar Kaempffert, enthused. "In directness of effect it can be compared only with singing or whistling.… Never can the pianist or violinist hope to attain the spontaneity of either the songbird or the opera prima donna. Theremin achieves precisely the same spontaneity by freeing the artist from the necessity of physically touching or grasping. What can be freer than the movement of hands in empty space to produce beautiful sounds?"
Economic Crisis Ended Venture
Thrilled with the reception his apparatus received, Theremin decided to stay in America. He soon met Clara Rockmore, a Russian émigré and renowned violinist, and taught her how to play the challenging instrument, which was proving a bit more difficult for others to master. Rockmore gained fame with her public performances, as did an American, Lucie Bigelow Rosen. In 1929 Theremin was granted a patent for his invention and licensed it to RCA for mass production. The company's advertising campaign touted that the theremin was "Not a radio, not a phonograph! Not like anything you have ever heard or seen!" A thousand were produced by RCA, and a few hundred sold, but then the stock market crashed in October 1929, and the market for any sort of luxury item dwindled significantly.
Theremin, however, was still at work. In 1932, he demonstrated the Terpsitone, a platform on which a dancer's movements produced sounds, at a Carnegie Hall event. There was also the short-lived Theremin Electronic Symphony Orchestra, and at his West 54th Street apartment visitors - who included Einstein with his violin - were stunned to find an array of new musical instruments as well as doors that opened automatically and even a color television. For Sing Sing Prison in nearby Ossining, New York, Theremin also created the world's first electronic security system. But in 1936, when Theremin wed a noted African American ballet dancer named Lavina Williams, he was ostracized by many in his social set. The couple had twin daughters, and one night in 1938, according to Williams, Soviet agents came to their apartment and took Theremin away.
Vanished into Soviet Russia
Back in the Soviet Union, it was later learned, Theremin endured a show trial on charges that included fomenting "anti-Soviet propaganda" and spent time in a notorious Magadan labor camp in Siberia. A German newspaper reported that he had died - life expectancy at Magadan was about a year - and the reports were circulated elsewhere. But Theremin survived by suggesting improvements in the food delivery system in the camp and eventually was removed to Lubyanka, the famed KGB headquarters in Moscow, to work on the world's first "bug," or miniature listening device, for espionage activities during World War II. He was released in 1947 and awarded the Stalin Prize for his work but never again achieved the level of fame and honor he had once enjoyed. He served as a professor of acoustics at the Moscow Conservatory of Music for a time, but was ejected for his work on electronic musical instruments. He was told, according to the New York Times, that "electricity is for executing traitors, not making music."
In the West, meanwhile, the theremin slowly fell from favor as well. Lucie Rosen gave a 1950 London performance of Bohuslav Martinu's Phantasy for theremin, string quartet, oboe and piano. The evening was reviewed by a Times critic who declared that the theremin "sounds like a viola constitutionally and chronically out of tune." It began to be used in film scores, however - after making its sound-track debut in the 1935 horror classic The Bride of Frankenstein - and was most notably deployed in two films from 1945: The Lost Weekend, which earned an Academy Award for Ray Milland for his portrayal of an alcoholic as well as the Oscar for best picture, and Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, in which Gregory Peck's character suffers psychotic episodes, and the theremin sound foreshadows their onset. Hitchcock's music composer for the film, Miklós Róza, won the Academy Award for best music score.
Rock Musicians Revived Interest
In the 1950s, the theremin was used in horror and science-fiction movies, including The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came from Outer Space. Youngsters who were fans of the genre grew into the rock music innovators of the 1960s and 1970s, and the inventor of the first synthesizer, Robert Moog, had built his own theremin as a teenager from a how-to kit he bought out of a magazine. The most universally familiar theremin sound, however, remains the introduction to the 1966 Beach Boys hit, "Good Vibrations."
In 1988, the Delos record label released some of Rockmore's concert performances as The Art of the Theremin, which led American filmmaker Steven M. Martin to her. Interested in making a documentary about the instrument and its long-lost inventor, Martin was stunned to learn from Rockmore that Theremin was still alive. Martin went to meet him in Moscow in 1990 and brought him back to New Yorl a year later. In Martin's film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, there are touching images of the elderly Russian awed by the electronically blinking Manhattan cityscape in a city he had not seen since 1938.
Theremin died on November 3, 1993, in Moscow. Despite significant advances in electronic music, his "aetherphon" remains the only musical device that can be played without actual physical contact.
Léon Theremin playing his own instrument, Clair de Lune, Elvira Madigan - Mozart, Ave Maria, Après un Rêve - Fauré, The Swan, Autumn Leaves/Lush Life/
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Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey - Trailer